When you go down to the beach today, take a sharp stick with you. Draw a line in the sand, from surf to tree line. I doesn’t matter where, or in which direction, what matters is that it is there. It doesn’t matter whether you have any relationship with the people one side or other of the line, nor whether you even like them or not.
You are now fully equipped to have a War. That line was all you needed.
You can now call the people the other side of the line ‘your enemy’; no manner of death is too extreme for them, no torture too horrific.
A mere 70 years ago such a war was fought over a line that had been drawn between France and Germany. Marshall Pétain invented the word ‘collaborator’ to describe his desire to work peacefully with Germany rather than fighting to the death over that line. It came to be one of vilest insults you could hurl at anybody.
70 years ago young Mademoiselle Lea Rouxel took a job in the Dinard canteen of the airbase built and inhabited by men from the other side of that line. She met Lieutenant Ammon. The result was young Daniel.
The Americans came along and killed Lieutentant Ammon. There was much cheering and rejoicing in the land, for he was from the ‘other’ side of the line. There wasn’t any cheering or rejoicing in the Rouxel household. Mademoiselle had no means of support for young Daniel, Daniel had no father any longer.
If I close my eyes and try really, really, hard, I can just about understand the justification for Madame Rouxel’s crime of being a ‘collaborator’ – I can’t begin to agree with it, but I can follow the logic.
I cannot in my wildest imagination understand the logic behind young Daniel being a ‘criminal collaborator’ too.
His birth certificate said he was of ‘father unknown’, although this was patently untrue. Not only was his father known, but by all accounts he was a supportive and responsible father for the few years before he was killed. It was not his Mother’s wish that his birth certificate said that – it was by order of the French Government who refused to acknowledge that any Frenchwoman could possibly have fathered a child by a German officer.
At the age of just six he recalls bearing the brunt of a cruel public joke by the village mayor.
“Which one of you knows the difference between a swallow and a Boche?” Mr Rouxel remembers the mayor asking.
“I’ll tell you. When the swallow makes its babies here in France, it takes them with it when it leaves. But the Boche – he leaves his behind.”
Mr Rouxel – the “baby left behind” – was devastated.
His grandmother forced him to sleep in an outhouse ‘with the other animals’. She was so ashamed of him that she would lock him out of sight, in the cold and the filth, whenever guests were visiting.
As an adult, his marriage broke up when his wife, of some 15 years, belatedly discovered that his father was a ‘boche’.
As it happens, his German family have been very supportive and he has excellent relations with them. Last week, more than six decades after his birth, the son of a French mother and a German Wehrmacht officer, the now retired Daniel Rouxel was at last granted duel citizenship and acknowledgement of his German father – along with a measure of dignity and sanity that has taken him 60 years of fighting bureaucracy to achieve.
Spurred by a 2004 investigative book, Enfants Maudits (Accursed Children), and a television documentary that came out at the same time, hundreds of men and women in their 60s have contacted the army archives department in Berlin to find out more about their lost parents.
In all, it is estimated that as many as 200,000 French children were born to illicit liaisons during the German occupation between May 1940 and December 1944, though the figure is impossible to verify.
Germany finally agreed on February 19 to grant joint citizenship to those war children who want it, and Rouxel was the first to sign up.
It wasn’t just a French problem you see, the German’s were no more keen to acknowledge that any fine German officer could, would, possibly have bedded a young French woman.
For the past six decades, French and German society has been incapable of even considering the existence of so many people like M. Rouxel. In common with other nations, they had built themselves on a scaffold of national mythology that concealed huge fissures in their collective soul. Into those fissures, unseen by anyone, fell an entire community of people whose existence could not be admitted.
This is how nations construct themselves: by turning the embarrassing ambiguities of the past into official narratives, and exorcising inconsistencies like M. Rouxel.
Have a look at the people the other side of your line in the sand – can you work up the energy to hate them that much? To kill them for crossing your line? To persecute and ostracise their children for their mixed parentage?
So what makes the difference for you when someone else drew the line on a map a couple of hundred years ago?