Many readers, I expect, will be familiar with the apocryphal and purportedly amusing anecdote about the German visitor to Glasgow who sees a mother slap her child. 'In Germany, we do not strike children,' says the German reproachfully. 'In Govan, we do not burn Jews,' replies the mother.
Two aspects of this squib strike me as interesting. The first is that it is the mother who is judged to have won the exchange, by countering well-intentioned officiousness with a cheap racial sneer. The second is that the story rests on the assumption that an historical shorthand remains instantly recognisable 80 years after the events it caricatures. When continental people accuse Britain of failing to move its attitudes on from the Second World War, this is the sort of thing they mean. Germany? Jackboots, invading Poland and vee vill ask ze qvestions
. Britain? Blitz fortitude, Dunkirk spirit, finest hour and Vera Lynn. QED.
The frame through which Britain sees the world remains shaped in large measure by The Great Escape
, Dam Busters March
and 'Allo 'Allo!
. Just look at the history shelves in any bookshop. We duly adjudge Germans to be bellicose, Italians cowardly, the French defeatist, the Japanese cruel and the Americans (for all our habitual deference) prone to show up late. How hilarious that Basil Fawlty, faced with a party of young Germans, found it impossible – in 1975 – not to mention the war.
This is, in my view, a defining difference between the UK and its neighbours, from Brittany to the Balkans. A few years ago, I went to Auschwitz, a searing experience that intrudes on my dreams to this day. I talked to the Poles, many of them young, who work as curators at the camp. Some have even made their homes there, in the worst place in the world. I asked how they felt when coachloads of German tourists came to visit. Few countries, after all, suffered more under Nazism than Poland. Without exception, they welcomed it. It betokened a Germany ready to confront and understand its grim past.
Perhaps mine was a common question, and the answer rehearsed. But after that, and on subsequent visits, I noticed how scrupulous Poles are to distinguish between Nazis and Germans. Nazis, not Germans, committed the atrocities. Nazis were then, Germans are now.
The French, in my experience of living here, are generally just as demonstrative in trying to look forward rather than back. Every town has streets named after Jean Moulin, but also after Jean Monnet. They regard the carnage of the Second World War as the supreme, imperative reason why the European project cannot be allowed to fail (many of the British politicians who saw the fighting at first hand – Heath, Healey, Jenkins, Carrington, Whitelaw – felt the same way). It is the reason the EU flag invariably flies alongside the Tricolour on French public buildings; the reason French (and German) schoolchildren are made familiar with the famous picture of Mitterand and Kohl holding hands at Verdun.
Yet, at the same time, there is no denying that the ambiguities of France's ordeal under occupation – the claims and counter-claims of collaboration and even of collusion in some vile barbarities – make the war a topic that the French do not like to talk about. Too many sensitivities lie deep hidden in memory and folklore. Too many families have more than simple sorrow in their emotional heritage.
And so, some uneasy headlines are being written about the gruesome excavation that has been taking place these past few weeks near Meymac, south-east of Limoges. Guided by the memory of the sole surviving witness, 98-year-old Edmond Réveil, workmen are exhuming corpses from a mass grave that its occupants were forced to dig prior to being shot in June 1944. The victims were 46 German prisoners of war, plus one Frenchwoman accused of collaboration. Their executioners were Réveil's fellow fighters in the local resistance. The objective now is to return the bodies to Germany, if possible to surviving kin.
No-one, publicly at least, is questioning the propriety of what is being done, nor the cost and effort of doing it. Nor is anyone demanding answers as to how the hallowed heroes of the resistance could have done such a monstrous thing; nor parading instant historical revisionism on social media. The public response thus far is distinctly muted. In truth, it would be easy to come up with some more or less rational justifications. Meymac is not far from Oradour-sur-Glane, where just two days earlier the Waffen-SS had notoriously massacred an entire village. Food and shelter were in short supply, and there was no easy means of holding the prisoners. It is also now known that a secret excavation, in 1967, already led to 11 bodies being exhumed and discreetly returned to Germany.
But the bigger truth is that France long ago accepted that the history of those years is not the vivid chiaroscuro of light and dark, good and evil, that the more gung-ho mythologies promote. The over-arching moral choice between fascism and democracy was and is crystal clear. But France's war, like all ground wars, was nuanced, a thing of many greys. There was towering courage and tender compassion, beyond question. But there was also collaboration and connivance, shabbiness and shame. Alongside the defiant dignity of De Gaulle, stands the indignity of Vichy. It was never a simple story, and France has learned not to try to make it one, even when telling it to itself.
Our home is on the edge of what was, and to an extent still is, the Jewish quarter of Montpellier. The city synagogue stands at its heart, encompassing a school and radio station. Close by in one direction is a bleak monastery where the abbot, Charles Prévost, gave shelter to 44 Jewish children from the secret Izieu colony, at the request of its founder Sabine Zlatin, after they had been betrayed to Klaus Barbie's Gestapo… by a French collaborator. On 6 April 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz. None returned.
Nearby in the other direction, not by coincidence, was the villa, now demolished, that was Gestapo HQ in Montpellier. A plaque across the road commemorates the fall in January 1945 of a resistance fighter, Georges Vuillemin. That sort of history, crammed into a few months and metres, discourages VistaVision fantasies about goodies and baddies.
France, like other countries across the continent where the ground war raged (including Germany), has learned to be suspicious of simplistic attributions of good or evil. Britain, the island that was never invaded, has not developed the same circumspection. Even so, in our own times, we see enough of other wars to know that it is rarely just one side that has things to hide, or things of which to be proud. The bones at Meymac kept their terrible secret for eight long decades. But the truth that they emerge now to tell is paint-fresh today; and older than the mountains of Limousin.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster