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Prisoners of war: “The trauma of the defeat of 1940 is still present in our society”

2024-03-01T17:44:38.682Z

Highlights: Our Dear Prisoners looks at the fate of French prisoners of war (nearly two million men), held in Germany until the end of the Second World War. Director: "The trauma of the defeat of 1940 is still present in our society" "The images broadcast by Vichy embellished by the censorship of worrying, even certain resentment towards these “ambushers without glory in 1940, having not escaped - despite numerous attempts, only 5% succeeded, sheltered in their farms.”


FIGAROVOX/INTERVIEW - A new documentary looks at the nearly two million French soldiers imprisoned after the defeat by Germany. For its directors, their pathetic fate still largely rubs off on our national conscience.


Éric Deroo is a filmmaker and historian, former associate researcher at the CNRS.

Charles Thimon is an author and director.

To discover

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Their documentary “

Our Dear Prisoners

 ” looks at the fate of French prisoners of war (nearly two million men), held in Germany until the end of the Second World War.

Available for rebroadcast on the History channel or on

VOD on Mycanal

.

LE FIGARO.

- From the armistice onwards, the prisoners of war were considered by the authorities not to be unlucky heroes, but rather to be expiatory victims of pre-war French negligence.

What was the reality of the Vichy regime's support for them?

Why was there no political urgency to bring them back?

Eric DEROO.

-

In June 1940, after having hoped every day that a miracle would save them from a war against Germany that most French people no longer wanted, millions of combatants chose to surrender.

Request for armistice, cease fire, are for all the promise of a peace which will quickly bring them back to their homes.

In reality, it will never be signed and one million eight hundred and fifty thousand of them head, to their great surprise, to Germany to be interned there.

Such a mass of prisoners of war makes it one of the major issues in relations between the Vichy regime and the Germans.

Their absence, while they represent around 40% of the active male population, weighs extremely heavily on a national economy already partly ruined by the war and then by the requisitions of the occupier.

On the other hand, the head of state, Marshal Pétain, built his entire image and draws all his legitimacy from his role during the Great War.

A tutelary figure for veterans, he sets himself up as the father of all French people, starting with the millions of prisoners of war whom he must protect.

Sincerely attached to their fate, it is a question of his credibility and that of his regime to have them repatriated.

Also read May 10-June 25, 1940: how France collapsed in forty-five days

Vichy propaganda quickly portrayed, despite themselves, the fate of the captives.

They become both scapegoats for the defeat of 1940, to which previous parliamentary regimes led, and penitents whose return to home and work will mark a first step in the painful path to redemption.

Surprised by the rapid collapse of the French armies and the surrender of millions of soldiers in May and June 1940, the Germans realized that their liberation would constitute one of the essential levers in the real fool's bargain that they imposed on Vichy.

The relative failure of the voluntary “relief” led to the creation by Germany of the Compulsory Labor Service (STO) in 1943. Many young French people were forcibly conscripted, or went into the underground.

Could this ordeal have indirectly harmed the image of French prisoners, considered incapable of revolting and sparing the next generation?

ED.-

The globalization of the conflict, the enormous loss of life, the destruction linked to massive bombings, the needs of industry, the supply of troops and civilians led the Germans to carry out a real hunt for manpower. work throughout occupied Europe.

After having experienced limited success in the repatriation of prisoners of war, under pressure from the occupiers, the Compulsory Labor Service was set up in Germany in 1943.

Charles THIMON.

-

In this context, the fate of prisoners of war takes second place.

In France, increasingly harsh German repression, requisitions, vital shortages, the need for many wives or parents to make up for the absence of their husband, father, son, led them to organize themselves without them.

The images broadcast by Vichy embellishing the lives of prisoners, the censorship of letters, the fear of worrying, even provoked a certain resentment towards these “ambushers”.

Defeated without glory in 1940, having not tried to escape - despite numerous attempts, only 5% of the captives succeeded -, sheltered in their camps or German farms, supplied by families who went without for them, the odyssey of the “PG” is loaded with clichés which will pursue them throughout their existence.

