France Pays the Bill
by MONICA STIRLING
AMONG the anecdotes that compose this war’s mythology, there is one heard frequently in Paris today. It opens with a respectable middle-aged man finding a million francs hidden in the bedroom of his twelve-year-old son. Intensely shocked, he calls his wife and together they await the boy’s return from school. When the boy hears his father accuse him of being, among other things, an unnatural monster, he merely answers, in tones of sincere amazement, “Why do you call me a monster, Father? I only do a little Black Market, like everyone else — and if you and Mother aren’t doing the same, you’re very silly.”
This story illustrates with economy a mentality that exists in France and that shocks some foreigners. Some of the evil done by the Germans lives after them — lives after them not only in injured bodies, but in the minds of the bereaved survivors, and particularly those young enough to have had their nascent conception of good and evil affected by extremely subtle German propaganda.
Sixteen nations took part in the war of 1914-1918, but of the eight million deaths that resulted, over one million (1,385,300) were French. In addition to the slaughter of the living, the last war cost France three quarters of a million in decreased birth rate.
World War II, coming so close to World War I as to have engulfed innumerable only sons whose fathers were killed then, has cost France (with 38,000,000 population, as compared with America’s 132,000,000) well over half a million to date. I qualify these figures by the words “to date” because the exact number of dead French deportees is not yet known, and the fighting is not yet over.
To comprehend the effects of deaths upon a country, one needs to consider not only their numbers but their quality. Few deaths are more tragic than the one a soldier finds in battle; but I think most people will agree that among these few are the deaths from that combination of physical with mental torture recently perfected by the Germans for the benefit of non-military deportees — and it was deaths of this kind that, at the very least, 250,000 of the French met: the 100,000 who died in prisons or concentration camps, and the 150,000 who were shot — most of them after receiving treatment beside which being shot was an act of mercy. The bitterness left in the bereaved by these deaths will be easily understood by those whose men have died in Japanese prison camps. But for the benefit of others I want to give an account of a typical case. It is that of a young woman of my acquaintance who recently returned to Paris after a year as a deportee in Germany. Her name is Annie; her class the small bourgeoisie; her disposition quiet and conventional. The most remarkable feature of her life was the extreme love between her and her husband. They were deported at the same time but in separate groups — in May, 1944,
Once across the Rhine, Annie was consigned to an airplane factory. The hours of work were long and the prisoners did not leave the factory even for the few hours during which they were permitted to sleep. During the many Allied air attacks, they were guarded by three German women who marched up and down among them, slashing with a cane any of the halfstarved prisoners who showed alarm or despondency, and encouraging them by the reiterated observation that they would be there for twelve years, should they live that long. They had no medical attention: when Annie developed an abscess on her cheek, she might have died had it not been for the care of a fellow prisoner, a nineteen-year-old French girl who had been a medical student, who lanced the abscess with a penknife she had managed to conceal.
Throughout this time no German ever saw Annie cry. And the mainspring of the courage that made her remarkable, even among the by no means unremarkable other persons in that group, was her determination to live until she found her husband. (“ It was so easy to die there,” she kept softly repeating as she told me her story.)
When the Allies began their final advance, the prisoners were, for the first and last time, permitted to leave the factory. The Germans then drove them eastwards, on foot. I am employing the word “drove” precisely. During the first two days’ march those who faltered were killed; during the next few days the Germans, beginning to be frightened, contented themselves with striking their victims. For part of the time they trudged behind a convoy of trucks bearing prisoners from another camp. Many of these were dying, and as they died the Germans threw them from the trucks. Having reason to suppose that her husband had been in this camp, Annie forced herself to look at each corpse. None presented an agreeable spectacle.
At the end of ten days Annie could go no farther. But by this time the Germans were too frightened to penalize her for collapsing. They rushed on, leaving her by the roadside. Two hours later she was found by a band of American prisoners escorted by members of the Wehrmacht eager to surrender to us lest Russian or French vengeance overtake them. The Americans took Annie with them, and together they fell into the arms of the American forces, who gave them a heartbreaking welcome. Annie said, “They were just going to eat, and there was a big dish of corn syrup. We were like savages. We plunged our hands in up to the wrists and sucked them dry, and then were dreadfully sick.”
