Malgré-Nous is a French phrase (at the bottom of the above monument) that means “despite us” or “in spite of us.” It refers to inhabitants of the Alsace and Moselle (part of Lorraine) areas of France who were conscripted into the German armed forces during the WWII. We first noticed it on monuments and memorials when we visited Alsace (Belgians and Luxembourouise were also conscripted).
France and Germany repeatedly fought over the territory. In 1639, the French conquered Alsace to keep it from the Habsburgs. In 1871, Alsace (and Lorraine) fell under German control when France lost the Franco-Prussian War. With Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the area became French once again and Germans who had settled in Alsace were expelled. When Germany invaded and annexed the area on October 18, 1940, the departments fell under German control. By 1942, service had become compulsory and French inhabitants became part of the Wehrmacht (the German army), the Luftwaffe (the air force), the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) or the SS. Others were sent to the Eastern Front to fight Stalin, many ended up in interned in Axis Soviet prison camps (like the one in Tambow, Russia). Others fought in more local battles in Normandy such as Das Reich in the Falaise pocket.
Others deserted. They were shocked when the U.S. military treated them as deserters, not as the liberators of France wanting to fight for their homeland they believed themselves to be. Many were sent to camps in the west of France, alongside German prisoners who didn’t look too kindly on people they viewed as traitors. Those who defected to the Soviets were also seen as deserters or spies and shot. Still others deserted to join the Resistance or fled to Switzerland, but their families were deported to labor or concentration camps. This policy effectively forced conscripts to remain in the German Army.
Malgré-Nous who survived the war were considered by some as traitors or Nazi sympathizers after its end. An amnesty law enacted on February 20, 1953, forgave crimes committed by Malgré-Nous. Of the 130,000 men who were conscripted Third Reich in the Second World War, 32,000 were killed, 30,000 wounded and 10,500 missing and presumed dead.
The last phrase of the plaque above says “Alsace is the region of France who paid the heaviest price for the madness of Nazisme.”