Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 4, 2017

Moral clarity

The latest movie version of "Dunkirk" opened recently. It is based on the World War II real-life evacuation of French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers trapped by German forces.

WWII is a popular movie subject, in part because it is seen as the last “good” war. Good, of course, does not refer to what happened during the fighting, but, rather, to the moral clarity of the conflict. The “good guys, "featuring" the United States, France, Britain, Canada, the Soviet Union and Australia, defeated the “bad guys,” principally Germany, Italy and Japan.

Yet much as when one enlarges a photo, the closer one looks, the more clarity fades. For example: Sept. 1, 1939, the day German troops rolled into Poland, is frequently cited as the conflict's starting point. But just 17 days later, one of the “white hats,” the Soviet Union, attacked and annexed the eastern edge of Poland.

Husband Art and I recently had the opportunity to explore another example of moral ambiguity from the war. On July 18, we, along with friend Francis Pracht, were given a personal tour of the museum Espace Memoire - Memory Space. Located in the village of Hagondange, a few miles northwest of Metz, France, the members call themselves the "Association for the Conservation of the Memories of the Moselle from 1939 to 1945." Our guides, Pascal Fritsch, Georges Jerome and Roger Munsch, were passionate in their belief about the need to share and preserve the story.

This part of Europe is part of France in the state of Lorraine. It borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. But the story begins when Europe was not a handful of large states, but loose confederations of much smaller ones. The northern part of Lorraine was blessed with deposits of iron ore. It attracted German-speaking people from the east and French speakers from the west. A labor shortage in the 19th century even brought Italians looking for work.

When the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871, Lorraine, having almost as many citizens of German origins as French, was annexed by Germany. The official language switched from French to German, but most people were fluent in both, owing to the centuries of intermixing. This situation continued until 1918. Part of the penalty Germany paid for losing World War I was the return of Lorraine to France. The official language reverted to French, but German was widely spoken and taught in schools as a second language.

Lorraine’s reclamation by Germany in 1940 was not a repeat of those previous conflicts. France was completely defeated, but Germany didn’t wish to use its military resources to control such a large area. So it created the “French State” in the southern and western part of pre-war France. Its government, controlled by Germany, was largely a sham.

In the north of what had been pre-war France, Germany retained a large military force to guard against the expected invasion from Britain and her allies. Germany also sought a passive buffer on its western edge. The eastern part of Lorraine in the north and Alsace in the south would become that buffer. In August and September, just days after France’s June defeat, Lorraine citizens deemed to be essentially French were startled by an unexpected knock on the door. They were to be resettled. Whatever they wanted to take with them had to fit into a single suitcase. By the end of a second hour, they were to be at the local train station. The trains went first to nearby Metz and then to Lyon. Transport to the French State followed.

Those not expelled Germany viewed as “German cousins” who were possibly sympathetic to German interests. But years of living as part of France meant they could not be considered wholly trustworthy. So young men from these families were encouraged to “volunteer” for the German armed forces. Not volunteering might bring a reduction in the family’s food-ration cards or the loss of work for the head of the family. Unlike in the past, the French language and French ways were to be eliminated. School children were given two months to learn German. School teachers had informal “chats” with their pupils about such matters as what language was spoken at home and what topics their parents spoke about. All publications in French were to be turned in to be destroyed.

As for the homes of those expelled, Germans from Germany arrived to take over those properties in what some called the forbidden zone.

Lorraine was liberated in December of 1944. Germans who had come from Germany generally fled eastward before the advancing Allied troops. Six months later, the war was over.

Some of the French who had been expelled decided not to return. But those who wished to go home were encouraged to be patient as many homes, bridges and roads were destroyed and food was in short supply.

And there were hard feelings. Families with men who had volunteered to serve in the German military, whether willingly or under threat, were frequently seen as traitors. Some bishops would not shake the hands of priests who had been forced to serve. Pressure, both overt and covert, forced many of these families to move to Germany, even if they and their relatives had been citizens of Lorraine for centuries.

Since Germany started the war, it was easy to gloss over such matters as a sort of karma - of fate repaying the Germans for what they had done. And viewed from a distance, such a conclusion might well be justified. But for the people with Germanic roots who had lived in Lorraine for as long as anyone in their family could remember, it was nothing short of ethnic cleansing.

This situation was hardly unique. Many German families had lived in Silesia since the 14th century. These people were expelled when Silesia was given to Poland in compensation for the land taken by the Soviet Union.

My friend Jim, a veteran of WWII, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was a guard at the Nuremberg trials after the war. I have often heard him say that while occasionally necessary, war is not glorious, and at its core is just legalized murder. Moral clarity? Perhaps we should be content with knowing we did what needed to be done, and as with most things, it was done imperfectly.

Top-left: Georges Jerome, left, speaks with Art while Robert Munsch listens. In the rear, Pascal Fritch, left, shows an artifact to Francis Pracht; top-middle: on the left are German street signs that replaced the French ones. On the right is a poster telling citizens to "sweep out" everything French; top-right: A poster created after the German defeat, spoofing the German one by showing all the German items being swept out; bottom-left: entrance to the museum, photo from museum website; bottom-middle: a German poster aimed at children and asking what they know about their leader; bottom-right: Art chatting with Georges and Francis.

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from 2017 may be found at: 2017 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home