France: Hunt for slain Nazi troops upends WWII narratives
The confession of a resistance fighter who witnessed a mass execution of German soldiers during World War II has reawakened dark memories in rural France
In late 2019, a local chapter of ANACR (a French association preserving the memory of those who fought back against the Nazi occupation in World War II) was winding down its general assembly, a gathering of mainly history buffs and relatives of deceased ex-resistance combatants.
The routine meeting in the rural Correze region of central France, famed for opposition to German invaders, was just wrapping up, when according to eye witnesses honorary president Edmond Reveil — the municipality's last surviving former resistant — suddenly announced he had something to share.
The words that came out of the now 98-year-old's mouth were a bombshell that broke a silence of some 75 years and threatened — according at least to some — to undermine a proud local, if not national legacy of heroism.
Reveil, a popular community member of the village of Meymac, confessed to witnessing the summary execution of dozens of German prisoners of war by his fellow resistance fighters. He has since spoken openly about his remorse despite heavy circumstantial constraints. "We shouldn't have killed them," Reveil told La Montagne, a local newspaper, in June.
According to the Frenchman, in the bloody turmoil following the allied D-Day landings in northern France in early June 1944, around 30 fighters from the Francs-Tireurs Partisans (FTP), a communist-led resistance group, executed 46 imprisoned German soldiers and a French woman and buried them in the woods near Meymac.
No human remains recovered so far
His admission, recorded in a 2020 oral deposition shared with DW, would ultimately trigger a high-profile Franco-German dig with a 20-strong team accompanied by a wave of media interest in France and beyond. The hunt for the mass grave, significantly delayed by the pandemic, ended last Thursday with no human remains found.
For the time being, no further digs are scheduled, but Meymac Mayor Philippe Brugere told DW they would keep looking. Eleven bodies were already found at the site in a dig carried out in the late 1960s under mysterious circumstances, he explained, details of which were strangely absent from public records.
Brugere witnessed Reveil's 2019 admission firsthand. "I myself didn't know how to react at first," Brugere admitted. Killing prisoners of war is generally considered a war crime, but the fact that the FTP were guerrilla fighters rather than a conventional army makes things more complicated, the mayor stressed.
'It was very hot… you could smell the blood'
In this case, context is everything. As Reveil explained in his 2020 deposition, the FTP had taken the prisoners during a foiled anti-German uprising in the nearby town of Tulle, but had no plan for what came next. "We didn't want to kill them, but we couldn't keep them," Reveil said.
The guerilla fighters couldn't feed or house them, and faced execution if they were caught. The risk of harrowing German reprisals on Meymac was also very real. Days before, German forces in Tulle had hung 99 local men as a punishment for the FTP offensive. They had also massacred 643 civilians, including 247 children, in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, burning many of them alive in a church.
"A solution had to be found," Reveil testified. After keeping them captive for several days, the order came from above to execute them, he said, though he himself (still a teenager at the time) refused. The local commander "cried like a kid." The prisoners were forced to dig their own grave, shot and buried in the woods near Meymac, Reveil continued. "It was very hot… You could smell the blood." Afterwards, those involved were sworn to secrecy. "Everybody knew about it but nobody talked about it," he stressed.
For Brugere, Reveil's confession is a brave act, as well as a chance for an elderly man to unburden himself as his life nears its ends. "I think it was important for him that this didn't fall into oblivion."
But, Brugere concedes, not everyone in the community sees it so positively given the horrors suffered under German occupation. "There are still some people — it's a small minority — in Meymac, for example, and elsewhere, who find it hard to understand that we're investigating this," he told DW.
Legends in a 'land of resistance'
After the German invasion in 1940, the French people were divided into those who supported the resistance, spearhead by General Charles de Gaulle and the FTP, and those who backed the collaborationist regime of Philippe Petain.
That history is still contentious here. The broader Limousin region where Correze lies is "a land of resistance, it's known for that," Brugere said. "The Germans called it 'Little Russia.'"
This heritage is a source of pride here. When Reveil's testimony started to garner coverage in the local and national press this spring, ANACR Correze slammed several articles as incendiary and inaccurate.
"We today have no right to play judge," the association wrote in a May press release. "Let us ask ourselves what we would have done, which side we would have been? In the camp of the resistance or in the dishonor of collaboration with the Nazis?"
Two Meymac residents, who declined to give their last names, had similar concerns. Like Jeanne, 69. "People who don't know the history of everything that happened here in our region could very quickly say 'Oh the resistants were bastards,'" she said.
"I'm a bit pissed off with all of it," a 70-year-old who gave his name as Marc said. "Everybody has known about all of this for a very long time. And if people didn't talk about it it's because they were sworn to secrecy."
A tragedy, a source of hope
Reveil himself is unfazed that some might prefer to let the past lie, according to his close friend and neighbor Joel Bezanger. The 58-year-old dentist, born in Tulle, told DW that while his own generation didn't harbor animosity to the German people, "we definitely grew up with the legend of the good resistance fighters and the bad Germans."
That's why Reveil's testimony is so important. "You don't have to believe that there were the good guys on one side, the bad guys on the other," Bezanger said. "War isn't like that. There are a lot of bad guys, or at least it exacerbates violence. Acknowledging such a nuance doesn’t have to take away from the legacy of the resistance," he said.
For those who were allegedly gunned down in June 1944, the fact that a team of German and French experts would one day work hand-in-hand to recover their remains might possibly seem mind-boggling.
But for Mayor Philippe Brugere, it shows also the possibility for reconciliation. "It's a paradox. It's a tragic event that still somehow allows us a lot of hope."