Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Arithmetic of Retribution

The Arithmetic of Retribution, from The Resistance

Early on August 25, 1944, as French Army units commanded by General Jacques Leclerc entered Paris, Captain Otto Kayser of the German General Staff watched the hectic, joyful scene from a window in the Hotel Meurice. "Paris", he reportedly said to a colleague, "is going to take vengence for these last four years." Kayser never saw his prediction come true. A few hours later, as he was being marched through the streets as a prisoner of war, a pistol-wielding Parisian burst past the prisoners' French guards and killed Kayser with a single shot in the head.

As Paris went, so went France. Everywhere, ordinary citizens heaped four years of pent-up frustration and hatred on the defeated German Occupation forces, mocking, beating and someties killing their erstwhile conquerors. They were even more violent in their attacks on Frenchmen who had done the Germans' dirty work by betraying, torturing or executing members of the Resistance. The worst collaborators were well known; underground newspapers had been blacklisting their names since 1941, and the BBC's French language service had broadcast nightly warnings that their day of reckoning was approaching. Now, with their German protectors either imprisoned or in flight, many traitors were hunted down and executed without mercy and often without a trial. During the weeks before and after the liberation, at least 11,000 collaborators were summarily executed.

The bloodbath was so widespread that the returning commander of the united Resistance forces, General de Gaulle, hastily established local tribunals to provide legal trials for the accused. After regular courts were established, 767 more citizens were executed, 39,000 received prison sentences and some 40,000 lessor collaborators were punished with "national degradation" - loss of their civil rights. Amid the welter of vindictive verdicts, the courts were surprisingly merciful to the thousands of Frenchmen who had fought for the Germans on the Eastern Front. Former members of the Legion of French Volunteers and French Waffen-SS were permitted to redeem their honor by volunteering for regular army service in Indochina.

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