The Malgre Nous, Forced To Fight Against Their Country Of Birth During WWII

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.”

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War Memorials On Armistice Day, Also Known As Veteran’s Day

We’ve done our fair share of traveling in France lately.  We’ve noticed virtually every town there has monuments to local citizens who died in service of their country.  The lists of names, often including those deported and killed locally, are a touching remembrance.

Veterans Day annually falls on November 11, but to make it a bank holiday/federal holiday it is observed on Monday, November 12 in the United States .   Why November 11?   On November 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed.   On that day, hostilities between the Allied countries and Germany officially ended.  Germany

Technical innovations like the machine gun, poison gas, tanks, and aircraft appeared in battle for the first time in World War I.  Scientific advances and industrialization joined to create enormous death tolls.  Germany lost 1,800,000; the Soviet Union lost 1,700,000; France lost 1,385,000; Austria lost 1,200,000;  Great Britain lost 947,000.  While that may seem small in comparison to some of the other countries listed, about 1/3 of Great Britain’s male population died in The Great War!   Extrapolating, it’s difficult to imagine the devastating effects on  experienced by some of the other countries listed, especially those who had the war fought on their soil.

Although we haven’t seen quite as many such monuments in Germany, we did see a few there too.  We came across the one below in Bad Munster, near Bad Kreuznach in Germany.

After WWII, the holiday was expanded to remember those who served in that war.  In the US, we’ve had a significant number of wars over the last century  Veterans Day honors and thanks veterans for their service to their country.

War requires sacrifices and troops bear more of them than most.  It is important to remember those sacrifices and the people who made them.  War isn’t a triviality.  It’s important to remember that it carries with it a human cost.  Whether you call it Armistice Day or Veterans Day, it is a time to remember the price paid, the sacrifices of those that have served and honor those that did.

No World Wars In Western European Since 1945 = Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1993, I was living in Belgium and the Maastricht Treaty  (aka the Treaty on European Union) was taking effect.  It was all over the news…and I didn’t understand any of it.  I asked and a lovely Belgian friend explained it to me.   Before I tell you when they told me, lets detour to quick history lesson.   This is a list of just some of the battles that have the battles that have taken place on Belgian soil:

 

  • World War I The Battles of Flandres – There were five, yes five.  The First Battle of Ypres, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the  Battle of the Lys,  and the creatively named Fifth Battle of Ypres.  Germany and the Western Allies faced off once again in Belgium.  Industrialization increased the scale of wars and they took on a far more devastating nature.  Battles with over 50,000 fatalities became common.  Mustard gas doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to go either.  Belgian farmers still turn up canisters of gas when they plow their fields in the spring!
  • When the Germans wanted to invade France’s Mangiot Line fortifications built after WWI, they just went to Paris via Belgium.  Like many of the occupied countries during WWII, most of them weren’t too happy about their visitors.
  • Battle of the Ardennes (also known as the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne) – After the Allies landed in Normandy, they made their way to Germany.  If you’ve read the last few bullets, you know the easiest way from France to Germany (and vice versa).  Southern Belgium has the Ardennes mountains, which happen to be a good place to entrench (and freezing in the winter).  The Germans mounted an offensive and surrounded almost 20,000 American troops.  It’s famous for General Anthony McAuliffe‘s line, ‘Nuts,’ in response to the German’s request to surrender.  Although I have heard that  ‘Nuts’ was the only printable equivalent of the word that was actually used, it goes without saying that a battle ensued.

You get the idea.  If you got tired reading that list, you can imagine how tired the Belgians were of the wars themselves.

My Belgian friend explained to be that linking their economies and cultures so thoroughly that untangling them was more difficult and costly than waging war was the only way to prevent it from happening again.  At that time, many people were alive who’d lived through the occupation and the war.  I met people whose family members were shot dead in front of their house by the Nazis.  When you think about it, Belgium is a country that only experienced intermittent periods of peace before foreign powers again waged war on their soil.  As a citizen of the tiny country that was continually caught in the cross-fire, they were hopeful that the European Union would help put an end to the seemingly never-ending series of wars waged by European powers like England, Spain, France, and Germany on their soil.

You can’t read the news today without reading about the European Union’s problems.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have good reasons for not joining (which they haven’t in order retain their neutrality and independence).  Nevertheless, as someone who likes a lot of Europeans and likes to travel, there hasn’t been a war on Belgian soil since WWII and I will happily celebrate that.

