#D-DAY … 70 YEARS ON … WERE THERE ANY GOOD #GERMAN SOLDIERS …?

There is no escaping the fact that in three days – on June 6 – here in France the world (I suppose I can say ‘world’?) will be commemorating D-Day of 1944 when the Allied nations landed on France’s Normandy coast and chased the Germans from French soil which signalled the beginning of the end […]

German damage to Paris's  Boulevard Saint-Michel during the battle for the liberation of Paris in August 1944 (copyright marilynztomlins)

German damage to Paris’s Boulevard Saint-Michel during the battle for the liberation of Paris in August 1944 (copyright marilynztomlins)

There is no escaping the fact that in three days – on June 6 – here in France the world (I suppose I can say ‘world’?) will be commemorating D-Day of 1944 when the Allied nations landed on France’s Normandy coast and chased the Germans from French soil which signalled the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

Called in France ‘Jour J’ and normally spoken of as the ‘debarquement de quarante-quatre’, one cannot switch on a television set here in France, or pick up a newspaper without having to listen or read to the story of a participant in the event or survivor of the event. I say the following with all respect due to the brave men and women of June 6, and indeed of WW2, but the coverage is getting a bit much, and what is more on the day itself one of France’s State networks – France 2 – will be covering the event starting at 6.30 in the morning.

Hitler with Petain, head of the pro-German collaborationist government of France.

Hitler with Petain, head of the pro-German collaborationist government of France.

What I’ve been wondering is how do the German people feel right now having their noses rubbed into what they had done in the last war. (France’s President François Hollande has invited Chancellor Angela Merkel to the commemoration ceremonies and she has accepted.)

What I’ve been wondering also is whether there were any good German soldiers during WW2?

I suppose one can classify ‘good’, but yes, there were German soldiers who were ‘good’. That is from our point of view – the point of view of their enemy.

First: about D-Day.

As the French admit, D-Day’s goal was to liberate France from German Occupation.

The Occupation had begun on June, 20, 1940.

On France’s capitulation, Hitler had annexed that area of France bordering Germany, and he had handed the area bordering Italy over to the administration of his Roman ally, Mussolini, while he had put the southern part of France under the administration of the French Marshal Pétain, but the northern part, which included Paris, he had put under German administration. In other words he had set up a puppet government in the southern part of France and he occupied northern France. He had dissolved the French armed forces and he had the French police, in fact, the entire legal machine, put under the authority of the Gestapo.

It is to be said that not so long after that June 20 1940, France had her own ‘Gestapo’.

And it must also be said that French police assisted in the rounding up of Jews and their deportation to concentration and death camps.

Here, I have to add though, that at the end of the war, Germany defeated, France arrested those French who had collaborated with the occupier and most were sentenced to death and shot. Marshal Pétain, because of his advanced age (he was 89) and the courage with which he had fought the Germans in the First World War, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was imprisoned in a fortress on the Īle d’Yeu, an island off France’s Atlantic coast and there, senile, he died in 1951 aged 95.

D-Day had begun at midnight on June 6, 1944 when planes began dropping parachutists onto Normandy to begin blowing up bridges and blocking roads to prevent the Germans from approaching the coast. At 5 that morning, 7000 boats having sailed from England, landed on Normandy’s beaches.

Those boats transported 132,892 soldiers to France. Of these most were Americans: 57,500 of them. There were 53,815 English and 21,400 Canadians. That leaves 177 men? Those were from the Free French Forces, men who had escaped from France to join the then French government minister, Charles de Gaulle in London, where he had set up a government in exile.

De Gaulle, for his stubbornness (and arrogance as is said) was not popular with the American President Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and neither was he popular with English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, so the three had not informed him of the Allied invasion. You can read about the Free French Forces here.

It has been reported that Churchill said of De Gaulle: “Many a cross I had to bear, but none was as heavy as the Cross of Lorraine.” De Gaulle had chosen the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol of the Free French Forces.

You can also read the excellent 1965 book ‘Is Paris Burning?’ by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins.

By two o’clock that afternoon of D-Day, five beaches were in Allied hands, but that night the Allied casualties (killed, wounded or missing) number stood at 10,000. Of this number 2,500 were the dead. There is still no definitive casualty statistics, but the US’s National D-Day Memorial Foundation estimates that the total number of dead were many more: 4,414, of which 2,499 were Americans.

An estimated total of Allied and German deaths for D-Day and the Battle of Normandy which followed comes to 425,000. Of this number 209,000 were ‘our’ soldiers. The number of German casualties have not been given (or established), but it is estimated that between 4,000 and 9,000 German soldiers died on D-Day alone.
There were civilian deaths too: between 15,000 and 20,000 French were killed, most of them in Allied bombing.

Today, there are 27 war cemeteries in Normandy where the remains of over 110,000 dead, Allied and German soldiers, rest. This number is made up as follows: 77,866 Germans; 8386 Americans, 17,769 British, 5002 Canadians and 650 Poles. (The latter were Poles who had fled from the German occupation of their country and were fighting under their own commanders as part of the Allied forces.)

So, to return to my question: were there any good German soldiers in WW2?

The answer: yes.

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Today, if you walk along the streets of Paris’s 6th arrondissement (district) you will have no idea what had once gone on a certain street of this district, and what had gone on there during the Second World War.

