Key point: Nazi-occupied France was a confusing place.
In 1943, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS and an all-around monster, decided it would be a good idea to take the top members of France’s political and cultural elite and imprison them in a medieval castle in Austria. That sentence alone should tell you that the Nazis’ predilection for acts of Hollywood villainy was deep-seated and incurable. But real events soon became stranger than fiction. A small American recon platoon managed to liberate the captives during the closing days of the war, and fought a desperate last stand to prevent their SS captors from returning.
Fighting alongside the small American force against the Waffen SS were more than a dozen Wehrmacht (Army) soldiers—making the Battle at Itter Castle possibly the only engagement in which U.S. and German troops fought on the same side in World War II.
This unique conflict has been most thoroughly documented in The Last Battle by Stephen Harding, whose book has since been optioned as a movie—and inspired a heavy-metal music video. Harding’s work particularly focuses on the fourteen French notables stuck in the castle, which included both French prime ministers at the start of World War II, Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, and top military commanders Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin. For a good measure they also threw in Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the sister of the current leader of the Free French; Michel Clemenceau, son of the French leader during World War I; and French tennis star Jean Borotra—because, well, why not? There were also several wives and one husband who elected to join their partners in the prison.
This forced reunion of French VIPs, many of whom passionately hated each other, included both Vichy collaborators, such as Borotra and Weygand, and members of the Resistance, some of them transferred there from concentration camps. It had the making of a grotesque hostage situation—or, the captives feared, a soon-infamous massacre.