France: Impressions of a Passer-By

We recently visited France, traveled extensively through that beautiful country, met and talked with the French people, enjoyed the marvelous food, experienced "French driving," survived le Périphérique, and were somewhat inconvenienced by the French penchant pour faire grèves -- for labor actions -- at the drop of a chapeau.

But we were also touched by the numerous monuments and memorials the French people have dedicated to the World War II Allied heroes who gave their lives to help liberate France -- expressions of gratitude to and respect for the Allied Forces of that war, especially towards Americans, seemingly not in sync with past and recent discords and differences between our two countries. We were impressed by the many other monuments, memorials and public and private expressions of pride and honor towards their hundreds of thousands of fallen heroes and martyrs -- a welcome footnote to popular history that at times dwells on France's surrender to Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II and on the controversial role of the Vichy government during the succeeding years.

Granted, the rapid, massive Nazi advance into France -- largely bypassing the Maginot Line -- caught everyone by surprise, including the British, and resulted in sheer political, military and diplomatic chaos and in mass hysteria in France. And, granted, the roles and allegiances of the puppet Vichy government, the Vichy France military, some of the French people and even of some splinter groups of the French Résistance during the Nazi occupation were complex, controversial and, yes, less than patriotic. But we should also keep in mind that, very early, France along with Great Britain declared war on Germany, making France one of the first participants in World War II and that France in fact invaded the German Saarland in September 1939 and that, subsequently, French forces fought valiantly against the Nazis in support of the Dutch, Belgian and other allied forces and in defense of their own homeland. Nor should we forget the heroic and vital roles of the French Resistance (their "soldiers without uniform") -- 20,000 of whom paid with their lives for their love of a free France.

The monuments memorialize the participation of the Free French Forces during the Normandy invasion, their major role in "Operation Dragoon" -- the Allied invasion in Southern France -- and how the French forces went on to score great military successes in North Africa, Italy, Elba and elsewhere. Finally, how, in 1945, ten divisions of an eventual 1,250,000-strong Forces Françaises Libres (Free French Forces) bravely fought the Nazis in Brittany, in Alsace, in the Alps and finally in the Nazis' own Vaterland. By the end of World War II France would have suffered nearly one quarter of a million military casualties.

By far the most poignant memorial, the most tragic reminder of the heavy price paid by French civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- during World War II is not a monument, not a plaque, but rather the charred ruins of what had once been a quiet, pleasant town in the French Limousine.

We visited what is left of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and tried to fathom the hell some 642 innocent French men, women and children experienced at the hands of the Nazis on a nice summer day back in 1944.

We tried to imagine how on June 10, 1944, some 200 French men were corralled into barns and other structures and machine-gunned by Waffen SS troops in cold blood. Those who survived the initial fusillade -- the wounded and a few unscathed ones, pretending to be dead -- were searched for among the bodies, chased out of hiding places and systematically murdered, given the coup-de-grace or burned to death.

We tried to comprehend, impossible as it is, why the same group of Nazi thugs herded 247 women, many carrying their babies in their arms or pushing them in baby carriages, 205 babies -- the youngest only a week old -- and school children into the town's church, where they crouched in terror, awaiting the unspeakable massacre that followed: an orgy of wanton terror that left all 452 innocent, helpless human beings butchered and burned to death. We tried to think why such unspeakable horrors happened. Perhaps because the French Resistance was intensifying its attacks on German troops as they were making their way to the Normandy front. Perhaps because the Resistance had blown up a railway bridge at St. Junien, a small town a few miles from Oradour, killing two German soldiers and taking one prisoner.

Perhaps because it was in consonance with Nazi doctrine and "efficiency" promulgated by the German High Command such as was reflected in a message received by Adolf Diekmann, the commander of the Nazi troops that committed the Oradour atrocities, on the eve of that massacre:

The operations staff of the Wehrmacht expects undertakings against the guerrilla units in southern France to proceed with extreme severity and without any leniency. This constant trouble spot must be finally eradicated... The forces of resistance are to be crushed by fast and all out effort...[T]he most rigorous measures are to be taken to deter the inhabitants of these infested regions who must be discouraged from harboring the resistance groups and being ruled by them and as a warning to the entire population. Ruthlessness and rigor at this critical time are indispensable...

Oradour was not the only place where such "ruthlessness and rigor" were employed, where the French paid dearly for assisting the Resistance or just for being French. There were many more horrific massacres, pillaging, arson and other atrocities in Ascq, Guéret, Argenton-sur-Creuse, Maillé, Clermont-en-Argonne, Frayssinet, Saint-Julian, in several small communities in the Saulx Valley and elsewhere.

While the suffering and sacrifice at Oradour-sur-Glane and at other small villages were clearly horrific, the toll the war took on the French civilian populace was particularly heavy. Most authoritative sources put the number of French civilians killed during World War II at nearly 300,000, with an estimated 75,000 of them killed by 550,000 tons of bombs dropped over France. Millions upon millions of French people suffered indescribable miseries, humiliations, famine and other horrors of war and occupation. Some seventy years after a particularly complex and troubled period in their long and proud history , the French have not forgotten the mistakes, collaboration and other disloyal actions by Maréchal Henri Philippe Pétain, by members of the Vichy government, by members of the Vichy French military and by others. But they also remember and celebrate the courage, patriotism of compatriots such as General Charles de Gaulle (both a beacon for hope during the war and a lightning rod for foreign enmity during later years), Resistance heroes Jean Moulin, Madame Marie-Madeleine Fourcade and the "Reluctant Spy" Madame Jeannie de Clarens, flying ace Marcel Albert, "Captain-Rabbi" David Feuerwerker and many, many others.

All of us should also remember the nearly 1.5 million French soldiers who were captured by the Nazis before the signing of the armistice and who languished for five long years in Nazi prisons; the hundreds of thousands of French civilians deported from their homeland to perform forced labor for the Nazis; the estimated 56,000 Resistance fighters sent to Nazi concentration camps -- nearly half of them never to return.

Finally, we must never forget the estimated 80,000 to 90,000 members of France's Jewish population who were deported by the Nazis, the vast majority to be exterminated at various concentration camps.

In my opinion, such numbers -- such acts of both valor and martyrdom -- are indicative of a nation, a military and a people that did not docilely submit to the tyranny of the Nazi jackboot.

I am not a French history expert or a Francophile. I am merely commenting on how a brief visit to France, a few conversations, and visiting some "concrete examples" of French gratitude and respect have altered my perceptions -- perhaps misconceptions -- of the French people and of their recent history.

Note: World War II statistics, especially estimates of casualties and of Holocaust victims, vary greatly. Numbers and statistics used here are either the most frequently quoted or a range of estimates.