Monday, August 29, 2011

The resistance lives on

September 4, 1944.  Toulouse had been liberated by the Resistance two weeks earlier.  One Madame Ramon, farmer, was walking in a place where German trucks had been seen going to and fro during the occupation.  Following a trail of bloodstains on the ground, she discovered a mass grave where the Germans had dumped the bodies of prisoners, résistants they'd shot dead.  27 bodies were eventually identified:  students, farmers, an accountant, an "employee", a train station manager.... (Details from a poorly-written French Wikipedia article can be found here)  A 28th body was never definitely identified.

Every year on May 8, V-E Day,  a ceremony is held to honor these young men in front of a stele bearing their names.  Such stelae, usually marked with the Cross of Lorraine, dot the landscape around these parts of France and presumably elsewhere as well--by some estimates 20,000 members of the Resistance were killed.

In a kind of sad irony, on this day in 1945 a celebratory parade for the Allied victory in Sétif, Algeria ended in violence between anti-colonialists and French gendarmes.  Following this clash, Algerian militants killed 103 French civilians.  Some victims were raped; other were mutilated.  After five days of anarchy, order was restored, but then came the severe French reprisals.  Villages were bombed by aircraft and one town shelled from offshore.  Summary executions were carried out by the army and posses of citizens lynched others.  Nobody knows exactly how many Algerian civilians were indiscriminately killed, although historians estimate the number to be around 6000, perhaps much, much more. Unlike the victims buried in Bordelongue, there were not even summary trials and most of the dead probably had no involvement in the killing of French pieds-noirs

Coincidentally, I just acquired a copy of the 2010 film Hors la Loi which scandalized the French (at least the right) as it compared the Algerian anti-colonialists to....the Resistance.  By implication that would have made the French the equivalent of the Germans.  Provocative to be sure; thousands protested the film when it debuted in Cannes.  But Algeria, though part of France, was indeed a product of colonization, or occupation; whatever you want to call it depends on your agenda.

In any event, unlike the innumerable memorials to the French Resistance I previously mentioned, the Sétif massacre, at least until recently, hasn't even been mentioned in French schools.

But this monument is an interesting affair.  A stele dedicated to the martyrs sits upon a small mound and can be approached by twelve steps.  Five flagpoles fly the tricolor on ceremonial occasions.  When I visited it, only one flag was raised.

As far as I can make out, (a resonant) 13 lines formed by trees radiate out from the center of this off-kilter circumpunct.  Most of these correspond to a series of massive buttresses which are within a grassy berm surrounding the monument like a reverse question mark:  ؟​   The whole thing also brings to mind a stylized teardrop.

The berm seems to have the purpose of shielding the monument from the junction of various highways at the location.  As you can see from the satellite images, this is far from the farmland it was 60 or even 30 years ago.  I'm not sure if the buttresses serve a structural purpose; in all likelihood they do, for they are widespread and none are visible from the monument itself, nor can they be taken in all at once from any perspective save from above.

I was struck by the fact that the shape also implies a spiral.  I think that this is less by some grand vision of what the shape should be as it is a sort of convenience.....the form of the memorial basically follows the constraints of the surrounding highways.  As important as it is to honor these dead, the city wasn't going to re-route the highways in order to accommodate a park in the form of a Lorraine Cross, for example.

I think this is interesting in the context of imposing regular geometric forms upon a landscape, what I've referred to as tessellation of the plane, as opposed to following the natural boundaries of the existing landscape, even if that landscape is an artificial one as it is here.  We've talked a bit about how in 19th century Toulouse under the guidance of Urbain Vitry, great swaths of the old medieval quarters were razed to impose a more rational and neatly geometrical order upon the cityscape.  Vitry's rather severe measures lead the Count of Montalambert to call Toulouse the "home of vandalism" after a visit in 1832.

The Bordelongue monument, however, both in it's spiral form and by following the constraints of its environment rather than imposing regularity, signifies in part that the importance of such a memorial was not equal to the importance of the highways.  It also stands in contrast--at least in part--to the idea of creating ceremonial axes at whatever cost, such as the previously discussed "axe historique" in Paris and Lisbon's "Pombaline axis" (my name for it anyway), not to mention to the great cross Vitry "bulldozed" onto downtown Toulouse with the Rue de Metz and Rue d'Alsace-Lorraine--two appellations which seem to be a nationalistic thumbing of the nose at the Germans.

Which leads us back to the monument at Bordelongue.  France's fractious history with its German neighbors is memorialized not just here but in its stelae to the "martyrs" of the Resistance, its monuments to the Great War and somehow, in the Airbus A380--the fruit of both Franco-German cooperation and competition.  Thousands of Germans live in Toulouse these days; there are numerous German bars and a private German school.  The nearest Leclerc supermarket has an island featuring German products.

Which is (a little) ironic....le maréchal Leclerc is a French hero of the Resistance who participated in the Normandy landing and led an armored division to Paris during the Liberation.  He is memorialized with an obelisk (photo) in of Alsace (and home of Kronenbourg beer).

Alsace and Lorraine are the most "German" regions of France, sitting on the border like geopolitical footballs, possession going back and forth for centuries....and a major prize for Hitler during the Second World War.  By naming a major pair of axes in the dead center of town after them, Toulouse was making a major statement about their Frenchness.  But if all property is theft and possession 9/10ths of the law, one might logically consider it all to be bullshit.  Occupation of territory and control thereof, ahh there's the rub indeed.  Gaza, Aztlan, Alsace-Lorraine, Kashmir.  Who becomes a martyr depends on who's currently controlling the territory.  One man's martyr is another man's terrorist.

The more I learn about the French in the Second World War, the more I realize to what extent they have gotten a bad rap about it.  That said, the ironies of this monument and the date upon which it becomes a ceremonial locus, May 8, open wider questions about who and what the French honor and who....and what, according to the unwritten laws of silence, they don't.


  1. That last line brings to Mind the Victims of Communism Memorial in DC....Could you imagine a Victims of Capitalism statue plonked down just next to it? I picture that Monopoly money guy smoking a cigar made from tobacco fertilized with the ground-up bones of sickly youths. That would be something! ;)

  2. Also, Gid, I think we need to get back on that Bugs Bunny thing....

  3. Hello. I found your 2011 post while looking for information on the Stèle aux Martyres de Bordelongue. I finally got near the site, but the monument impasse is locked now and appears somewhat neglected. Even the next door neighbors did not know what I was talking about. Do you know if it is still opened on the 8 mai each year ? Thank you for any information you can provide. And thank you for making these histories known on your blog. CF

    1. I'm not surprised the neighbors didn't know what you were talking about, it's kind of tucked away...I suppose that's why the Germans used that spot to begin with. It's a shame it's locked and neglected, I guess it's just so "hidden" the city doesn't feel obliged to maintain it. My guess though is that there's still a ceremony on May 8th, but I'm not sure. Maybe you could ask at the Mairie? Thanks for reading and for the encouragement. Where I live, north of Toulouse, there are a lot of little monuments where Résistants were executed, sometimes one or two, sometimes a dozen or so. It's always sobering but I think sometimes people take them for granted.

  4. Thank you so much for the reply. I will keep at it!


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