On May 8th, 1945, church bells rang throughout Paris, ushering in a new age of peace in Europe. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, announced an official declaration over the radio, announcing an end to the conflict we recognize as World War II and marking the conclusion of a six-year war and the Nazi oppression in France. Having been the symbolic leader of the Resistance in France during the German Occupation, de Gaulle addressed his countrymen and their allies with a moving speech that reached the very core of French hearts.
“The war is won. This is victory. It is the victory of the United Nations and of France. The German enemy has just capitulated before the Allied armies of the West and the East. The French Command was present and took part during the act of capitulation…
While the rays of glory shine once more on our resplendent flag, the nation expresses its thoughts and love, first, toward those who died for her, then toward those, who in her service fought and suffered so much for her. Not one effort of these soldiers, of these sailors, of these aviators, not one act of courage or selflessness of her sons and of her daughters, not one suffering of these men and women prisoners, not one mourning, not one sacrifice, not one tear will have thus been lost in vain. In joy and national pride, the French people address their fraternal salute to their valiant allies, who, like themselves, and for the same cause, have long and painfully languished in sorrow. To their heroic armies and to the leaders who command them, to all these men and to all these women, who in the entire world, have fought, suffered, worked, so that in the end of ends, justice and liberty would be theirs. Honor! Honor for all our armies and their leaders, honor to our people whose terrible trials have neither reduced nor weakened them, honor to the United Nations who have joined their blood to our blood, their sorrows to our sorrows, their hope to our hope, and who today triumph with us. ….Long live France!”
Victory over the Axis powers was celebrated worldwide in every major city, but nowhere was it more welcoming than in Paris. A sensitive subject for most of the French who endured this era of resisted subjugation, my introduction to this period in history was through my host grandmother, Genevieve Guy, who is now ninety-nine years old.
Genevieve remembered life under the puppet government of Vichy in southern France and would tell me about it whenever it was just the two of us at the chateau that her family has lived in for generations. After school, I would often sit and talk with her about her experiences. Ration cards, curfews, using car tires for shoes, and even executions in her town englobed her experiences during the Nazi occupation. Most of her stories she told to me while we were watching a documentary on World War II together. Having formed a very close bond with me, she imparted how she and others dealt with events at the time. She told me about the opposing viewpoints of de Gaulle and of Pétain, the president of Vichy, France, and about the shame of the collaborators and their punishment after the Allied Victory. I also learned about Jean Moulin, the Resistance leader in southern France, who was a native of Béziers where I was living. Most of all, she talked about her father, a former soldier of the First World War. At the outbreak of World War II, he was then a doctor in Montpellier, in the Languedoc region of France. His feeling was one of disgust with the war due to his disappointment in how the First World War had accomplished so little. Nevertheless, the end of World War II meant more than simply reinstituting national pride in people like her father. It also meant that she herself no longer had to watch idly as a generation of men and women coped with having been vanquished. The 8th of May represented something momentous to her. It was a revitalization of the French communal spirit. The reunifying effect after Victory in Europe Day was an assurance that the soul of France was still intact. Therefore, this day, like that of seventy-two years ago, we must acknowledge the rebellious spirit of the millions of men and women who endured so much. Their tears were not in vain. May they never be forgotten.