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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - How France won the war against Germany

How France won the war against Germany

How France won the war against Germany

Roux concluded that "this man seems to overtly work on anti-French policies.

He can be, in my view, at a certain moment, one of the most dangerous men in the

province.

T

he heat was on. All the military posts along the border to Siam had been notified

and put on high alert. On the 3rd of December in the afternoon, a sergeant and four

members of the militia had been sent to Pailin, where they arrived at four o'clock

the next morning, after a journey of more than 100 kilometers on horseback or marching

on foot. The next day a telegram arrived from Battam-bang, that the fugitive had

been seen near Snok Thot. Apparently, he had altered his looks, shaved his moustache

and dressed like a Burmese. Troops were sent out immediately to hunt him down, but

by the time they arrived in the area, he had vanished once more.

Finally, three days later someone entered the telegraph office in Kabine in Siam

and dictated a message to the clerk on duty: "Have safely arrived in port, many

hugs", and signed off with the name Jean Russel.

When the telegram arrived at the telegraph post in Battambang, addressed to his two

sisters who he had left behind, the French authorities knew that they had lost. Jean

Russel, enemy of the state, was gone.

Son of the late Henri Russel, Jean had been the owner of a hardware shop in Battambang

and the town's biggest merchant. He was the offspring of a liaison of his father

with a woman from Southern Vietnam, and therefore a mètis (halfcast) in the

French terminology. So were his two sisters, Elise and Josephine, whose mother Neang

Leng was of Cambodian descent.

For the French, this was a matter of dual concern. On the one hand, children of mixed

couples offended the colonial sense of racial order. Worse still, the German component

of their genotype belonged to the enemy: We are writing the year 1914, and there

was war in Europe.

The Russel family never had an easy stand in colonial Cambodia. Although father

Heinrich Josef Russel had renounced his original citizenship when he left Germany

in 1872 to emigrate to Indochina, he had never been fully accepted in the local French

community.

The unexpected defeat against Prussia had greatly hurt French national pride. In

the absence of a real enemy in the colonies, and hyped up by the bad news from Europe,

the colonial French society took it out on the few Germans that lived among them.

Probably because of such problems did Russel give up his property in Phnom Penh and

relocate to Battambang, which was at the time under Siamese rule.

Russel's shop there yielded reasonable profits and prospered over the years, and

with the oldest son Jean, the next generation of Russels seemed ready to take over

the family business. However, the good times were not to last.

In 1907, the French obtained the retrocession of Battambang from Siam, and Russel

found himself once more under a French Government, which regarded him and his family

with suspicion. Only four years later, father Russel died at the age of 61, leaving

Jean alone with the task to provide for his two sisters who were still underage.

As the war broke out, things became tense in Battambang.

Gendarme Roux, commander of the Battambang post, filed a report on 16 August 1914,

stating that "this colon just like his late father has always criticized the

French administration since it occupied the territory [of Battam-bang]".

Russel allegedly complained about newly introduced French taxes and the corvèes

imposed on the local population. The peasants had, according to him, enough to do

cultivating and harvesting their own fields, without being forced by the colonial

administration to work on roads and other projects.

Roux concluded that "this man seems to overtly work on anti-French policies.

He can be, in my view, at a certain moment, one of the most dangerous men in the

province. His arrogance, his anti-French reasoning that he shares with whoever wants

to listen, have offended to the highest extent the majority of the French citizens

living in Battambang."

It was certainly no coincidence that later the same month and again in October, two

letters to the editor were published in "L'Opinion", a Saigon-based newspaper.

Titled "German and German's son", the author pinpointed at a German halfcaste

in Battambang, a potential spy and saboteur, which when scrutinized about his patriotic

spirit and belonging dared to out himself as a "European", or worse even,

"a cosmopolite".

Jean Russel wrote a long letter in reply to these articles, which he never sent off.

Instead it dawned on him that Roux and his friends would not let loose until he was

interned. Secretly, he began to make preparations for his flight to Siam.

After Jean's arrival on the other side of the border and his telegram to Battambang,

Roux's fury came down on the two remaining sisters. To exclude any risk to state

security, he arrested Elise and Josephine the same day and confiscated all their

belongings. The times of "clemency" as he called it in a letter to the

Resident Superior were over. The same night, the sisters were embarked on a boat.

Roux took it on him to personally accompany them to Phnom Penh. A couple of weeks

later, they pleaded to the Resident Superior for their mother Leng to be allowed

to go to Battambang and get them some underwear, which the urgency of the situation

had not permitted them to take along when Roux sent them into internment.

In Battambang in the meantime, all the Russel property was shut down. Among the items

that were put under seal before they could be used against French interests were

a harmonium and a violin, for the Russel sisters were musical girls and apparently

quite gifted.

Both of them remained for the remainder of the war in Phnom Penh, interned at the

Ecole Sainte Enfance.

It was not until 1920 that they could travel via Saigon to Bangkok and meet up again

with their brother, who for his part had not escaped internment, either. He was eventually

caught in Bangkok, and sent from camp to camp, ending up in Ahmednagor in India.

Reunited again, they tried to reclaim their property in Battam-bang and to clarify

the question of their citizenship. Having grown up in colonial Cambodia without any

ties to Germany and unable to speak the German language, they felt they should be

recognized as either French or Cambodian citizens.

But in the view of the French administration, the German descent complicated the

affair, as did the fact that they were born in Battambang when it was officially

part of Siam.

Confronted with the possibility of quadruple citizenship, they preferred to leave

the question undecided and instead preoccupied themselves with liquidating the Russel's

property and transferring it into the administration's portfolio, to the extent that

it had not yet been sold on previous auctions.

Jean Russel in the end took up Siamese citizenship as did one of his sisters. The

other sister married a Dane and followed her husband back to Europe. The documents

in their files end in the year 1922, but it is unlikely that their wish to come back

to Cambodia and pick up their former life again was ever fulfilled.

Information for this article was taken from four National Archives of Cambodia

files RSC #3665, 7740, 3801 and 15207.
The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8-11 am and 2-4.30pm. It is located

behind the National Library. All are welcome to consult its holdings.

The reestablishment of the catalog of its holdings is in progress, a process which

is being facilitated by the generous support of the Toyota Foundation, the French

Embassy and the French Cultural Center.

Website: www.camnet.com.kh/archives.cambodia

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