France’s peaceful and poignant response to World War II

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

ORADOUR-SUR-GLANE, France — “What about Hitler?”

That question is the trump card often played in the long-standing debate between pacifists and their “realist” counterparts who argue there will always be scenarios in which violence is the only option in response to violence. I’m not clear why “our” violence is any better than “their” violence but the conventional wisdom is that in a case such as Hitler, the foe is evil, uncompromising, and such a force can only be stopped by force.

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The simplicity of the Hitler question defies the complicated backstory of European history in which World War II is clearly born out of the heavy economic burden inflicted on Germany after World War I. Violence doesn’t spontaneously erupt out of nothing, it is always in response to violence and the cycle grows like a snowball on a hill until something (other than more snow) stands its way.

If violence was the solution to violence, my college professor and Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy oft said, we would have ended violence long ago. The only way to stop the self-reproduction of aggression is to seek non-violent alternatives. And somehow, here in France, they figured that out.

Hitler invaded France in 1940. Nazi troops occupied Paris, the north, and most of the west coast of France, a mere Channel crossing from English soil before U.S. and British troops staged the bloody but lauded D-Day invasion. Because the Allies went on to win the war, you might expect the beaches of Normandy to be littered with self-congratulatory monuments about the heroism of “the Greatest Generation.” But instead there is a museum largely devoted to peace.

In Caen, several miles from the D-Day landing beaches stands the Memorial — Un Musee pour la Paix (Memorial — A Museum for Peace), a multi-storied museum that paints a just-the-facts retelling of the war followed by several wings devoted to the need for pacifist politics to prevent such large-scale violence in the future. The museum is only 14 years old and impressively high-tech, relying more on stirring images of war rather than timelines and details to make its points. There is a Peace Observatory, a multi-media look at specific hot zones around the world, exhibits on different approaches to peace, and ones on peace education, peace movements and peace journalism. Another section focuses on different peace cultures through history and there’s a film, Hope for the Future, about post-war peace and solutions to international violence in the future. Finally, located in an old German command post is an extensive exhibit on Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Combined, it a stunning response to the war that raged in the area.

The beaches of Operation Overlord, where Allied troops landed, are a brief drive to the coast. They are thin. The distance between shore and the dunes where German guns fired down on GIs is frighteningly narrow. And today the beaches have their own reflective quiet, a seeming extension of the large military graveyard sitting above Omaha beach. There is no need for commentary when you stare across the English Channel and absorb the enormity of what happened less than 60 years ago. A man who looked old enough to be the son of a WWII veteran silently made a video of the empty beach. I didn’t even bother to take a picture.

A couple of weeks later we made another WWII memorial stop here in France, this one less informative than the museum but more poignant than the Normandy beaches. The town of Oradour-sur-Glane, in southwestern France has been frozen in time since June 10, 1944 (four days after D-Day), the day Nazi troops surrounded the town, rounded up the entire population and murdered all but six of them. Of the 642 killed, 205 were children. The burned out, crumbling, de-populated streets remain a town-sized memorial to the horror of war.

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After reading our way through the small and somewhat confusing visitor center and peace hall, we walked into the village. Signs at the entrance remind you to be silent as you walk along main street and see the rusted remains of cars, beds, sewing machine tables, telegraph wires and tram tracks. Signs on the buildings tell you which house was the baker and which the mechanic, and inside are equipment, fireplaces and personal items belonging to the dead. We stood in the market square where, on the fateful day, everyone was lined up, wives and children separated from their husbands and fathers before the men were shot. We walked into the church where hundreds of women and children burned to death. In the span of a single day this town went from bustling peaceful village to, literally, a ghost town.

The decision to make Oradour-sur-Glane a silent memorial to violence and to build a museum focusing on global non-violence near the beaches of Normandy comes from a deeper understanding of how violence breeds violence while quiet reflection and thoughtful non-violent reactions to violence give us a greater chance for peace in the future. These are bold and moving monuments to the death that swept back and forth over French soil and a statement about man’s desire to avoid it in the future.

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The answer to the Hitler question is that non-violence was required before he came to power. The victors of WWI, by not having a Marshall Plan or other peaceful post-war settlement, tilled the soil for Nazi growth. It’s not that America and its allies were culpable, but they didn’t recognize the need for a peaceful agenda in order to prevent future violence. The same lesson applies now to the Middle East. “What about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?” In seeking the answer we have failed to look at the fertile conditions in which these leaders grew. And we have failed to consider the inevitable violent backlash of our current militant stance.

What we should be doing is stopping and quietly reflecting how to stop the push and shove of death-for-a-death (“An eye for an eye and we all go blind.” — Mohandas Gandhi) that marks current international violence, most clearly illustrated in the Middle East. In the aftermath of World War II we should be preventing World War III. The French seem to understand this, but then, victims usually do understand the need for non-violence better than aggressors.

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CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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