Le retour des prisonniers de guerre en 1945
In 1945, after five years in captivity, a million French soldiers sent to Germany in the summer of 1940 returned to France. Despite the joy at their return, their reunion with a country so different from the one they had dreamed of during their detention and in which they had to learn to live again was difficult. "They are united, do not divide them". This slogan of unity appeared on a poster released as STO's (1), deportees and prisoners returned from Germany. A soldier in uniform marked with a KG (2) and a labour conscript in his work clothes support a deportee in a striped outfit. We might find the slogan odd, just as we now see the unity claimed by the resistance fighters and the mass of French people behind them, forgetting that unity was one of the essential weapons of the Résistance (3). It is true that between these three categories of victims there were some marked differences. The prisoners knew that the deprivation of freedom, humiliation, promiscuity and hunger that they had also experienced, were nothing compared to the suffering of the deportees.
Their numbers and the length of their exile set the lot of the prisoners apart. 1,800,000 French soldiers had been captured in the debacle of May-June 1940. 1,600,000 were sent to Germany. Around 1,000,000 of them were still to return home in 1945 after five years on enemy soil. There were also hundreds of thousands of forced workers. But their time spent in Germany, which had started in September 1942, was, at worst, only half as bad as that of the prisoners. Besides, they had stayed concentrated in towns and factories. The prisoners had been scattered across all sectors of the German economy and society.
Cohabitation with the German people
For five years, they had counted the days, the weeks, the months and the years spent separated from their families and far from their homeland. Imprisonment in the idleness imposed by the Oflags was long for the officers. For the 95% of the prisoners of war sent to work in the kommandos, the cohabitation forced upon them with the German people was equally long. "The general reality of life for the prisoners was being drafted to work, what we call "the kommando" ", one of them wrote, with just cause, whilst in captivity. Setting ordinary soldiers to work complied with the Geneva Convention (4). The only exclusion was work linked directly to war manufacturing. It is wrong, though, to imagine that all "kommandos" prisoners living in the countryside had an easy life in captivity. Even those who worked on the farms were rounded up at night and kept in premises guarded by armed Posten. And there were also a number of prisoners employed in shops and workshops in towns, in forestry, road and railway operations and in factories and mines.
These work kommandos were spread across the whole of Germany, from the border with the Lorraine and deep into eastern Prussia. Prisoners lived there for five years alongside the German people: labourers and work comrades in factories; women, old people and children - the adult men having been mobilised - in shops and on farms. Cohabitation was sometimes harsh and sometimes easy, but always a source of mutual understanding and very different from that to which other members of the French population were being subjected at the same time with the occupying forces. This long-term acquaintance, unique in the history of relations between two nations, is perhaps one of the underlying sources of the Franco-German post-war reconciliation.
Any reconciliation was still a long way off when the prisoners returned in 1945. When one of them arrived innocently on his doorstep accompanied by the young German girl with whom he had started a love affair on the other side of the Rhine, his mother (a widow, it's true, of the 1914 war) prevented him from entering until he sent "his boche" back to where she came from.
The France to which the prisoners of war returned in 1945 was very different from that which they had left in 1939 or 1940. It was burdened by the very recent memory of the atrocities committed by the enemy. It celebrated the heroes of the Résistance and their part in the struggle and victory over Nazi Germany. But the image of those "taken captive in 1940" remained and would remain so for a long time, associated in people's minds with the debacle experienced five years earlier. The prisoners were at best the sacrificial victims of the defeat, or even responsible for it. They had been compromised by the Vichy regime. The latter had paraded them before the country as the Marshal's dear children. It had negotiated their partial return with the Nazi leaders and then the "transformation" of some of them into "free" workers in exchange for French workers. There was a mass of prisoners detained in Germany, who had been forcibly absent from the Résistance struggle. However, some of them had taken part in the fight against Nazism. Against its propaganda in Germany itself. Against its troops; like those escapees who fled to Hungary and then became involved with the Slovakian resistance movement where the memory of their exploits lived on for a long time; and those who had escaped and returned by other means and founded the National Movement of Prisoners of War and Deportees (le mouvement national des prisoners de war et déportés or MNPGD) (5). Others became got together to support those comrades who remained captive and their families. In the spring of 1945, they did their best to make up for the failures in the welcome given to their returning comrades by the overloaded government services (6). Their first contact with their rediscovered France was, unfortunately, a source of disappointment: an impression of indifference; impatience in the face of the administrative procedures required for demobilisation. There was an even deeper impression, due to the discrepancy between what the prisoners had imagined during their exile and the reality they found on their return home.
As soon as they passed through the first towns, they discovered a France marked by the miseries of the war, the destruction and the continued shortages. They were surprised to find the shops so poorly stocked and that tickets were required to buy products that were still rationed. The return home was often both an absolute joy and a moment of discovery of the other depressing effects, either temporary or lasting, of their captivity. Their families had also lived without them for five years; even though the image of the missing person had been carefully preserved. Life had gone on; there was the painfully sensitive issue of fathers who discovered their children had grown up without them and now treated them like strangers; the tragedy of permanent separations with fiancées and even wives(7). Even couples who remained together had to "get used to each other again". Five years of separation had been marked with grief and the first visit was to the cemetery, to pay the tribute to deceased parents that had not been possible at the time of their death. And what about the Jewish prisoners - protected by the Geneva Convention, at the very heart of the Nazi Reich - who discovered on their return that their whole family had been decimated by the genocide.
Going back to work was not too difficult for farmers returning to their family farmsteads or for craftsmen if their workshops had not collapsed in their absence. It was longer and more difficult for salaried workers whose places had been filled, despite all the laws stipulating that they should be reemployed first. The health of many of them had been changed by long hardship, poor food and the lack of appropriate health care. Some of the more badly affected had to go into convalescence homes before returning to a normal life and their work. "We are around a million French men, who will have paid our fair share to the nation and when, one day, we come back, they will laugh in our faces", wrote one prisoner of war from Germany; another wrote: "I understand only too well that our country has suffered and that the "prisoner problem" has become lost amongst the new problems. Our wishes are simple too: to come back to our loved ones, our homes and our occupations. "(8) Bitterness and modesty: these two extracts collected through the censoring of mail in the final year of captivity reflect the spirit of the returning prisoners. The eminent role since played by some of them, right up to highest level of government and that, difficult to quantify but widespread, of the mass of prisoners in post-war French life, encourage tempering of this excess of modesty.
Notes (1) Service du travail obligatoire or compulsory work service (2) For Kriegsgefangenen. (3) Was Jean Moulin not known as "the unifier"? (4) The Geneva Convention signed in 1929 stipulated, however, that officers and sub-officers could only be asked to work on a voluntary basis. (5) From where the unifying poster of 1945 came. (6) They had expected a gradual release, however German resistance collapsed at a rapid rate and they had to cope with large-scale returns. (7) Around half of all prisoners of war were married and a quarter of them were fathers. (8) See: La captivité (Captivity), published by FNCPG, 1980 or: Prisonniers de guerre dans les stalags les Oflags et les kommandos (Prisoners of war in the stalags, Oflags and kommandos), Paris, Hachette, collection vies quotidiennes (daily life collection), latest edition 1996.