Sunday, 23 November 2008

23 November: another day, another anniversary

Yesterday was 22 November so today is the 23rd. Yesterday was the anniversary of the French forces entering Strasbourg in 1918, today is the anniversary of their entering the city in 1944.

Kehl is a little market town in Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Head towards the station from where we live and turn left, and you’re on the road to the Bridge of Europe into the once more French city of Strasbourg.

In February 1941, the man who would one day be General Leclerc, commander of the most famous Second World War unit in the French Army, the ‘Deuxième DB’ or second armoured division, captured the Libyan oasis of Kufra from the Italians at the head of 400 soldiers he had marched across the desert from Chad. In military terms, it was a minor engagement. In moral terms, it was colossal. It marked the return to the war of the French. And however small, it was a French victory over Axis forces. From it came Leclerc’s ‘Kufra Oath’: ‘Swear not to lay down your arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, are floating once more over the cathedral in Strasbourg.’ Why Strasbourg? Because it’s as far as you can travel eastward in France without reaching Germany. With French forces in Strasbourg, the Germans would effectively be out of France.

Given that at the time of the oath, France was divided into an occupied north and a south governed by a puppet government of the Nazis, it took vision to pronounce that oath.

On 23 November 1944, Maurice Lebrun, a tank commander in Leclerc’s Division, climbed the long staircase to the bottom of the cathedral spire. From there, leaving his companions behind, he hauled himself up the spire itself to attach a French flag to the top. Perched 200 metres above the ground, with German snipers still at large, he later claimed that he took comfort from the fact that at that range and with the wind that was blowing that day there was little chance of anyone getting an accurate shot at him. At any rate, the flag was up and the Koufra oath honoured.

Head back east from Strasbourg and you reach the French end of the Bridge of Europe. Kehl is little over a couple of hundred metres away. But that little extra distance is occupied by the Rhine, a pretty effective barrier. Allied forces didn’t reach Kehl for nearly five more months, until 15 April 1945, little over three weeks before Germany’s final capitulation.

On 23 November 1944, the very day of the liberation of Strasbourg, the Gestapo marched nine men down to the Rhine. They were members of the resistance network in Alsace. They were shot on the river bank, presumably in full sight of their allies celebrating their victory on the other side. It’s hard to imagine what purpose was served by those deaths, unless it was to send a message of ultimately empty defiance.

Kehl too suffered over the coming months, at the hands of both sides. The Allies turned their artillery on the town, and once the civilian population had been evacuated, German soldiers looted it.

Today the Kehl authorities maintain a plaque on the side of the Bridge of Europe, framed by climbing roses. It lists the names of the nine men shot and points out that they died for us all, for a Europe free of barbarism. I often walk there with our dog Janka and always feel drawn to the plaque.

As it happens, the best monument of all is the bridge itself, with the traffic constantly rumbling across it, including swarms of cyclists and pedestrians. That open border is crossed in both directions by people on errands of critical importance or none at all, at any time of day and on any day of the week. It’s a constant traffic of life.

On an anniversary like today, it may be no bad thing to think that 64 years ago all that was coming across that stretch of river was death.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

I'm sure it's great living in a place of such historical importance. That must be why Kehl is the hip, happening, exciting place that it is