Wednesday, May 07, 2008

350,000 New Stories Of France Under Occupation

An archive of 350,000 photographs has been made available for the first time since the photos were deposited in Ivry, France, in 1947.
The French newspaper Le Figaro offers a sampling this week, on the eve of VE Day, enough to make any student of World War II history yearn for a 26-hour day and a 9-day week in order to find sufficient time to wrap their minds around the treasure trove of new stories that these photos bring to light.

For instance, one photo depicts a dancing Russian soldier entertaining a gathering of French children. From the article's accompanying notes we learn that captured Russian General Andreï Vlassov and his Russian Liberation Army did not earn complete German confidence in their stated commitment to fight alongside the Wermacht against Stalin's Red Army. The Russian POWs serving in the army assembled by General Vlassov (the "Vlassotsy") to liberate Russia, such as the fellow doing the lively jig in this photo, were therefore stationed as far away from Russia as possible... on the Western Front, located either at Normandy, or in the south-west regions of France, to await the imminent invasion of the another army of liberation... the Allies.
Some hasty research thanks to Wikipedia adds some fascinating context to their dramatic fate, once they did encounter the Allies in combat, all of which (including the very existence of the Vlasovtsy) was news to me:
A number of such soldiers were on guard in Normandy on D-Day, and without the equipment or the motivation to fight the allies, most promptly surrendered. There were instances of bitter fighting to the very end, triggered by mishandled propaganda from the Allies that promised quick repatriation of soldiers back to the Soviet Union if they gave up.
Other interesting photos show a North African arab recruit "seduced by nazi propaganda" into joining the German side, captured French officers chatting with their German captors, Vietnamese prisoners of war building fortifications against Allied invasion (a reminder of France's global empire in those days), the mundane details surrounding collaborators at work, and more. Each one tells a fragmentary chapter of the larger story, each hinting at enough human drama to be worthy of a detailed account of its own.
After posting recently on a current Paris exhibition of similar photos, I found my interest in the story of the Occupation of France rekindled to the point where I finally undertook to read an old 1943 book I had purchased second-hand a few years ago, and laid aside; the tense wartime memoir, "Paris Underground".
It's a haunting first-hand account of the actions taken by a schoolmarmish American widow, Etta Shiber, who found herself living in a Paris suddenly occupied by an invading German army. With amazing detail, she chronicles her courageous (though anxiety-ridden) participation in what becomes a rather large-scale underground operation engaged in smuggling over 1,000 British troops out of Nazi-Occupied France. All goes relatively smoothly, until she is arrested and imprisoned... a horror that fills the final chapters of the book.

In one memorable encounter, mid-way through her narrative, she shelters "Dr. Wandel", a German deserter who shares many first-hand experiences of his side of the Occupation. A story-within-a-story that suggests how complicated a tableau the chronicle of the Second World War truly is, standing in defiance against our vain attempts to presume we could ever consider ourselves "knowlegeable" of its real scope... revealing that the more we learn about anything, the more we should recognize how little we truly know:
Of all the things that Dr. Wandel told us, the most interesting was that there had recently been an epidemic of suicides among German soldiers. It seemed hard to explain, for the German armies had been victorious everywhere, but Wandel thought it resulted from discouragement because soldiers who had been serving since long before the war had expected that with the fall of France, Britain would collapse, and they could go home; and now, after the momentary confusion which had followed the French debacle, the English were more determined than ever, and the end of the war was still not in sight.

Moreover, Wandel said, the Germans were in deadly fear of the reception they would get when they attempted to invade England. ...

Father Christian confirmed what Wandel had said about the fear of the German soldiers whenever the invasion of England was broached. He told us that when some of the men stationed at Conchy were ordered to the coast, the younger ones wept, and kept repeating over and over a French phrase which had been shouted at them derisively by children: "Chair a poisson, chair a poisson!" -- which means, food for the fish. One boy who had been billeted in a peasant's house, said as he left, "We'll never come back."

"But if they're so afraid," [Etta Shiber] asked Wandel, "why don't they revolt?"

"You don't know the German soldier", Wandel said. "His discipline is complete. He will permit himself to be chained into a boat which he believes is going to take him to a fiery death, or he will commit suicide to seek an easier end, but he will not revolt." [pgs 155-156]

No comments: