It must have promised to be a wonderful, idealistic, hopeful, pacifistic dream come true. French and German veterans aspiring to a reconciliation between their nations collaborated on a joint 20th-anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Verdun with a dramatic honoring of their fallen comrades. It was held on 12 July 1936 at the new, massive Ossuary, the odd mixture of fortress and cathedral architecture containing the skeletal remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German fatalities, and the adjacent French National Cemetery. Both are located on one of the "hottest" spots of the Verdun battlefield.
|Verdun Ossuary and National Cemetery|
The Veillée de Verdun, as it was known was initiated by well-meaning former Poilus who were hoping to defuse the heightening international hostilities of the day. They did not appreciate, however, that they would actually be dealing with the Nazi government, who controlled the German participation from behind a curtain of sincere veterans. The German authorities fully intended to distract public attention from their own rearming effort and the Führer's hostile intentions. Despite the Nazi flags borne by the 500-man German delegation and their Heil Hitler saluting, the French participants and observers were utterly duped. Franco-German relations seemed to have advanced, steps had taken back from some bottomless precipice. Four years later, though, Verdun and Paris were both occupied by the German Army. France was utterly defeated.
|French Veterans at the Nighttime Event in the Cemetery|
In the run-up to the Second World War the 5.5 million-man French veteran community and its official organization, the Anciens Combattants, were powerful voices in politics. Their advocacy for international peace, strengthened by the apparent success of the Veillée de Verdun, negated in good part French "alarmists" attempting to prepare the nation for the coming onslaught. Even after France surrendered in 1940, the Anciens Combattants were the strongest supporters of Verdun hero Henri Pétain's collaborationist government. Apparently, the price of the victory at Verdun included an epidemic of self-deception for a generation of France's warriors.