8th May 1945: End of a War

Caylus - 8 mai road sign

Yesterday marked the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. We went to the annual ceremony in our village. This is always a moving event, attended by local dignitaries and representatives of the nearby military camp, the site of resistance activity during the war.

Local victims

The ceremony involves wreath laying and a speech by the Maire at the Monument des Morts (war memorial).

Laying the wreath at the monument des morts

Laying the wreath at the monument des morts

It then moves to the resistance memorial further down the main street, which commemorates a number of Résistants who lost their lives. Three of them were young men who died during a skirmish with German troops on that very spot in July 1944.

Resistance memorial

Resistance memorial

 

After the liberation

This area was liberated in the summer of 1944, following the Normandy landings. That was the occasion for an outpouring of relief that the Occupation was over. Public dancing had been forbidden by the Vichy “government”, but after the liberation people resumed it with such frenzy that the provisional government had to ban it again in October 1944. It was felt that public dances were inappropriate while so many remained in German captivity (see below). They were reinstated in April 1945.

The liberation also unleashed an outburst of retribution against suspected collaborators. A book I read about the internment camp at Septfonds described a local woman who quickly rode off on her bike, never to be seen again, when she feared reprisals for her wartime activities.

I would be fascinated to know what life was like here between the liberation and the formal end of the war in Europe. We have, very tentatively, broached the subject with locals who are old enough to remember, but have invariably been met with indifference (feigned?) or stonewalled.

This is hardly surprising. The Occupation wasn’t France’s finest hour. And the population occupied a spectrum from active resistance, through passive resistance, keeping their heads down, profiteering on the black market and informing to active collaboration. What country that has ever been occupied doesn’t present a similar typology?

In our own village, a monument to Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy government, was inaugurated on 6th September 1942. Pétain was taken to Germany in August 1944 (where he refused to take part in the government in exile), but the monument remained until 10th May 1945, two days after VE day, when it was demolished.

Les Absents

Post-liberation France was still subject to rationing, although people in country areas probably had it better than those in the towns. Fear of a Soviet-inspired insurrection meant that the fabric of local government and public order had to be rapidly restored.

This was complicated by the issue of “les Absents”. These included prisoners of war; Jews; slave labourers; people who went to Germany as part of Vichy’s Service de Travail Obligatoire scheme; and political prisoners who were deported to Germany in droves from June 1944 for fear of their involvement in armed resistance. In total, they amounted to about two million people.

When municipal elections were reinstated in 1945, there was an outcry in some quarters that these citizens were unable to vote. The elections were duly postponed but took place in late April 1945, before many of les Absents had returned. In fact, some people were elected in their absence, even though they had already perished in Germany.

I have so far been unable to unearth figures for repatriated deportees and PoWs in this area. But, as the revelations about the concentration camps came out, people were increasingly outraged. And examples exist in other parts of France of vigilantes carrying out extra-legal “purges” on people who were suspected of having informed on deportees.

I can’t hope in a short blog post to convey anything but a flavour of the complexity of the situation at the time. But the myths and mists of time are rapidly gathering around the history as the people who lived through it die. History is never as black and white as we would like it to be.

Caylus - resistance memorial 3

Resistance memorial

You might also like:

The Liberation of Montauban, 19th August 1944
A Story of the French Resistance During World War II
Sheltering Jews in SW France During World War II
The Spanish Cemetery at Septfonds: A Moving Monument

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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12 Responses to 8th May 1945: End of a War

  1. Stuart Webster says:

    Vanessa,thank you for another very interesting and thoughtful post regarding a subject matter that never fails to fascinate me.As you say it is very easy with the benefit of hindsight to distinguish those whose actions can be seen as honourable and those who were not.However,I often wonder how people in Britain would have reacted in the dreadful event that it was also under rule of occupation and I suspect as you indicate that there would have been a variety of responses.Moreover,it must have been extremely difficult particularly in the more rural areas of France to get an accurate picture of the progress of the war and I imagine that mis-information,rumour and ill judged speculation was rife.I have always been somewhat puzzled by the increase in both the Nazi and Vichy response to the resistance particularly during the latter period of occupation in 1944 but I don’t suppose that lt was clear to the opposing parties that liberation would be certain to follow.
    Good luck with your further research and proposed book and I look forward to further articles on this very interesting topic.Kind regards Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. It is indeed a very complex period of French history but sometimes over-simplified when viewed through the prism of history. I’m sure that local people had very little information about the progress of the war, which was confused enough anyway immediately following the Normandy landings. It’s a fascinating period, but you have to tread carefully.

      Like

  2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Un_village_fran%C3%A7ais
    Link about the village in france series. I haven’t seen a trailer for it lately so it maybe finished. You are so right about the mixed feelings amongst the older generation regarding their wartime memories. We had a neighbour, now passed away, who was always reafy to talk about his time in the resistance and was a member of an association based at the musee de la resistance at cahors. He once showed me a booklet listing all the events concerning the deportees in the lot. I was standing in front of the war memorial in our local town many years ago with a friend when an elderly man came up and asked if we were interested in what the town had suffered. In the conversation that followed i mentioned my neighbour as someone who had talked to me about it. Upon asking for and hearing his name our seemingly gentle man suddenly became frothily angry, shouting that my neighbour was a communist (he was) and had no right to tell me anything. Then he stomped away leaving my friend and i in no doubt that we had stumbled into a part of french history it might be prudent to avoid or in which to step very carefully. Bon courage with your research and thanks for this local insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for the link and for the story about your neighbour and his enemy! It’s not easy to get your head around such a complex situation. The different parts of the resistance – FFI, FTP etc – had a lot of internecine struggles between them. They managed just about to join up against the Germans but the cracks showed once they had gone. We have always found it difficult to penetrate the silence that surrounds a lot of this now.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul Diamond says:

    A neighbour in our small Dordogne village recently bought a house to renovate and turn into a gite. Its a small house that was owned by an old man who kept to himself and died without heirs a few years ago. During the extensive renovations my friend was clearing out the attic, which was open and full of the usual pigeons as well as rusty tools and farm implements etc. Tucked up behind one of the ancient rafter beams he found some old rags, inside of which were a small collection of old German medals. Why would the old man hide such medals? Because, the inscriptions on the awards where in french, so presumably they were awarded to the old man by the Nazi’s for services rendered as a collaborator. What I found interesting is that though possessing such awards would confirm his status as a traitor, he clearly couldn’t bring himself to throw them away, so instead hid them in his attic. I wonder what he did to earn them? How many lives were ruined and lost? He was clearly proud of them. I imagine its not something the locals would enjoy a researcher dredging up even now….though that could be an interesting plot line for a novel, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      An interesting story indeed. And probably not an isolated one. As I said in the post, people occupied a wide spectrum from active resistance to active collaboration. Maybe he was proud of his medals, but also savvy enough to know that he could never display them.

      Like

  4. Osyth says:

    I loved reading this. The time of the occupation and liberation of France probably interests me more than any other time. The fact that it was my youngest daughter’s 21st birthday yesterday probably fostered this fascination along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chitra parpia says:

    Have u seen the TV series a French village set during the Occupation …..riveting !
    You are rubbing shoulders with the folks that have lived through history

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s such a popular period for dramatisations that I think there have been several series like that over the years. Do you remember the title? (We don’t get UK TV here). Or maybe it was a French series…
      It’s a pity some of the people don’t want to talk about it. But you have to respect that.

      Like

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