Bonn's troops drum up storm for Bastille Day

Click to follow
GERMAN troops will parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees tomorrow for the first time since the Second World War, a prospect that has made former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing turn tearful on television and divided many survivors of the war. The soldiers, unlike the goose-stepping stormtroopers of 54 years ago whose military songs underlined the humiliation of France's defeat, will be the soul of discretion.

Watched by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Francois Mitterrand's guest of honour, members of the Eurocorps, the mainly German and French multinational force based in Strasbourg, will drive down the avenue in military vehicles together with men from Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain. Their national flags will be carried together at the head of the Eurocorps contingent.

Predictably, the announcement of the decision to invite German troops to the annual Bastille Day parade caused controversy. In addition, a report by a Gaullist senator released this week criticised the force, saying that it will be incapable of fulfilling its role in 1995 when it is scheduled to become fully operational with 40,000 men.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing became emotional in a live interview during the run-up to last month's European election when, although himself one of the prime movers behind post-war reconciliation, he recalled how, as a youth, he heard German soldiers singing outside his home.

The gesture, announced in May at a regular Franco-German summit meeting, was seen as a way of placating criticism of the decision not to invite Germany to the ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy last month.

With the Communist Party calling for demonstrations saying that the invitation to the descendants of the men who occupied France was an insult to the Resistance, opinions varied over whether the idea was good or bad. Robert-Andre Vivien, a Gaullist deputy, said he was 'shocked and indignant' that Germans should be allowed on Paris's main avenue. 'On 14 June 1940, the Germans marched along the Champs-Elysees,' he said. 'Out of despair and shame, Thierry de Martel, an eminent doctor, committed suicide.' The 14 of July was a national, not an international, event.

In contrast, several Resistance leaders said they viewed the event as an excellent symbol. Lucie Aubrac whose husband was tortured by Klaus Barbie, the 'Butcher of Lyons', said she approved and that a distinction should be made between men under Nazi command and modern German soldiers. Jacques Baumel, another Resistance fighter, said 'you can't claim to build the future by constantly referring to the past. Otherwise, you'd have to end Franco-British relations in the name of Waterloo.'

A different sort of criticism came from Michel Caldagues, the Gaullist senator, whose report on the Eurocorps asked whether it was right for 'a unit whose operational status has plainly not been achieved to be exhibited among units which are fully operational'.

On top of all this was the contribution of some German veterans themselves who recalled how pleasant occupying France was compared with fighting on the Eastern Front or even staying home under Allied bombings. Some even learned how to make cheese in Normandy. 'France was paradise for German soldiers,' said Professor Klaus-Jurgen Muller, a Hamburg war historian.