Natzweiler-Struthof, The French Concentration Camp

He was surprised to see signs for a concentration camp when we were in Alsace.  Hidden away in the Vosges Mountains, the Natzweiler-Struthof is the only concentration camp established by the Nazis in what is now France.   I went to see it.  Like the Holocaust Exhibit at the British War Museum, other concentration camps or pretty much any other sign of such horror, I found myself disassociating myself from what I was seeing so that I could continue to view the disturbing exhibits.

A camp for political prisoners, including those involved in the resistance movement.  Nevertheless, the death rate was 40% due to the strenuous work (Prisoners worked in nearby granite quarries and in construction projects) medical experimentation, poor nutrition and mistreatment by the SS guards.

As the industrial production requirements of the was increased, Natzweiler developed a system of  up to 50 adjacent sub camps (shown on the map above).  The death rate at these camps was 80%.  I was surprised to learn that one such camp was Neckarelz.  There, they converted an existing gypsum mine into an intricate tunnel system that housed a relocated Daimler-Benz Aircraft engine plant!

Many “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel, a German effort to subdue a growing anti-German resistance) prisoners were detained there.  Suspected resistance fighters just disappeared in night, the Germans held many of them at Natzweiler-Struthof.

The camp holds also a crematorium and a jury rigged gas chamber outside the main camp.   Natzweiler-Struthof gassed more than 80 Jewish prisoners and sent their bodies to the Strasbourg University Institute of Anatomy where anatomist Dr. August Hirt amassed a large collection of Jewish skeletons used in his quest for anthropological evidence Jewish “racial inferiority.”  He was attempting to create a museum in which (in his words) “sub-humans, in which proofs of the degeneracy and the animality of the Jews would be collected.”

Strasbourg University faculty member, Professor Otto Bickenbach, used the gas chamber in pseudoscientific medical experiments involving mustard gas and other vesicants .  Many victims of these experiments were Roma (Gypsies) who were transferred from Auschwitz for use as guinea pigs.  Doctor Eugen Haagen,  the chair for hygiene and bacteriology at Strasbourg University was in charge of medical experiments on the camp.  He conducted experiments on prisoners involving typhus and yellow fever.  The operating room below was the site of many of these “experiments.”

With the Allies closing in, Nazis evacuated the camp sending prisoners on a “death march” in September 1944.  On November 23, 1944, it became the first concentration camp in Western Europe liberated by the Allies.

One of the most unusual and surprising things I saw was art.  Several talented artists (Henri Gayot, Jacques Barrau, Ernest Gillen, Rudolf Naess) were held and the camp and some of their art survived.

Shockingly, neo-Nazis burned the camp museum in 1976.  It was subsequently rebuilt, but important artifacts and buildings were destroyed in the fire.

As disturbing as it was, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to step behind the formerly electrified fences and learn about what happened there.

It’s Election Time In Geneva, Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest democracies and a direct democracy.  In a direct democracy, people vote on policy initiatives directly, instead of for a representatives who then vote on policy initiatives (a representative democracy).

Switzerland’s Parliament Building

The practical effect of this is that they vote regularly and on almost everything you can imagine.  It also means that these pop up billboards appear every few months.  He doesn’t like them because late at night, people use them to hide when there is not a readily available bathroom.  He thinks it makes the area smell like a urinal.

Elections will take place on March 11, 2012.  Here are some of the referendums they are putting to a vote:

Wednesday morning primary school for students ages 8 to 12 would be required.  For 4-8 year olds, a so-called “open school” would ensure a home school on a voluntary basis. There would be sporting, cultural or support for struggling students, but not the curriculum so as not creating a gap between students.

Last spring, parents and teachers revolted against the introduction of mandatory Wednesday morning school.  This is a compromise.  Should children have to go to school on Wednesday mornings? Oui or non?

There is an initiative on whether people should be allowed to build second homes.  Arguments for the initiative include: urban sprawl, a rise in housing prices and scarcity for indigenous families, and construction of second homes will still be permitted in areas below the listed ceilings.  Aruguments against the initiative include:  federalism, the threat of the loss of jobs, and that it is excessive.

Another issue that will be up for a vote is tax benefits for home buyers/owners.  Arguments for include: the promotion of home ownership in a country that lags behind others in this category, support to allow renters avoid liquidating their retirement savings to purchase a property, and a component that will encourage greener buildings.   Arguments against the benefits include: the government’s need for the taxes, it is ineffective in promoting home ownership, home ownership is not a measure of economic success, and it will cut other social benefits.

Should workers receive six weeks of vacation a year?   Currently, every worker in Switzerland receives a minimum of four weeks.

There are a lot of posters about a law regulating protests.  The posters for it argue that it will help ensure that protests are peaceful.  The posters against argue that it is an unreasonable limitation on speech/expression.

Finally, there is an initiate for a fixed price agreement for books.

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