Nearly 72 years later, France honours victims of WWII mob justice
A Breton village on Sunday paid formal tribute to three of its citizens unjustly denounced as Nazi collaborators during the liberation of France in 1944 and killed by a lynch mob.
The event touches on one of the darkest chapters in modern French history -- when thousands of Frenchmen and women were summarily executed by fellow citizens amid scenes of near-anarchy.
In the summer of 1944, a wave of extra-judicial killings unfurled in western and southwestern areas where German troops withdrew before the advancing allies, but before Charles de Gaulle's provisional government could move in and take control.
About a hundred people gathered in Monterfil, a village of around 1,300 people near the city of Rennes, for a wreath-laying ceremony to right a wrong that, a local historian found, claimed three innocent lives.
On August 4, 1944, as German troops at a nearby radar base pulled out, Resistance fighters seized three women -- Marie Guillard and her daughter Germaine, and Suzanne Lesourd.
Accused of having collaborated with the Germans, they were beaten, shaved and stripped, bound and paraded before the village cafe and daubed with swastikas.
They were taken to a nearby wood where they were hanged, but not before they were forced to dig their own graves. Their remains have never been found.
"The horror went beyond anything that human beings can endure," said local historian Alexandre Boucard, who was 10 years old at the time.
A local woman, Jacqueline, who declined to give her last name, was nine at the time.
She witnessed the grim spectacle when she went with her older brother to buy bread. She recognised the Guillards because they had been allowed to cross the family farm to get to the German base, where they worked in the kitchen.
- Trauma and taboo -
"People were spitting in the women's faces. The landlady of the cafe threw a bowl of cider in the face of the blonde woman, saying 'That's all you deserve,'" she told AFP.
"The pair of us were just traumatised," she said, adding that, afterwards, she was never able to walk past the site where the three women were hanged.
As France got back on its feet, prosecutors launched an investigation into what had happened at Monterfil -- only for the probe to be shelved in 1951 under an amnesty law.
Without justice and transparency, a leaden lid of silence fell on the village, not least because the chief suspect, Louis Oberthur, was the son of the mayor and the area's biggest landowner.
"The main culprits were treated like nobility, whereas my grandfather was just an ordinary farmer," said Pierre Guillard, Marie Guillard's grandson.
Yet the taboo surrounding the bloody excesses of the 1944 "epuration" -- "cleansing" -- was nationwide.
The postwar myth fostered by de Gaulle focussed on France as a victim of Nazism, and whose people had struggled nobly against the oppressor.
That meant collaboration with the Nazis was relegated to the status of a footnote, and the narrative had no place for digging into summary justice.
The precise tally of those killed, sometimes for personal gain, sexual jealousy or to cover collaborationist tracks, may never be known.
In the 1960s, the historian Robert Aron put the number of illegal executions at 30,000-40,000, whereas de Gaulle himself estimated the tally at around 10,000.
- The past revealed -
Silence began to lift in 2014, when France marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Lips began to be unsealed -- and for some people, there was the shock of discovering what had really happened to parents or grandparents in those chaotic months of when joy and revenge intermingled.
One was Francois Lesourd, whose grandmother was Suzanne Lesourd, just 28 when she was killed.
He joined Pierre Guillard for Sunday's ceremony, in which a wreath bearing the three women's first names was laid at the village's monument to the war dead.
Mayor Michel Douault, in a brief but emotional speech, asked the pair and their families "for forgiveness in the name of the collective memory... we have taken so long to cleanse their reputation of the taint of suspicion."
Lesourd said he had found closure in the ceremony.
"We have all had to deal with a terrible legacy," he told the crowd.
"No-one chooses to be the descendant of a martyr, a coward or a torturer. Today, everyone wants to turn the page. Let's turn it and not look back."
© 2016 AFP