If you know Paris you will associate this arrondissement with the tranquillity of its Jardin du Luxembourg, and the chic of the designer boutiques on its Boulevard Saint-Germain-des Prés, and the perfection of its restaurants like Le Dome, Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore.

I will however take you to the arrondissement’s Boulevard Raspail, wide and long, cars bumper to bumper for all of each day including Sundays.

We will walk south towards the River Seine, to the boulevard’s Number 52, a large glass-fronted building.

The building is on the angle of the boulevard and Rue du Cherche-Midi, narrow and winding, but its traffic no less hectic. And a street with such a charming origin of its name. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a cherche-midi was someone who turned up uninvited and unexpected for a visit at midday (midi) in search of a meal, as the main meal of the day was then at midday. (To search: chercher.)

Above Number 52/54’s double automatic front door are the words Maison des Scienes de l’Homme. The building dates from 1968.

Here, once, stood Cherche-Midi prison.

Here, once, stood Cherche-Midi prison.

Before this modern structure had graced the boulevard, the building which used to stand there was a prison: the #Cherche-Midi Prison.

prison

The very first building to have stood on the spot was a convent for the nuns of the ‘Daughters of the Good Shepherd’ community.

The convent had been constructed by Louis XIV in 1688 as a gift for the nuns, but during the French Revolution, the convent having been closed down, the new Ministry of War had used the building as an arms warehouse and a stable for its horses.

Then in 1847, the convent was demolished and a prison – the Cherche-Midi Prison replaced it.

France’s new masters, the monarchy having been decapitated, had modelled the prison on that of the Auburn Prison, in Auburn, New York.

There were 200 cells where men were to be held in solitary confinement and the inmates would be draft dodgers and deserters and political prisoners.

As such Cherche-Midi Prison would remain, the cells filling at the outbreak of the Second World War, but evacuated on June 12, 1940, when it was expected that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was going to reach Paris and occupy it.

Conveniently for Hitler’s man in Paris – General Otto von Stülpnagel – he had a large empty prison into which he could lock those French who opposed the Occupation.

The prison’s guards had become Germans.

Alas, soon those prisoners were joined by German prisoners: Wehrmacht soldiers who had deserted.

Because yes, there were good German soldiers too, soldiers who did not want to be part of Hitler’s war. Many of them young, educated men, and anti-Nazi. One such young solder had hijacked a train ordering the driver to head for Rotterdam in the Netherlands: he wanted to stowaway on a freighter for England or the U.S.A. Others had had the audacity to smash a fist into an officer’s face, or had contracted venereal disease in Paris’s brothels, or had simply shot himself in the foot with the hope that he would be evacuated back home to Germany.

In Cherche-Midi the guards called such a German prisoner a schweinehund. There are many translations to English of this German word: swine, swinehound, skunk, bastard, rotter. Pick which one you prefer. The word is often used by one German of another in English or American movies.

The Germans tortured most horribly both the German and French prisoners.

In August 1944, from around the middle of the month, the Allied forces closing in on Paris as a result of D-Day, the Germans began to evacuate the prison. On August 25, the Battle for the Liberation of Paris having been won by the Allies, and the Germans fleeing, desperate to get back to Germany, Cherche-Midi Prison was yet again empty. The day before, so desperate were the Germans to get out and away, and to get their equipment out too, that they had chopped down the trees on Boulevard Raspail to make place for their ‘panzer grey’ army trucks, the Balkan Cross, the black within white border balkenkreuz, emblem of the Wehrmacht, painted on the sides.

The Germans had even removed all administrative files from the prison.

The prison empty and therefore available, the French began to lock German war prisoners into the cells.

One such German prisoner was General Otto von Stüplenagel. Having been recalled to Germany in 1942 he had been living quietly in Berlin with his wife and children, and there in 1945, the war over, the Allies had arrested him and sent him back to Paris and to prison. In Cherche-Midi, awaiting his trail, he killed himself.

Cherche-Midi Prison would remain a military prison until 1947 when the building was briefly used as a military courthouse, but in 1950, its owners, the Ministry of Justice, abandoned the building.

Abandoned, it had become dilapidated and an eyesore in the elegant and tranquil 6th arrondissement but then in 1968 the large glass Maison des Sciences de l’Homme was constructed.

And today, who of those who admire the building and wonder what is going on behind its glass façade, will recall Cherche-Midi Prison? Will recall the suffering which had gone on behind its walls?

As each commemorative ceremony passes there are indeed fewer veterans.

Fewer who remember.

Fewer who care to know about the past.

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One of Cherche-Midi’s prisoners was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer who was convicted on faked charges of treason.  He was kept in Cherche-Midi awaiting deportation to Devil’s Island.

He was a prisoner in Cherche-Midi in 1894. A prisoner of his own people.

Captain Dreyfus was accused of treason for one reason only: he was a Jew.

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

One Response to “#D-DAY … 70 YEARS ON … WERE THERE ANY GOOD #GERMAN SOLDIERS …?”

  1. 1
    Hélène Crozier Says:

    Excellent research, excellent chronicle. Thanks Marilyn. I learned about la prison du Cherche-Midi. I did not know were it was situated. You reminded me of the numerous talks I shared with my father who spent those 4 years on the battle field. Personally, I often thought of those young German soldiers who were forced to commit such horrible acts of violence. At the end of the war, so many of them were very very young, to replace the eldest, killed or sent elsewhere. I sometimes wonder whether the world would change if the leaders were women …

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