Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
I read that the reason books and movies about World War II are so popular is that it was the last time that the moral issues were clear cut, black and white, good vs. evil. In the broad strokes of events, that’s certainly true. But like all generalizations it crumbles with individual exceptions. There is no doubt that epically bad people committed atrocious crimes during the war or that heroically good people fought against them. But the lines are not always so clear cut, especially among young men from the occupied countries.
It was a difficult time to be a young man of military age. The Nazis wanted all able-bodied men working or fighting for the Third Reich. They had some compelling propaganda about saving the world from Bolshevism that convinced some young men to do so willingly. But everyone else had to find a creative way to stay out of German uniform or German factories. Some did not succeed despite hating everything the Nazis stood for.
Take, for example, a young Frenchman who helped Dutch-Paris guide Jewish refugees to the Swiss border. This young man, we’ll call him François, came from the northeastern region of France known as Alsace. It’s a border region that has been fought over by the French and Germans for centuries. In 1940 Hitler declared that Alsace was once again German and its inhabitants bore the obligations of German citizens, including military service.
Our man François slipped out of this by going to school in the unoccupied part of France, further south. While he was pursuing his education close to the Swiss border, he worked with Dutch-Paris by guiding refugees from Annecy to the Swiss border. On one unfortunate night, gendarmes caught him and a small party of Jews on the French side of the border. François was put in jail and taken before the court. Normally he would have had to pay a fine and serve some time, but a friendly official told him that the German authorities were combing the prisons for Alsatians who they thought should be in the Wehrmacht.
François did not want to fight in German uniform. He appealed to the Vichy French authorities for a student exemption, but they ruled that he could go to school in Alsace just as well as in Vichy. François could have taken refuge in Switzerland or gone into hiding with the maquis on the French side of the border. But when he received an official notification that his father would be compelled to take his place if he did not report for duty in Alsace, he went home.
To protect his father, this resister who had helped rescue Jews from Nazi persecution put on German uniform. He served in the Alsatian unit known as the Malgré-Nous (Despite Ourselves). Technically, he was a collaborator because he served in the Wehrmacht. But was this rescuer of Jews a bad man? Was this soldier of the Third Reich a good man? In this case at least, the moral issues of the war are not clear cut.