Wednesday, 4 March 2009

René: the sequel

When we last met René*, he’d just finished his long journey from Königsberg in East Prussia, where he’d been serving in the German military, to his home in Hegenheim, Alsace, now once more part of France.

Once he’d recovered from the privations of the War, he joined his two brothers in launching a company building and installing roller shutters. Given that Alsace was now French again, living there involved a lot of paperwork: the ‘fraternity’ bit of the French national motto can sometimes feel a little like big brother, with documents registering your identity and whereabouts with every level of the State, local, regional or national. When in addition you decide to set up a company, the paperwork takes on truly monstrous proportions – believe me, I’ve done it.

Of course, when I say that Alsace was ‘French’, that needs qualification. While the German claim seems to have been consigned pretty firmly to the dustbin of history, even to this day Alsatians don’t regard their province as really French: they still talk of the rest of France as ‘France of the interior’ or ‘Old France’. It’s almost as if the rest were French France, while they live in Alsatian France.

René and his brothers worked long, hard hours, taking no holidays, for five years. By 1950, though, the firm was beginning to prosper. It was time for René and his still relatively new wife to take a few days away. They headed off to Marseille. Not a trip abroad but all the same a trip to another country.

In those days, in French hotels, you had to register your arrival on official little forms which the police came and collected at the end of the evening. This allowed the authorities to compare the names of travellers with lists of people in whom they might have an interest.

At 6:00 on the first morning after their arrival, René and his wife were awoken by loud knocking. René opened the door to be confronted by the Military Police, come to arrest him as a deserter.

‘A deserter?’ he exclaimed in consternation. ‘What am I supposed to have deserted from?’

‘You didn’t show up for military service.’

‘Military service? No-one wrote to call me up.’

‘Your papers were posted on the door of the town hall of the First District of Paris. That’s what we do when we can’t track people down.’

‘Paris?’ cried René. You’ll remember he was last in Paris while technically a prisoner of war of the Allies but allowed to wander at large, still in German uniform. ‘I haven’t been to Paris for years. How was I supposed to read call up papers in Paris?’

‘Ah, well,’ they replied, ‘not our problem. You shouldn’t have made it so hard to find you.’

‘Hard to find me? I’m a company director. I hold a valid French identity card. I’m registered to vote. How come you couldn’t find me?’

‘Where do you live?’

‘In Alsace.’

‘Ah, Alsace,’ they answered, as though everything had suddenly been made clear. ‘French authorities and Alsace. Doesn’t always work, you know.’

René could have answered, but didn’t, ‘We, the French, fought three wars to keep Alsace in France. And now you can’t administer it?’

But it all turned out fine in the end anyway. Before the Military Tribunal, when questioned about why he hadn’t done his military service, René replied ‘But you know that I served three years in the German Luftwaffe, don’t you?’

‘Three years in the Luftwaffe? But, mon brave, why didn’t you say so at once? That changes everything.’

Appropriate papers received appropriate stamps and René was released to enjoy the rest of his interrupted holiday.

What a lesson France teaches us all there. A fine course in good sense and moral relativism. When it comes to service, military or otherwise, all that matters is that you do it. You do it for us, for our friends, for the enemy – hey, who’s perfect? You’ve done it, that’s enough for us.

And life goes on.

* See

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