When cycling near my cottage in Brittany my mind often conjures up images of German soldiers. In the Second World War there were many thousands stationed thereabouts. I see them in their ones and twos strutting along roads and across fields in their 1940s uniforms.
No doubt these persistent images would have been seeded in my childhood. Whatever their origins, the caricatures are dated and irrelevant and I am keen to be rid of them, though it has proved difficult. Now some help has come from three events over the summer. The first, a nudge, occurred when I walked around a neighbour’s garden; the second, a shove, when I gained new insights about our local beach; and the third, more of a jolt, when I visited a luxurious hotel in Paris.
I went to see Bertrand, the local computer expert, to ask if he could help me receive live BBC transmissions of the Olympics on my laptop. He couldn’t, but as I was leaving and, out of the blue, he asked if I would like to see around his garden. He was particularly keen to show me his shed. It was, so it transpired, a converted WW2 gun emplacement with walls, roof and floor made of two-metre thick reinforced concrete. Moreover, on the walls there were some original instructions in German, on the floor metal mountings for the canon and, at one end, the original gun port.
Being in there made me feel very uneasy and as soon as possible I made for the daylight. I thanked him for the tour and explained what had made me so anxious. Bertrand, a man much younger than me, said that he had no such qualms and that his wife felt similarly, adding poignantly that she was German. I felt embarrassed. I was reminded yet again how my caricatures were out-of-place and untenable.
Next, to the magnificent Baie d’Audierne, in the middle of which sits our cottage. On holiday I learned that before the war this 18km-long beach was covered with pebbles in banks up to 6 metres deep. For years the locals knew that by dint of their constitution these pebbles could be used to make high-quality cement. These properties were also known to the German engineers who, using a workforce of prisoners of war and enforced local labour, methodically stripped the pebbles from the beach and then pulverised them in a giant ‘crushing’ factory. Bits of the factory still remain, and seeing the ruins immediately brings haunting thoughts of subjugation and environmental pillage.
However, as a by-product of all this behaviour some 70 years ago we now have a wonderfully sandy beach of unparalleled beauty, which provides nothing but pleasure. Can I really be angry at the occupying forces for this particular outcome? Should I stay away and not enjoy it? In the past, making such a decision would have been difficult. Now it is simpler – visiting the beach is a must.
Finally to the Lutetia, a busy hotel built in 1910 expressly for wealthy visitors to Paris. On its wall is a plaque reminding passers-by of a particularly horrible period in its history. During the German occupation the building was commandeered and used as a centre for ‘counter-espionage’ (certainly for torture) and also as a place for doing business with collaborators. For years I have hurried past it. But last week, in the spirit of change, I ventured in.
Despite its art deco grandeur – no expense was spared when it was built – the place oozed a sinister bleakness. It was difficult to suppress images of soldiers walking the corridors, or lounging in the spacious bars, as they planned and possibly undertook their evil acts. But, in all this, clinging to my prejudices as they related to the past suddenly made no sense. They belonged to yesteryear. The hotel itself is not guilty of any crime, and nor are the present staff or guests.
Around sixty percent of the hotel staff, including the then manager, stayed on after the wartime takeover to serve their new paymasters. But in the French way, they upheld certain priorities. To save the hotel’s invaluable wine cellar for future French palettes, the staff quickly walled off the bottles in various tunnels leading from a sub-basement and then destroyed relevant bits of the hotel’s plans. It was not until after the war that the bottles resurfaced!
While I imagine that there are others of the greyhares generation who would have shared my prejudices, I see now that they are unreasonable and irrational and in urgent need of resolution. Yes, it is legitimate to direct anger and emotion against things of the past, but to transfer this to people and objects of the present is indefensible. I don’t know how long it will take me to lose the stereotypical images of my childhood but I feel confident that ‘garden-shed’ nudges and the like will help speed the process.
Photo credit: ‘Monument’, Tréguennec Beach, Brittany (Alan West 05.11)