70 years ago this month, from London, General De Gaulle broadcast a call-to-arms to all French citizens in occupied France. Today, many of us live in French villages and towns where a small plaque on a wall, or some other low-key monument, marks the spot where not only brave members of the resistance, but also innocent men, women, and sometimes children were shot by German firing squads during the 1939-45 war. These executions were often carried out in reprisal for the “irritating” activities of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), the irregular French resistance groups who had heeded De Gaulle’s appeal. Victims were often selected entirely at random, there was no trial or appeal, and, in the vast majority of cases no German soldier or officer has ever been brought to trial, nor even “named and shamed”, for ordering or committing these atrocities.
In the circumstances, the French people have been remarkably forgiving. There are still many people living in our part of France who saw innocent family members taken out and summarily shot by the occupying German forces, yet, in general they bear no long term grudge. Had these unpunished crimes happened, say, in Ireland, one wonders whether the war would ever really have ended?
Further south in France where such atrocities though more rare, were sometimes even more vicious, one village has been forced to remember the darker side of the wartime resistance.
After furious protests, Coussay-les-Bois, in the farmland of Poitou, has decided it is too early to allow a German man to put up a memorial to his father and 16 other Wehrmacht prisoners who were executed there in September 1944.
The quarrel testifies to lingering bitterness over the German occupation, and to a reluctance to touch the heroic image of the young insurgents who fought them.
“If they put a plaque there, it will be smashed within a day,” said Jean Herault, who was a 16-year-old fighter in the bloody summer of 1944. Mr Herault, a retired blacksmith, recalled the day in June that year when the Germans took 120 villagers to roadside ditches and prepared to shoot them in reprisal for an attack from the Maquis underground movement.
They were spared after the intervention of a priest, but Mr Herault was forced to watch later that evening as three of his young comrades were executed. One was 17.
They are commemorated at a memorial to the FFI but no-one wants to be reminded of the night of September 9 when the German prisoners were machine-gunned against the school wall.
Officially, the massacre never happened. It figures in no histories, only in local memory. It came to light because of the dogged effort by Rudolph Greuel, 67, to find out what happened to his father, a sergeant-major with a Wehrmacht construction battalion. Mr Greuel, a former editor of the Kolnische Rundschau newspaper, unearthed the truth with the help of a German survivor and a French journalist.
Andreas Greuel was an unusually old 47 when he fled the coastal defences at St Malo, riding bicycles and horses ahead of the advancing Allies. A French SAS unit parachuted in from Britain captured his group as it crossed Poitou, still behind German lines.
A French resistance group put the men to work in the fields at Coussay for a few days before tying them up and taking them to the village to be shot. Local women persuaded “Lieutenant Pierre”, the maquisard in charge, to spare a few of them. The 17 bodies were dumped in unmarked graves and in 1961 were reburied in a German cemetery at Mont Saint Michel. In 2003 the school wall which bore the impacts from the firing squad was demolished.
Last December, the council agreed to a request from Mr Greuel to install a plaque to mark “an event known to the inhabitants of Coussay”.
“It was to be a memorial of freedom for the next generation — that there should be no war again,” said Mr Greuel. “What the Germans did in France in the war was horrible but so also was what members of the resistance did,” he told The Times from his home near Bonn. “What happened in Coussay was not a page of glory for the FFI, it was a crime.”
That is not the view of many in Coussay, not just from the wartime era but also the next generation.
“The war was still going on that summer and we had seen terrible things,” said Paulette Laurendeau, owner of the village café. She was five at the time but remembers her day in the execution ditch with her parents. The shooting of the Germans should just be forgotten, she said.
“Prisoners were not taken. There wasn’t room for keeping them”, said another villager defending the actions of the irregulars of the FFI, who, he pointed out, were fighting an ongoing war of resistance in enemy-occupied territory.
Word of the plaque prompted an angry campaign led by groups representing veterans and wartime French deportees. It was sacrilege to put up a memorial, given the German conduct, they said. In the worst crime that June, SS troops burnt to death more than 600 villagers in their church at Oradour-sur-Glane, only 70 miles away.
“History must not be rewritten,” said Jean Amand, 70, local head of the National Federation for the Deported and Imprisoned of the Resistance. “We will not have reconciliation by blurring history and reconciling with the Nazis in France.”
His association told Michel Favreau, the local mayor, that the plaque would equate innocent French victims with their cruel German oppressors. In February the council dropped the plan, regretting that its spirit of reconciliation had been misunderstood. Mr Favreau, 63, is angry that Mr Greuel’s quest awoke painful memories.
“It would have been better if he had never come to Coussay.”
It would take perhaps two more generations before there could be reconciliation, he said.