Europeans look again at life in WWII
As they mark the 60th anniversary of victory over Adolf Hitler's Germany, Europeans are taking a fresh look at the choices they made in the face of Nazi evil.
REMIGNY, FRANCE - As German troops stormed toward this quiet Burgundy village in June 1940, French soldiers erected a makeshift barricade outside Raymond Candiard's house, blocking the road with a few old horse-drawn carts, and then left.Skip to next paragraph
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The next day, Mr. Candiard recalls, "an officer came and told us to dismantle it. He said that if the Germans found it when they came they would tear the place apart. So we took it down."
Whether that act was craven cowardice or prudent caution, it was a foretaste of the way Remigny would deal with the next four years of German Nazi occupation, say the few still alive who remember the era.
Nobody here took up arms against the invaders. But villagers who lived through France's "dark years" remember the occupation without shame.
"We did what we could, and what we thought we should do," says Candiard's wife, Thérèse.
The few men in the village didn't join the resistance, says Candiard's older brother, Henri, because they feared the consequences. "They could have killed my family if I had just disappeared overnight," he says.
But Remigny's inhabitants did make small gestures of rejection, says Madeleine Moreau, who was a nurse during the war.
"It was pacific resistance," she explains. "I pretended to get on with them, but I didn't really. Once a German officer asked me to go out with him and I refused. He was so angry he fired his revolver through a window pane."
French memories of the occupation years have mutated over time. For 20 years after the war, most of the French were happy to believe the myth that President Charles de Gaulle propagated - that all of them had been "résistants."
Some high-profile trials of prominent collaborators, however, and a creeping recognition of the shameful role that the French police had played in rounding up Jews to be sent to the gas chambers, turned the myth of universal resistance on its head. For the past 30 years, many historians have portrayed the French as passive collaborators.
But now "we are in a new period" of reassessment, says Guillaume Piketty, a historian of the occupation at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. "We are getting a more balanced picture now. And most French have nothing to blush about."
"Between the white of the resistance networks and the black of the collaborators there were many shades of gray," says Jean Quellien, a history professor at the University of Caen.
"When I came home," released from prisoner-of-war camp to do war work on the railroads, "I was worried," says Henri Candiard. "How were we going to collaborate without collaborating?"
He and his colleagues found a way to do that: they did their jobs, and kept the railroad running, Mr. Candiard acknowledges, but "whenever we could do the Germans damage, we did," by passing information to the resistance about military rail convoy timetables, for example. Successful attacks on the railroad "made us happy, even if they made our work harder," recalls Candiard. "We wanted only one thing - that the Germans should leave as soon as possible."
Other veterans here of what historians now call "civil resistance" recall similar small-scale actions to undermine the occupation. Thérèse Candiard's father, for example, drove a locomotive to and fro across the demarcation line, smuggling wanted men to freedom under piles of coal.
For the most part, though, Remigny's inhabitants got on with their rural lives as best they could, with shortages of everything from cooking oil to menfolk (3 million Frenchmen were working in Germany, either as prisoners of war or as forced laborers).
"We were frightened, and the Germans made themselves at home here," says Odile Diconne, who was a young girl living with her sister, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother at the time. "But they behaved correctly with us."
Like most towns and villages in France, Remigny did not "have the bad ones, the SS or the Gestapo," points out Ms. Moreau. "A lot of them were against Hitler," she adds. "I didn't even regard them as the enemy."