Monday, January 10, 2011

The Moselle in World War II

"De gré ou de force, l'expulsion des Mosellans 1940-1945" ("By will or by force, the expulsion of the people of the Mosell") is the current exhibition of the Departmental Archives of the Moselle. It follows logically from the Archives' previous exhibition, which covered the evacuation of people from region to other places in France that were less likely to be close to battles. The Archives did remarkable work for both exhibitions.

In the pre-war evacuation, the French government moved inhabitants of the Moselle region, especially those closest to the German border, to places of relative safety in other parts of France. As documented in the Archives' prior exhibition, "Un exil interieure: L'evacauation des Mosellans," about 300,000 people from the Moselle moved in September 1939 and May, 1940 to regions closer to the Atlantic. After the French capitulation in September, 1940, most of these people returned to their homes in the Moselle.

The current exhibition documents the brutal wartime expulsions, part of the Nazi plan to "Germanify" the Moselle. This region, considered by the Nazis to be not occupied France but rather an integral part of Germany, saw 100,000 inhabitants expelled as "undesirables."

Some left willingly, others only when forced. For the most part, they were French speakers who didn't fit into the victors' vision of a German Moselle. The Nazi authorities limited the expulsed to 2,000 Francs and 110 pounds of baggage; everything else--houses, furniture, clothes, shops, factories, dishes, toys, and tools--had to be left behind.

German posters proclaimed the new cultural order. "It's a privilege and an honor to be German," declared Metz's new ruler.

All that was French was to be swept away. Streets were renamed for prominent Nazis.

The expulsed ended up, for the most part, in the Midi--south central France. Many lived in poverty. Local inhabitants of the Midi provided shelter and support, and the Vichy government trumpeted its support in its own posters. This one shows well-fed children at the winter aid cantine of the Marshall (i.e., Maréchal Pétain.)

In the cities of the Midi, the expulsed tried to keep their culture and traditions alive. These advertisements in the Periguex newspaper, for a restaurant, a tailor, and a tavern, suggest to me that these cities must have had a "little Alsace and Lorraine," something like little Italy in New York City.

With the Allies' victory, the expulsed began to return home. Despite German assurances when they left the Moselle that their property would be protected, they soon found that everything had been systematically looted. This letter, to a man in exile in Casablanca, informs him that his tire-repair shop is now unoccupied but that it had been emptied of all of its contents in the first months of the German occupation.

In the immediate post-war, life was hard in France and especially in Alsace-Lorraine, which saw the worst of the fighting. The expulsed, who had lost almost everything when they left and found little when they returned, were among the worst off. They organized to claim their rights. Here's a poster calling for the expulsed and refugies to hold a big demonstration in Metz.

Contemporary Metz no longer has the street names imposed by the Nazis, but the story of the expulsed is still within the city's living memory. The exhibition "De gré ou de force, l'expulsion des Mosellans 1940-1945" runs through 31 May, 2011.

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