How are captured pilots treated

Spit on and beaten - German prisoners of war in France

They lost the race to Adolf Hitler's destroyed Berghof in the last few meters. It is US soldiers who are the first to reach the dictator's prestigious Alpine quarters. But the advance of the French units in southern Germany made good progress at the beginning of May 1945. You conquer one town after another.

France ranked among the victorious powers: Charles de Gaulle during the liberation of Paris in August 1944

After four years of occupation by the National Socialists, France under General Charles de Gaulle has joined the alliance of the victorious powers. And with this claim, the country also presents itself to the vanquished. In the Bavarian town of Oberstdorf, de Gaulle will personally hold the victory parade in mid-May. French colonial troops from Morocco present themselves to the local population.

Around 800 German soldiers, who fell into the hands of the French during the fighting around Oberstdorf, have already left the village at this point. They are supposed to go to France, where more than 100 prisoner-of-war camps have been set up across the country. When the first trains with the Germans cross the border, a wave of hatred hits them.

Historian Fabien Théofilakis

"They were brought to France in cattle wagons. During the stops on the route, they were spat at or beaten up by the local population," says Fabien Théofilakis. The 44-year-old historian teaches at the Panthéon Sorbonne University in Paris and has written the standard work on the fate of Germans in France after the war - a historical chapter that has not been discussed in either France or Germany for decades. Similar to the compulsory labor service STO (Service du travail obligatoire), as a result of which almost 650,000 French had to work in Germany during the Second World War and established contact with the local population, especially in agriculture.

Compensation for compensation

In 1945 the roles are clearly assigned: while the French population initially despised the German soldiers, the government claimed as many prisoners as possible to work for reconstruction. In stark contrast to the First World War, when Paris was mainly financially compensated by Germany. The authorities are now calculating with more than two million Wehrmacht soldiers. In the end, they have to be content with a million - the majority, 70 percent, comes from the American camps for the French.

German prisoners of war take care of French war equipment (September 1945)

But in the first few weeks after the end of the war, it became clear that France was overwhelmed by the mass of prisoners. "The food supply in the country was catastrophic at the time," analyzes historian Théofilakis. The colonial power France, which at this point wants to participate in the decision-making process as a member of the concert of the great powers, cannot even supply its own population in 1945. There is even less food and clothing for prisoners of war - an estimated 40,000 soldiers die in captivity. The work in the mines or the clearing of mines, which the Wehrmacht itself laid during the war, also claim many victims. According to the historian Théofilakis, the poor supply of Germans is not driven by hatred or the desire for revenge, but primarily a consequence of lack and chaos.

Captivity as a permanent state

But there are also soldiers who lead a better life in France than in their destroyed homeland. This applies initially to hundreds of thousands of soldiers who work in agriculture. You get more to eat and close contact with the local population. Fabien Théofilakis: "For my research I spoke to many former prisoners of war. When the German prisoners of war appear in the everyday life of the French, they are suddenly no longer just the hated 'Boche', but they are given a name and a face. That changes a lot. "

Life-threatening task: prisoners of war clearing mines on the beach (July 1945)

Everyday life in the warehouse is also improving. Camp management is passed from the military to the civil authorities. This creates new freedoms. The establishment of further training structures is particularly successful in the officers' camps. For example in the Larzac officers' camp in the Massif Central, to which some soldiers from Oberstdorf had also been brought. The prisoners set up workshops, libraries and camp universities of their own.

Print from the USA

An end to captivity in France is not in sight for the time being - even if the Geneva Convention provides for a quick return home. Pressure from the USA has only made movement on this issue. In the approaching Cold War they need the German western zones as allies against the Soviet Union. After massive pressure from Washington, the Germans found out in 1947 that the last comrades could return to their homeland at the end of 1948.

Seal the Franco-German reconciliation: Federal Chancellor Adenauer and President de Gaulle (r.)

But the French do not want to do without their cheap labor, which, according to a study from the 1970s, was responsible for 2.3 percent of the gross domestic product. They offer the soldiers for a fee to continue working in France. Almost 137,000 Germans, many from the former East German territories, are given the status of civilian workers.

Foundation stone of reconciliation

In the 1950s, 30,000 to 40,000 former Wehrmacht soldiers were still living in France. The former "hereditary enemy" has become a second home for them - many have started a binational family and have children. Fabien Théofilakis is convinced that the mass experience of being a prisoner of war had a long-term effect: "The best that the French offered was the experience of living among the French. The Germans could see in everyday life that the propaganda of the Nazi regime was about the French had nothing to do with reality. "

But in the end it was the politicians who had to follow the path to reconciliation. And they are only ready for this years later. On January 22nd, 1963, Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Charles de Gaulle signed the Élysée Treaty in Paris. A good 15 years after the return of the last prisoners of war and almost five years after a small financial compensation for the captivity granted by the German state to its soldiers.

Fabien Théofilakis: Les prisonniers de guerre allemands: France, 1944-1949 (2014)