Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, September 12, 2016

Verdun Twenty Years Later: A Doomed Reconciliation

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.


  1. Interesting idea: isolationism a form of self-deception!

  2. I think the "Anciens Combattants" believed that their German counterparts, who had suffered as they had in the World War, would come to the same conclusions about peace as they did. The French veterans did not count on the ability of Hitler to play on German resentment of losing, and the Versailles Treaty, since that resentment was outside of their experience.

  3. What an interesting--but sad--piece of history... D. Beer

  4. It was more than France that thought isolationism and ignoring Germany's building of the Third Reich would prevent war... 'America first'? And it is why I will always think of the World Wars as one continuation with a brief armistice for a failed League of Nations and just peace.