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.

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.

Recommended: Default

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."

Raymond Candiard is less forgiving. "They were the enemy, and we kept a great distance from them," he recalls. "But there was not much we could do. We would try to fool them when we could, but without taking any risks."

- Peter Ford

For Russians, a bittersweet triumph

VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA - The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany has become one of the most potent legends of Russian history. And 60 years on, the "Great Patriotic War," as Russians call it, still stirs feelings of national sacrifice and triumph.

But mention the name of wartime Soviet leader Josef Stalin to veterans in this town - site of the crucial fight-or-die battle for Stalingrad - and argument erupts, exposing nerves still raw.

"It was a hard war, and the beginning was not the luckiest for us - a lot of materiel was lost and damaged," says Nikolai Gorbyenko, a white-haired former artillery officer, describing how Soviet forces were taken by surprise - a result of Stalin's refusal to believe intelligence reports that German divisions were massing on the border in June 1941. "For the leadership and Comrade Stalin, that was the first mistake," says Gorbyenko, sparking a discernible agitation among some veterans nearby. "We had to retreat."

Within days, the Red Army - its officer corps depleted by political purges in which more than 36,000 were executed - had 300,000 of its soldiers surrounded, and 2,500 tanks captured, on the central front alone, according to historian Antony Beevor, in his book "Stalingrad."

But the bite of winter and overextended German supply lines allowed the Soviets to stop the Nazi advance at the edge of Moscow. The next winter at Stalingrad - where the Soviets lost more than 1 million soldiers - the war turned.

"They mentioned that Stalin made some mistakes and was bad, but Stalin knew that sooner or later we would be at war with the Germans," says Vladimir Panyenko, his chest covered with medals - including the pale green-yellow ribbon with a thin red stripe, awarded for "Defense of Stalingrad."

That defense included Stalin's Order No. 227, signed just weeks before the Stalingrad battle and known as "Not One Step Backwards." Those who would surrender were a "traitor to the motherland." "Panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot," the order read. "The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated."

In the end, 13,500 Red Army soldiers were executed by their own side, a "barely believable ruthlessness of the Soviet system," writes Mr. Beevor, which helps explain why more than 50,000 Soviet citizens - many of them volunteers - actually fought against their own countrymen in the city.

That legacy is not mentioned on tours of the Stalingrad battle museum - where heroic deeds and images aim to create patriotic hearts.

"I'm dying, but I don't give in," one soldier scrawled on a wall during the siege of the Brest-Litovsk fortress a month after the Nazi invasion began. "Farewell, Motherland."

Nor are Stalin's difficulties mentioned in the shadow of the towering memorial statue to the epic battle - a woman holding aloft a sword, called "Motherland Is Calling."

But memories are selective, and Stalin seems to be making a comeback. Prospects are growing that Volgograd could soon be renamed "Stalingrad." Last July, President Vladimir Putin ordered that the name be changed from "Volgograd" on the war memorial at the Kremlin wall in Moscow.

In Volgograd, memorial director Valentina Klyushina is on a committee to change the name but admits the move is controversial. "A person who doesn't remember the past has no future," she says. "There was some repression - even in my family - but I don't think Stalin was to blame."

Indeed, Ms. Klyushina's mother was given a 10-year prison term, because the negligible amount of 167 rubles could not be accounted for where she worked, as chief of a bakery.

"Patriotism is growing now, though we lost 10 years because of [Mikhail Gorbachev's] perestroika," says Klyushina. Does she credit Stalin with winning the war? Klyushina answers philosophically: "The victory over the Germans was won by the people of the Soviet Union."

- Scott Peterson

Britain's 'lion' still roars

LONDON - It should have been his finest hour, the consummation of a heroic effort that hauled Britain from the blackest hour of 1940 to the happy dawn of peace five years later.

Instead, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, bull- dog figurehead of wartime Britain, was ingloriously dumped from office barely two months after the guns fell silent across Europe. His wife, Clementine, remarked that it might be a blessing in disguise. Mr. Churchill, never short of a bon mot, replied: "If this is a blessing, it is certainly very well disguised."

The episode neatly sums up Britain's unusual rapport with its most famous and arguably most important 20th-century figure.

That Churchill is remembered and revered today is without question. He was an easy winner in a recent BBC series, "Great Britons."The "Churchill spirit" has become synonymous with British grit and determination. His witticisms continue to grace the language.

And many older Britons wistfully recall the addresses - delivered in that 65-year-old courage-and-cognac voice - that rescued morale in 1940 and pulled the country back across the line that separates defiance and despair.

"I can still remember the speeches," says Ray Nelson, who was a schoolboy during that most anxious of summers when much of the nation would huddle around radio sets listening to the reassuring gravelly growl of their new prime minister.

"When you think where we were in June 1940 at the low point, he galvanized the nation and lifted morale. He had to get people to think there was a possibility of survival," he says.

Margaret Fearn, like Mr. Nelson a visitor to the newly opened Churchill Museum in central London, calls him "one of the most amazing people who ever lived."

It's different for younger generations. For them, wartime heroics contrast with less glorious episodes of his early career, such as his furious, quasi-racist outbursts against Indian independence and his handling of the Gallipoli fiasco, where tens of thousands of British troops died in a poorly planned assault on Turkish forces during World War I.

"Ultimately he was someone who was good at making speeches, but the negatives are also massive," says Jonathan Lisher, who teaches history at a school in Oxford.

One recent survey found that British youths were stunningly ignorant about key aspects of World War II, such as Auschwitz. But on Churchill they are better informed. Churchill's speeches, his stance against appeasement, and his wartime leadership form a major part of the syllabus for 14-year-olds, says Mr. Lisher.

"Generally, the kids like him," he concedes. "He's seen as a politician who saved the country."

John Charmley, author of "Churchill: The End of Glory," says that "there is not much danger of him being forgotten."

"But young people see him in a different way," says Professor Charmley. "They have a flattering account of him in which there are warts on the portrait, but it is thought the virtues outshine the warts."

To some extent, the echoes from Churchill's early career have made it harder to lionize him in multicultural Britain.

His statue still lords it over Parliament Square, but it wasn't until this February that a museum dedicated to his life opened in London. The United States has had one for 35 years, at Fulton, Mo.

It is notable that Churchill has become much more of an icon in America than in his native country; presidents from Kennedy to Nixon drew deeply from the Churchillian ideological well, and his refusal to countenance appeasement was clearly an inspiration to the Bush administration in its robust response to 9/11. President Bush even insisted that a bust of him be installed in the Oval Office.

"He continues to have contemporary influence way beyond the grave because his anti-appeasement credentials were used both during the cold war and the recent war in Iraq," says Charmley. "The old boy remains pretty influential."

- Mark Rice-Oxley

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...