left :The Swastikas Fly in Paris.(photo Andre Zucca)
A new exhibition, running until the end of July, has created something of a stir in France, and let more than one uncomfortable skeleton out of the cupboard.
The German occupation of France is a period in the county's history that many, particularly the older generation, would rather forget, and this public airing of nearly 300 images of life in Paris under a Nazi regime has divided opinion in the city.
The photographer, Andre Zucca, was employed for propaganda purposes by the Third Reich, of that there is no doubt. He was commissioned to take pictures which showed how well the occupying forces were integrating into Parisian life, and he was certainly an accomplished professional with an eye for a good photo-opportunity. But the photographs that are on show have been obtained from family archives and in fact were never published. So the argument continues...are they posed, or did Paris, and France as a whole, buckle down to life with the enemy and appear to be socialising, shopping and generally behaving as normal while the rest of Europe, and the UK in particular were being rationed and bombed out of their homes?
The answer to this is very complex. In this part of France my neighbours seem reluctant to discuss what they did in the war. In fact I've only heard the war referred to twice. Once, when I offered my 'opposite' neighbour some artichokes (the Jerusalem variety) she shuddered and said - " Mais Non" very vociferously. Apparently they were dished up on a daily basis in the war. The second time was when another neighbour was telling me her aged mother was gravely ill in our village old people's home. "She is praying to die" I was informed gravely. When I muttered "Qu'elle dommage" for something to say she, she shook her head and said, "Oh Maman had such a hard life...a loveless marriage, the War ..." I wasn't too interested in the loveless marriage, I would have liked to have continued the conversation about the war, but somehow the subject was changed and I never got the opportunity again. As for maman, she recovered and three years on is about to celebrate her 98th birthday!
It's incredible that this important (to me) piece of recent history is either hidden under the bed or ignored. After all, the 2nd Panzer Division was stationed at Toulouse, not 70 miles away. And it was the der Fuhrer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen SS Das Reich that were hot-footing (or hot-crawling perhaps) up to Northern France in 1944 to reinforce thier comrades who were trying to repel the Allied Invasion. On the way up they passed Oradour sur Glane, and the rest is history.
The catastrophic fall out from the massacre of the citizens of Oradour has never been fully measured. The French themselves were in denial for many years after the war, mainly because of the ghastly realisation that the troops who actually carried out the massacre, under orders from the Das Reich command were in fact from Alsace. Officially the Alsace was German but before the First World War it had been French. As there was less than a quarter of a century between the two wars the soldiers were mostly, by birth French. The collective guilt was immense.
The story of Oradour is steeped in mystery, and contradiction. The site is now a national monument, with the village left exactly as it was when the soldiers withdrew to Limoges and continued their journey north. I have never been there, but we often passed the sign-post to the village on our journeys to and from the UK as it's on the most direct route from the southwest. I don't know if I want to visit it or not. I suppose I ought to, as I refer to this period of history quite a lot in the book I'm still working on so it would help in my writing, but I know it won't be a pleasant experience.
There is an excellent website complied by Michael Williams http://www.oradour.info/ which I have used extensively for research. Do take a look if you want to know more about the shocking happenings that day in June 1944. For me, his is the most definitive account I have read, and the website is very comprehensive. His gallery of 190 photographs are so compelling I have almost convinced myself it isn't necessary for me to actually go to Oradour in person. Yes, I know that's the coward's way out!