These are a few notes of lively music that fly out the window of his room, in Grenoble (Isère), wide open on the Vercors massif. A joyful swing, in line with the joy of summer 1945, the first since the war, a year after the liberation of the city, on August 22, 1944.
In the cool of the night, while his parents and two sisters sleep in the rooms next door, Georges Berthoin gets drunk on the jazz of the American Glenn Miller. With his nose in his law books, the young 20-year-old resistance fighter lets his mind wander far beyond the Alps. He is eyeing the Atlantic side, towards this country that makes him vibrate so much: America. He closes his eyes, carried away by the melody, dancing and twirling to the sound of the Glenn Miller & The Army Air Force Band, the orchestra of this virtuoso trombonist, who disappeared at sea in December 1944. Freedom is that. A breath, a sound, a rhythm. A tube that resonates in itself long after you are silent.
A year earlier, this fantasized America had already presented itself to him, this time in the flesh, after its soldiers had landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, then in Provence on August 15. They had marched triumphantly towards Grenoble, deserted on the night of August 21-22 by the Germans.
That evening, Georges had gone down to the city, he no longer knows why. He had witnessed, dumbfounded, the peaceful withdrawal of the last enemy contingents which had occupied Grenoble since November 11, 1942. And then, suddenly, life was frozen. Silence had enveloped the streets for about twenty minutes, each one seeming to hold its breath. "This heavy, extraordinary silence remains one of the strongest moments of my existence," slip Georges Berthoin today, at the age of 95.
Scared of fear
In the morning of August 22, without needing to exchange a shot, the Americans had arrived, handing out Parker pens, chewing gum and Lucky Strike cigarettes. You have to hear Georges pronounce these words in impeccable English, trying to emphasize the tonic on the correct syllable. And his laughter, which punctuates his memories ... He has the radiance of youth, the lightness of carelessness. You would think he returned to his 20 years.
An age at which this tall blond should have turned around the girls' skirts to tell them their flowers and then leave the family nest. An age at which he could have discovered cinema, abandoned himself to idleness, without still worrying about finding a job, feeding the children.
A golden age, perhaps, but not in 1945. When we knew the war, when we joined the Resistance at 15, we read and learned almost by heart "the Silence of the sea "- a novel about the Occupation, written under the pseudonym Vercors and published in 1942 - which was smuggled out of the newspaper" Combat ", which was shaken for his father caught by the Gestapo and held back in hostage from June to July 1944, that we almost fell into the hands of the Germans twice ... We do not have our heads in trifles. Fear remains etched in the flesh.
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Georges still feels it, during this summer of 1945, each time he returns to Place Vaucanson, where the main post office in Grenoble is located. He thinks back to that December 23, 1943, when the Germans blocked each end, sending 99 people to a concentration camp, of which only a few will return. He should have been rounded up with the others. His salvation was only held up by the delay of a friend he was waiting in the square and in front of whom he decided to go.
"Fate is still strange," he whispers, before remembering this other time when, after stealing food ration tickets from the town hall cupboards and attaching them to his calves, he found himself face to face with a German patrol. Each passerby was then checked and searched. Georges thought his time had come. But when his turn came, he looked into that of the soldier in front of him. The two men were more or less the same age and, after an accomplice silence, the German made an improbable gesture. "Raus! He shouted, ordering her to pass, without even having felt it.
Resistant and Gaullist from the start
This is it, Georges' youth. An adolescence lived in the threatening shadow of bombs and roundups, counting his friends as much as his enemies. Adolescence without love and without flirting, the war having stopped all the impulses of the heart. So, in the summer of his 20th birthday, he may be lulled to sleep by Glenn Miller's melodies, but he is driven by a fixed idea: "Develop tomorrows that sing. Driven by the will to work for the reconstruction of his country, he spends his days debating "France after". He finds his friends from the Union des Patriotes Students (UEP) *, which he chairs, in the backroom of the Arthaud bookstore or on Place Vaucanson, and they remake the world.
Gaullist from the start - like his father, Jean, prefect who would become Minister of National Education, then of the Interior, under the presidency of the General -, Georges campaigned for the restoration of French sovereignty. And opposes the Communists, who want to "make the revolution" and follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. The debates are lively, fiery. The floor finally released, they overflow from the back rooms to invade the streets, draining up to several thousand people every day. "It was a permanent happening," recalls the nonagenarian. A bubbling of ideas throughout the city, and first within the university. The courses are there of high flight, number of intellectuals having fled Paris since 1940 to find refuge in Grenoble and in Vercors. The readings of the poet Pierre Emmanuel, above all, sold out.