For the rest of the journey Annie was outwardly dumb, inwardly delirious, with joy. But when she reached home she found that the husband for whom she had made the phenomenal effort required to survive had been dead for a year: suffocated in a cattle truck on his way to Germany. And the woman whose bravery sustained her fellow prisoners and astonished the Krauts is now a small white collection of skin and bones who tries to talk normally but whose eyes periodically assume the vacant look one has only to go to a Deportee Receiving Center to see again and again.
She cries apologetically and whispers apologetically, “When I do sleep, I wake up in the night and remember he’s dead — and such a horrible death — and I keep imagining how it must have been.” And although Annie is still brave, she is no more what we think of as a normal human being than are those who have come back visibly disfigured, or punctured by tuberculosis — a disease which, thanks to Germany, has increased 40 per cent in France. And she is one of two million prisoners — about 6 per cent of the population.
Annie and the other prisoners can only be abnormally sensitive about the prestige of the country for which they have so abnormally suffered; and even to those much less scarred, the occasions when the French Army parades with banners and with music — with what seems to us like unnecessary preoccupation with the symbolism of glory— are a necessity, providing as they do assurance that the German occupation has not succeeded in severing France’s future from her past.
AND to what kind of country, physically, are the prisoners returning? There are few better ways for persons not able to visit France to discover the answer to this question than by studying the Michelin Guide for 1945 — the first Michelin book published in five years. Its compiling in wartime is a fine achievement; its format is the same as in pre-war years; its handsomeness evokes memories of holidays spent in motoring through peaceful villages, and meals in restaurants where chicken and fried potatoes and a bottle of wine cost less than half a dollar. But its contents are not as those of pre-war years.
Of restaurants noted for their good food, no details are given, since, as the Guide says with dignity, “Tout est à reprendre dans ce domaine” — which, translated literally, means: “Everything must be taken possession of all over again in this sphere.” In regard to hotels, “some are destroyed; others have not yet reopened; many have lost their claim to be comfortable.”
The town plans, too, are embellished by new signs — signs that indicate ruined or damaged buildings, ruined bridges or bridges under repair. The word “repair” darts in and out of the text like a moth in a cupboard of good clothes; and to banish it, France needs not only manpower but coal. Unless the Allies allot France her fair share of German coal this winter, the reconstruction of French towns and industries will have to be done with only 30,000,000 tons of coal — this in a country which before the war habitually needed some 70,000,000, and sometimes as much as 88,000,000 tons. It will be a tragedy for the Allies if lack of coal for French industry produces the unemployment and starvation that precede revolution.
There are many aspects of contemporary French life that are less fragrant than one could wish. But did we expect the French to be so thick-skinned, so thickminded, as to be unaffected by five years of cohabitation with evil?
Now is the time when Americans in Europe are sick for home, and when Americans at home are sick of the confused suffering shown them by newsreels. “To hell with Europe—I’m sick of hearing about prisoners. Why can’t they get along the way we do? We don’t want any part of Europe. Hell, it’s the last time we’ll come here to fight.”
This, understandably, is the contemporary American form of “How long, O Lord, how long? ” But only if we determine that this will not be the last time, should another be necessary, can there be hope that this really will be the last time. And if we esteem our civilization valuable, we have no right to deny that hope existence and, in so doing, betray the missing husbands whose absence, combined with the Germans’ presence, accounts for the little boys’ ignorance of the nature of monstrosity, for the partial eclipse of the civic virtues, in invaded countries.
The choice before us is less disagreeable than that of five years ago. It is no longer a question of whether or not we shall fight. It is a question of whether or not we shall understand the countries we have been fighting with. With, not for. If we fail — and to my mind France is the test case — we shall fight again.
Whether or not we like the choice before us, we cannot avoid making it. For, as a great American said, “we cannot escape history. . . . The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.”