When heroes commit crimes: a French resister reveals the execution of 47 German soldiers in 1944 | International

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Edmond Réveil, this Friday at his home in Meymac.samuel aranda

The secret was kept for almost 80 years. Nobody counted anything. It was not to be proud, better to forget it. Those who participated or attended the execution of 47 unarmed German soldiers, at the end of World War II in the French Massif Central, remained silent throughout their lives, some did not even tell their wives or children. It was cause for shame.

Shame? “A little, but that's life,” says Edmond Réveil in the first-floor living room of his cottage with a garden in Meymac, a town of 2,500 in rural, mountainous interior France. At 98 years old, Réveil receives visitors on his feet, goes up and down stairs, maintains an enviable physique. And he preserves the memory of those days.

Réveil was there, on June 12, 1944, when the communist Resistance group to which he belonged shot the 47 German soldiers they had captured five days earlier in Tulle, the capital of the Corrèze department, and a French woman accused of collaborationism. . He was around 19 years old. He was a liaison agent in the Resistance and has explained that he did not participate in the execution.

Now he has decided to speak. And she has illuminated one aspect of that war, of all wars: heroes can sometimes commit atrocities too.

"It was necessary for it to be known," Réveil told EL PAÍS a few days after, in an interview with the local newspaper La Vie Correzienne, to make this unknown episode of the war in Corrèze known to the world. “We were ashamed,” he told the local newspaper. "We knew that we should not kill prisoners, even though we were not subject to the Geneva Convention, because the Germans did not consider us soldiers."

Meymac is the closest thing to the image that a foreigner can get of the most picturesque France. The church and the medieval tower, the Town Hall with the liberté, égalité, fraternité on the frontispiece, and a restaurant, Chez Françoise, which was a favorite of Jacques Chirac, a president who had his electoral stronghold in Corrèze.

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Leaving the town, the road winds through woods and passes under the viaduct where, in early 1944, the guerrillas derailed a train carrying German weapons. The story, its deeds and its dramas, is hidden behind each curve. Another road leads through a landscape of green hills and farms: somewhere, near the village of Le Vert, lie the remains of German soldiers.

The derailed train near Meymac, in 1944.
The derailed train near Meymac, in 1944.

Where is the pit? Can visit? “Well no”, smiles the mayor of Meymac, Philippe Brugère. “We know where it is with a margin of error of a few hundred meters, but we can't say more, because we already know that there are tomb raiders waiting to find out before they come. People have been seen with metal detectors...".

In 2019, Réveil explained it for the first time at a meeting of the National Assembly of Former Combatants and, a few months later, in September 2020, Mayor Brugère and a group of fellow citizens recorded his testimony. But he has not revealed it in public until now.

"Some people knew, but it was like family secrets, which are not told," says the mayor at a table in the Meymac bookstore-café, in the Church square. Why did Edmond Réveil speak? "Because he gets old, because he knows that he is not eternal and because before leaving he wanted to ease his conscience and, above all, ensure that these soldiers have a place of memory, that the families know that their relatives were buried here."

Robert Gildea, professor at Oxford and author of Shadow fighters. A New History of the French Resistance (Taurus, 2015), clarifies the context of that episode over the phone: "The period between the landing in Normandy, on June 6, 1944, and the liberation of Paris, at the end of August, was very volatile in France."

fierce repression

Gildea explains that, in those weeks, many groups of the Resistance that, until then, had hidden in forests and mountains in France came out of hiding to attack the German occupiers. The repression, adds the historian, was fierce. For each dead German, if the occupiers did not find the suspect, they unleashed repression against the population.

The context is fundamental to understanding the executions in Meymac. Two days earlier, the Waffen-SS Das Reich Division had carried out one of the worst massacres of the war, 643 civilians, in Oradour-sur-Glane, just over an hour's drive from Meymac. The Nazis had just hanged 99 men in the streets of Tulle.

A few days earlier, a group of the Resistance had stormed the Normal School for Girls in Tulle, which served as a headquarters for the Wehrmacht, the German army, and had taken dozens of prisoners. They took them to the mountain, in the direction of Meymac. But there was a problem. What to do with them? How to feed them? How to prevent them from escaping and revealing the location of the guerrilla?

"Every time they went to pee, we had to accompany them," says Edmond Réveil in the 2020 recording. "We didn't want to kill them, but we couldn't stay with them either: we had to find a solution."

The approximate place where the 47 German soldiers were executed, a few kilometers from Meymac.
The approximate place where the 47 German soldiers were executed, a few kilometers from Meymac.samuel aranda

Someone gave the order to kill them and the head of the group, who responded by the nickname of Hannibal and, being an Alsatian, he was fluent in German, “he talked to everyone,” recalls Réveil. He continues: “He cried like a child. It's not fun shooting someone." He later says: “Nobody wanted to kill the French woman. They cast lots for it." And he adds: "They dug the holes themselves."

"It is obvious that killing unarmed civilians was against the laws of war," says historian Gildea. "But it is also true that what the Germans were doing with the collective reprisals was also against the laws of war."

Gildea recalls that, although the execution of the prisoners in Meymac may be shocking, in France thousands of collaborators were shot at the end of the war and women suspected of having had relations with the occupier suffered humiliating reprisals with shaved heads on the road. public.

Referring to the revelations of Edmond Réveil, the author of shadow fighters He states: “If you have a way of looking at the world where all the resisters were heroes and all the Germans, Nazis and barbarians, this is the kind of story that doesn't fit and is shocking, and people don't know what to make of it. she".

In a few weeks, at the end of June, the tasks to locate the mass grave with radar will begin. If found, the remains can be recovered and identified. If the families claim them, they will be repatriated to Germany to be buried with dignity.

"I hope we can find them, but we are not sure," says Xavier Kompa, director in Corrèze of the National Office for Former Combatants and War Victims, which is preparing the location and exhumation work with the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German association in charge from the graves of the fallen on battlefields abroad. "Not knowing is terrible for a family," adds Kompa, whose uncle, a resister in Lorraine, disappeared at the hands of the SS. "I put myself in the place of German families, who would like to know about their ancestors."

In the living room of his house in Meymac, Edmond Réveil recounts how, after the Resistance, he joined the First Army of General De Lattre de Tassigny, who participated in the liberation of France, and reached the German city of Stuttgart. He was a railwayman by profession, and he proudly explains that in the 1970s he held the position of assistant manager of the Austerlitz station in Paris, where trains from Spain arrived.

But there is a memory of the maquis that he has not forgotten: that of the Spanish Republicans who went into exile in France in 1939, guerrillas who arrived with experience on the battlefield and who joined the Resistance. "Against the Germans," he says, "they were formidable."

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