He abandons his studies to embark on politics
The young man discovered his talents as a speaker, giving during this summer 1945 his first public conference in Chambéry on the theme "The world revolution and us". But it comes up against the aura of communism among the population. More numerous, better armed ideologically, the “reds” also appear to be more structured. And try to infiltrate the Resistance movements and the student organizations to which they sell their ideal.
Their propaganda bristles Georges who, from June 6, 1945, lets them know. On this day, Jacques Duclos is the guest of honor at the Landing commemoration ceremonies. In his speech, the number 2 of the French Communist Party deliberately forgot to speak of the Americans and the English, whose bodies littered the beaches of Omaha and Utah Beach, preferring to emphasize the role of the Red Army in the liberation of France. At his side on the tribune, in the Grenoble stadium, Georges trépigne, gets annoyed. He wants to set the record straight. But when he gets up to take his turn, Jacques Duclos cuts off the microphone. The President of the UEP ostentatiously leaves the stadium. “The rupture between communism and me was total. Definitive, ”insists Georges Berthoin.
At the end of the summer, the young man gradually abandoned his studies, preferring politics to them. Dressed in canvas pants cut "in a bad fabric", he lives on books and fresh water, since, at this hour, France still lacks everything. Agriculture has not returned to its pre-war production rate, the population is still rationed. At least he no longer had to eat crows, as was the case on certain days during the Occupation. "They smell very strong and have a chicken taste, more pronounced," he says without managing to repress a gesture of repulsion. The oranges, which had disappeared since the start of the conflict, reappear on the stalls. And the city's pastry shop offers “slightly more edible” cakes.
In the United States, he forges his European commitment
Life is reborn everywhere, in its infancy. The weather was good that summer, as beautiful as in 1940. As if the weather closed the parenthesis of war, a heavy, dramatic, cruel period. The news that Georges follows on the radio, or in the communist newspaper Les Allobroges - "better informed" than the others, according to him - testifies to the end of a world, while the news is still in the state of sketch.
Germany recognized defeat in May, Adolf Hitler died in April, but war didn't end until summer, when the United States struck Japan with atomic weapons, forcing it to capitulate. An atrocity that does not detract from George's desire to discover America, "this country of freedom and brotherhood" where, therefore, we chew gum, we smoke Lucky Strike and we dance to the sound of the trombone of Glenn Miller.
Glued in 1946 to the competition of the National School of Administration (ENA) for having collected a eliminatory “zero” in English, Georges Berthoin flew over the Atlantic in September 1947, in the direction of New York, before joining Cambridge (Massachusetts) to study at Harvard University.
After obtaining a scholarship from the French state, allocated to former resistance fighters, he was asked by one of his American teachers to participate in a workshop to reflect on the implementation of the Marshall plan, financial aid from the United States to the reconstruction of Europe. The young man finds his way. Its cause. On his return to France, after a stint at the Ministry of Finance, he became, in 1952, Jean Monnet's chief of staff in the Economic Community of Coal and Steel, which foreshadowed the European Union. And, as in 1945, the year of his 20 years, he will continue to get drunk on jazz, discovering Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong.
* This student circle, formed at the Liberation, has nothing to do with the far-right movement that bears this name today.
1945, that year
April 22: Sachsenhausen camp is liberated. Three months after evacuating the Auschwitz camp in Poland, which reveals the horror and atrocity of the gas chambers to the world, the Red Army enters that of Sachsenhausen (photo), 30 kilometers from Berlin , in Germany, near the small town of Oranienburg. About 3,000 survivors remain there.
April 30: Adolf Hitler commits suicide . Entrenched in his bunker in Berlin, with his mistress Eva Braun, the "Führer" knows that the war is lost. The couple killed themselves so as not to fall into the hands of the Soviets. On May 2, the news made the front page of a daily newspaper published for Americans serving abroad (photo). On May 8, Germany signs the armistice.
July 23: Marshal Pétain appears. The trial of the hero of Verdun, who became head of the Vichy government, lasted three weeks. The judges found him guilty of high treason and of intelligence with the enemy. Sentenced to death and national degradation, Pétain, 89, saw his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by General de Gaulle.
August 6: the United States bombs Hiroshima. Still at war with Japan, the Americans struck, with the atomic bomb, Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki. The two cities, which have 340,000 and 195,000 inhabitants respectively, are completely destroyed. Japan surrenders on September 2. The Second World War ends.