Sunday, 23 November 2014

Happy Liberation Day

Seventy years ago today, the city of Strasbourg fell to Free French forces, under the command of General Leclerc de Hautecloque.

French troops enter Strasbourg, November 1944
Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, on the Rhine, as far East as you can get in France without finding yourself in Germany. In fact, for centuries many Germans claimed that once you were in Alsace (perhaps I should say ElsaƟ), you were already in Germany. 

The territory had been German until the seventeenth century, and became German again after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was only reincorporated into France at the end of the First World War. When it was retaken by German forces in the Second, it wasn’t regarded as occupied France, but as re-integrated Reich territory. One particularly painful consequence was that, unlike other Frenchmen, young men from Alsace were treated as Reich citizens and subject to call-up.

So to drive the Germans out of Strasbourg was to achieve not just a military victory, but a major symbolic one. It would mark the definitive end of German occupation, with only minor operations left to clear the final German positions.

But it was even more symbolic because of the words pronounced nearly four years earlier by the French commander, then Colonel Leclerc. He had captured the Italian position at Kufra, in the Sahara desert of Lybia, at the head of Free French forces brought up from Chad.

Leclerc and his officers watch the French flag being raised
over the Italian fort at Kufra, March 1941
In the great scheme of things, the battle of Kufra was unimportant. Fewer than 700 soldiers were involved. Its significance was that it marked France’s return to the war on the Allied side, and what’s more, marked it with a victory. It was an acorn; Leclerc had the vision to see the oak it could turn into.

So at the end of the battle, in March 1941, he had his troops swear what has come to be known as the oath of Kufra:

Swear not to lay down your arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, are floating from Strasbourg Cathedral.

He understood the importance of the capture of Strasbourg, and set it as his goal before he’d even left Africa.

On 23 November 1944, the goal was achieved. And, indeed, a young soldier took it on himself to scale the tower of the Cathedral and fly the flag from it.

Today, Strasbourg has become a city symbolising peace. No one challenges French sovereignty over it. Why, French and German military units even train together nearby. The Council of Europe, including the Court of Human Rights, brings together representatives from all over the Continent in the city.

We lived in or near Strasbourg for eight years, and I nurture the hope of moving back some day. Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to all my friends in and around that fine city, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of its final liberation.

And for now, put this note up to mark the day.

The French flag still flies frequently today
over the Cathedral in Strasbourg

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