Provided detail Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were surrealist artists before World War II

Aux Armes

Artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore took up formidable weapons when the Nazis occupied their small, strategically valuable island home of Jersey off the coast of France: paper and pen. 

The romantic and artistic partners used their talents as writers to distribute demoralizing letters to German soldiers during occupation in World War II. Hidden in newspapers, slipped into soldiers’ pockets and left under windshield wipers of military vehicles, the notes attempted to convince Germans to abandon their mission or rebel against the Nazi military.

“In some ways, one of the most remarkable parts of this story is (Cahun and Moore) did it in a seemingly innocuous way, a quiet way, but it had a really big effect because they were hunted for four years by the secret field police,” said Jeffrey Jackson, whose book Paper Bullets details their efforts.

Photo provided
Jeffrey Jackson, Author

Cahun and Moore were genderfluid before the term “transgender” was widely used by the general public. In private and in conversation with each other, Cahun went by Lucy Schwob; Moore went by Suzanne Malherbe. They defied gender and sexual norms in their art, as well. 

The duo’s work fell into what the Nazis categorized as “degenerate art,” or modernist, dada, surrealist art created in the ’20s and ’30s. The avant-garde movements fueled Cahun and Marcel’s opposition campaign, where they often wrote from the perspective of a Nazi soldier called “The Soldier with No Name.”

“The idea was to essentially fool the Germans into thinking that one of their own was writing these notes,” Jackson said.

Cahun and Moore wrote notes that had jokes, fictional dialogue, manifestos or anything that could potentially lead soldiers to question their war effort, according to Jackson. 

“They were really trying to provoke the Germans to think about, ‘Why are we here on Jersey? Why are we occupying this territory,’ ” he said. “Some of their notes appealed to the idea of ‘You should be home with your family. Why are you here instead of back home with your children?’”

Between 1940 and 1944, the couple continued their efforts until their detainment. Even in prison, after being condemned to death, they pushed their message of resistance to their fellow prisoners. Cahun and Moore survived the war and continued to live as a couple until Cahun’s death in 1954, but their story has largely been untold in popular World War II narratives. 

“I really think (the letters were) almost an act of rescue for them,” Jackson said. “They saw that these soldiers were being duped by Hitler. They were also being fooled into joining this ridiculous war effort.” 

The Charleston Library Society will host a free virtual discussion on Paper Bullets between Jeffrey Jackson and New York Times contributor Emily Yellin at 6 p.m. Dec. 3. RSVP at charlestonlibrarysociety.org/events.

Cover image of Paper Bullets by Jeffrey Jackson