PARIS – Free at least, the Champs-Elysees was awash with wild joy on Aug. 25, 1944. But deep in the heart of France the war raged on, with Frenchmen killing Frenchmen to aid a desperate Germany.
And now, 60 years later, the people who suffered most are among the staunchest supporters of a new Europe in which France and Germany are, essentially, just two members of a 25-nation super-state.
“This is the great triumph of the 21st century,” said Jean-Marie Delabre, 81. “Peace is accepting the idea that you must live with others and forge natural differences into something stronger.”
He added: “I don’t think I’d have said that a few years after the war.”
While Paris celebrated, Delabre’s Resistance unit fought on near Dijon. Captured, he was in German prison camps until armistice in May 1945.
With time, Delabre decided that since wars are much easier to start than to finish, the only answer is to avoid them.
“A united Europe is a lesson for the rest of the world,” he concluded.
War had not only pitted France against its ancient neighbor and foe, it also forced deep divisions among the French themselves. Some resisted, but many collaborated.
Jacques Delarue, now 85, heard only faint echoes of the joy in Paris from his Vichy France prison cell in Limoges.
“We all thought the war would be over after Paris, but we were wrong,” he said. “That just increased the bitterness and deepened divisions between collaborators and real Frenchmen.”
As the Allies pushed toward Paris, he said, he watched the French milice, militiamen loyal to Germany, sweep into the prison yard to deal with three captured French Resistance fighters.
“I could hear it all from my cell,” he said. “The three were tried, sentenced, lined up against a wall and shot. … Such things went on all the time.”
But today, like nearly every one of dozens of veterans interviewed by The Associated Press, he lauded efforts to meld ancient foes into a modern union.
“We have to stop old stupid rivalries,” he said.
People who remember Aug. 25, 1944, are celebrating it with a bittersweet mix of emotions. For many, the horror and humiliation of occupation did not sink in until years, if not decades, later.
“When it ended, we all had more important things to worry about, like finding our family members and repairing our lives,” Delarue said. “Only later did we have the luxury of analyzing things.”0