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"There is only one general in the country and his name is France!" - former French ambassador about World War II

09.05.2022

World War II undoubtedly changed the course of history. It is a time of terrible tyrants, cruel experiments, the destruction of millions of people, betrayal and ... faith that this hell will ever end.

On May 9, 1945 (Moscow time) Germany capitulated. Since then, no less than 77 years have passed. Most of those who fought or lived at that time are no longer alive. Few remain, and their memories are very valuable for future generations to draw conclusions and not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Former French ambassador Georges-Marie Chenu saw World War II as a child. At that time he lived with his family in Pontlevoy, central France. Now 92 years old, his memory is fresh, he remembers the events of that time well and generously shares his memories.

Below is Mr. Chenu's story.

PEOPLE WITHOUT HANDS

In 1940, shortly before what we call the Blitzkrieg, many civilians and even military from the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France passed through Pontlevoy. They all fled south to escape the Germans. Some of the military were without arms. It was strange to see this flow of people, many of whom were moving on foot, with baby carriages. Those who had cars placed mattresses on the roof.

They were all running south, no one wanted to stay in our village. Even then, they flatly refused to stay on the ground or second floors, only in the basement for fear of being bombed.

We tried very hard to help, giving people bread, meat and wine. I remember my mother, aunt, grandmother and sister making bread with butter and ham. I was ten years old at the time.

One day there was a big fire on the terrace of one of the houses in the village. As we found out later, a Belgian officer did it. They say he was not himself after the bombing by the German air force. The fire burned the entire terrace.

OCCUPATION OF THE VILLAGE

The Germans came to Pontlevoy in the morning of the second half of June 1940. Because of the lack of resistance, they were not very aggressive, entered the village and went directly to the abbey. They immediately placed machine guns in five positions and destroyed all the bridges around, because there was little resistance down the valley (meaning the valley of the Loire River - ed.). One of the bombs exploded in a market in Monrichard (9 km south of Pontlevoy - ed.), killing 300 people. I remember this tragedy well.


Germans in Paris in 1940
Photo: actu.fr

They searched the abbey for some secret documents. It turned out that one of the French traitors had told them that our ministries had kept some documents there. Finding nothing, they burned down two large outbuildings using phosphorus incendiary shells. We didn't know what it was and tried to put out the fire with water, but nothing helped. All night long we were running for water. I still remember the feeling of exhaustion. Three dormitories, a laboratory and a collection of historical objects were burned down.

The next day the Germans left, but the occupation units came after. They requisitioned all the houses in the village. One officer and 14 soldiers lived in our house. Only two small rooms were left for my whole big family. It was a shame for us: I myself came from a military family and such a situation was humiliating us. But we were afraid to do anything or run away.

We sometimes listened to BBC radio. At that time, my aunt would sit under the table to reduce the noise.

And one day we heard General Charles de Gaulle. You can't imagine, it was something positive and inspiring! He was then saying that the fight was not over, that we should all fight the Nazis together with the Allies.

My aunt then said that there was only one general in the country and his name was France!


General Charles de Gaulle addressing the Resistance movement on BBC radio from London, 1940
Photo: Getty / Keystone-France / Contributeur

Later, a large number of Germans withdrew north to Normandy to reinforce their positions there. About a hundred Germans remained in the village, but after the attack on the USSR they left too. At the end of '41, three German officers were lodged in our house. They were in a kind of moral degradation and bad condition, so they settled in our attic and did not cause any problems. The Germans had lived with us for several years, and our relationship with them was almost nil. My mother and aunt, who knew German, refused to talk to them.

One day I saw a German soldier surrounded by his military man. He had a rifle in his hands and was shouting hard. It turned out that he had received the news that his family had been killed in the bombing in Dresden.

My mother said then that we shouldn't feel sorry for him.

FRENCH RESISTANCE

The college In the Abbey was supposed to be functioning all along, but there were problems with that because of the occupation. There was a squad of Germans stationed in the school building, who were doing something all the time: practicing, shooting, singing loudly. The college director was very brave. On October 2, 1940, he decided to open the college. Seventy-seven children came to study as if nothing had happened. At that time they were taught by five teachers. It was a terrific experiment.

Amidst the scarcity of food, separation from their fathers, humiliation, fear, and constant danger, the students became especially close to their teachers. It was an extraordinary time, and in this way we refused to lose spirit. This was our resistance!

After two years, the constant pressure and threats made it impossible to continue teaching. It was too dangerous, and in October 1942 the principal closed the college. In spite of this, I am very proud of that period of our moral resistance! About 40 children continued to study secretly in private homes.

In 1943, French gendarmes from Vichy (the collaborationist regime that emerged after the defeat of France and the fall of Paris in 1940 - ed.) surrounded the village because the local boys refused to mobilize and go to Germany to work in the factories.

I was forced to hide on a farm near the village.

And at the beginning of 1942, a group of French militiamen, who fully supported Germany, surrounded the abbey: they were looking for weapons. It turned out that there was a resistance unit in a nearby village. A German parachute landing party was sent out to find them. Four partisans were sent to concentration camps, where they were killed; 11 were killed fighting in the woods.

Many people think that there was no internal resistance in France, but that is not true. In Vichy it was less, because the French did not want to kill the French. But there was resistance, and sometimes it was not military.

For example, when Allied troops landed in Normandy, one of the locals gave them the exact coordinates of the armament and equipment depots that were in the forest near Montrichard. A few days later they dropped bombs at those coordinates.

It was a huge explosion; we watched it from the balcony of our house. The whole place went up in flames, the ground was shaking for a few minutes.

American troops came into our village in '44. We all lined the roads with flowers and wine to see and greet each of them.


Paris welcoming Allied troops, 1944
Photo: AP Photo/Harry Harris

Many years after that, when I worked at the French Embassy in Argentina, I had the opportunity to meet General de Gaulle himself. He was a very special man, with a unique vision of the future that today's politicians don't have.

For every important question General de Gaulle asked, "What will it do for the world?".

This was a unique leader of France!

BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGES-MARIE CHENU

1985-1990 - Minister Plenipotentiary, held diplomatic duties at the French Embassy in Lomé, Togo.

1992-1994 - Diplomatic duties at the Embassy in Zagreb, Croatia.

1995 - Coordinator for the French Presidency in Mostar, Bosnia.

1998 - Observer for the OSCE in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Published in Politique étrangère and Esprit.

After a successful diplomatic career, Mr. Chenu returned to his native Pontlevoy, where he lives with his wife Bernadette.

Interview by: Irina Fedolyak, Murat Sarsenov

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