Marshal Pétain welcomes prisoners released after political negotiations.

Our Dear Prisoners

Your documentary brings together extremely poignant testimonies from French soldiers.

One

of

them

, regarding the return to France in 1945, speaks of the difficult “reintegration of the dead among the living”

.

Has the resistance myth finally damaged the face of the prisoner of war?

ED.

-

Added to this distorted perception of prisoners of war is the fact that they return to France at the same time as thousands of political deportees or Jews, dying survivors of the extermination camps.

De Gaulle tried to unite the French behind the colors of the Resistance and engaged in a real competition with the Communist Party that today we would describe as memorial.

The question of prisoners was widely present during Pétain's trial in 1945: the marshal based his defense in part on the place they occupied in the need to respond to German demands.

Already damaged, the prestige of the former prisoners is recovering poorly.

Also read: A forgotten victory in the middle of the disaster of June 1940: the Battle of the Alps

CT.

-

After having undergone internment or forced labor, they encounter indifference from the authorities and often that of their loved ones.

Unable to control their destiny, they suffered an ordeal difficult to pass on.

Absent from the commemorations, their shadow is disturbing.

They were courted electorally but official recognition took a long time to come: the combatant card was not granted to them until December 1949. This would lead them to a place among themselves where only those who “were in it” could understand each other.

Determined to turn the page on years of captivity that the majority of their fellow citizens care little about, they prefer to throw themselves headlong into returning to school and work.

Numerous mutual aid associations, friendly associations, very supportive networks of former prisoners of war, grouped by camp, by encounters, by destinies, were born, but there was never an event for them that could have made exist their collective memory.

How was the image of the French soldier of the Second World War, incompetent, even cowardly or simpleton, gradually constructed, as it was conveyed in popular culture by films like The Cow and the Prisoner, or the 7th Company?

ED.

-

France is having great difficulty recovering from its defeat in 1940 and the more than equivocal conduct of part of its population and its elites under the Occupation.

Added to this from 1946 were the lost wars in Indochina, later in North Africa, which marked the end of its imperial greatness.

A few emblematic films of resistant heroism were released in the post-war period, but they were probably not enough to convince spectators of their own commitment!

Also from the 1960s-1970s, after the “Trente Glorieuses” and a certain renewal of French political life, comedy, farce, derision, the sense of resourcefulness, the D system, old recipes of “the French spirit”, are implemented to rewrite a common, lighter history, to reconcile, to aggregate discordant memories, in the face of an eternally heavy, violent, obtuse Germanic enemy, clichés reinforced by the real arrogance and barbarity of the Nazis.

CT.

-

Feeling misunderstood and not knowing how to convey what they experienced, prisoners take refuge after war in silence or anecdotes.

Faced with the absurd monotony of four years of captivity, what better did they have to offer than the story of everyday pranks and exploits?

For the most part, the prisoners do not talk about their experience, and the comforting figure of the “troufion” tricking the Germans, played by Fernandel in

The Cow and the Prisoner

or those in

The 7th Company

, will stick in the imagination despite themselves. collective.

What can this relationship to the history of our army still say about us

today

?

To what extent does this aspect of the trauma of 1940 shape current France?

ED.

-

Even if it is not very apparent, the trauma of the defeat of 1940 is still present in our society, in particular within the armies.

Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, the end of the colonies, left a lasting impression on them and they carefully cultivate their memory.

With the end of conscription and external operations within the framework of international coalitions or in compliance with bilateral military defense agreements - moreover recently and brutally called into question in sub-Sahelian Africa - the image of the armies among the French is positive.

As proof, the support for the project, constantly postponed because it is cumbersome to set up, of a universal national service, of recourse to substantial reserve forces, of an increase in defense budgets.

However, the conflict in Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, tensions in Asia, South America, the emergence of China, India and other actors such as Turkey, Iran or the countries of Gulf, lead to a risky and fragile game of alliances, which is reminiscent of the pre-war of 1914 and 1939, reviving old fears... The threat of a debacle regularly returns to the news.

A German prison camp.

Our Dear Prisoners

Source: lefigaro

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