Sunday was a day full of history but it also included some focus on the heavier times in France’s history.
We began the day in Gravelotte at the Museum of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Annexation. This provided more background for the Lorraine region and it’s first annexation to German forces (Prussia at the time) before this would occur again in the Second World War. It was interesting going to this museum to see how the region where GTL is based was so affected by war before the world wars even started. France had already been occupied once during this war which I’m sure made it all the more frustrating and defeating when this happened again in WWII. Understanding all the conflict of this area makes it all the more impressive that the European Union as a peace project had any success when it began.
After visiting the museum, we traveled a short distance to the battle site of Dornot-Corny. It’s hard to believe that this was once the site of violent battles and dangerous attempts to cross the Moselle river when the area has now been converted to a vacation spot in France. There were signs along a trail guiding us through the “60 hours of hell” that American soldiers fought through. Many of the signs had quotes that contained first-hand accounts of the battle. It was a reminder of how the US played a role in the efforts to liberate France and how so many lives were lost in the process. It’s easy to forgot that these “smaller” battles that are not given as much attention as other battles like D-Day in Normandy. However, they’re just as important to remember.
After visiting the battle site, we made a short stop to see some Roman aqueducts. These were built when the region was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s impressive to think about how centuries ago, the technology for running water existed and that humans were able to build these huge structures. Pictures don’t really do justice to these aqueducts, but it did provide a good group photo opportunity!
Next was a quick trip to Robert Schuman’s house in Scy-Chazelles. We will be coming back in a few weeks so we didn’t stay for long after our tour of the house. Robert Schuman is often referred to as the Father of the European Union for the efforts he made, along with Jean Monnet and others to convince the founding members of the EU to come together after the war to form the European Coal and Steel Community. This was a huge feat given how close the Schuman Declaration was made to the end of the war and how France and Germany hadn’t even started healing from post-war destruction. It was almost crazy at the time to suggest to a country like France that they could come to a peaceful economic agreement with Germany, the country most still saw as the enemy. But, Schuman had a clear vision that peace would only be possible if these two powers came together to be an example of reconciliation, not just for Europe but for the world. He was such an influential piece to the creation of the EU that it’s an honor to visit the place he called home. Visiting the Schuman house gave us such an insight into who he was as a man and what his priorities were. Schuman was a man who never wanted anything extravagant and led a simple life. He valued books and studies over his own personal comfort. This is made clear by the large amount of space in multiple rooms dedicated to storing his thousands of books compared to his tiny bed in a small bedroom. He was also very religious and lived right across the street from the church he attended so that he could go there as often as he liked. It is also clear that Schuman valued life and beauty which can be seen in the gardens behind the house. We got the chance to walk through the gardens and get a taste of what he would see on a daily basis. As we’ve been studying Schuman and the creation of the EU in detail in our lectures, it was nice to see the home of the man that was so influential into creating the Europe we know today.
The last stop of the day was also the heaviest. After visiting a war museum, a battle site, and the home of an EU founder we had a guided visit of Fort de Queuleu. Just a short walk from the GTL campus, Fort de Queuleu was a Nazi Concentration and Interrogation camp in WWII. When those thought to be part off the Frenc Resistance were found, they were bound by hand and feet, blind folded and driven to the fort. Our guide walked us through the process prisoners went to after arriving. They were pushed or tripped down a long flight of stairs and often bitten by dogs at the bottom. When registering, they were given a number to be known by as a way to dehumanize them. The entire time in the camp, they were bound and blind-folded and forced to be silent. When not being interrogated, they were forced to sit in communal rooms or in personal cells quietly. Always bound and bind-folded, always is a state of sensory-deprivation. This was a tactic used to make the prisoners alone with their thoughts and drive them to a point where they would crack under interrogation. We got to see into the lives of those taken prisoner under Nazi rule and the terrible conditions they lived in. Luckily, there was one brighter story at the end of our tour. There were some prisoners who had a little more freedom because they did labor for the fort. Since they needed mobility and sight to do work, they were the only prisoners not bound and blind-folded. With a series of lucky events, a few prisoners were able to escape and discover that they were in Metz. Since they knew the town, they had places to hide and were able to tell locals what was going on at Queuleu. No one in Metz knew it even existed. It was later liberated by American troops and the area around the Fort has since been converted to biking and jogging trails and play grounds. In one sense, it’s strange seeing an area meant for exercise and recreation on the same land that once contained a concentration camp. But, I believe that is also a testament to the goal of the EU and post-war reconciliation. It’s about preserving the memory so that we don’t forget or repeat the same horrible mistakes. It’s also about taking a place that’s known so much violence and loss of humanity and giving it a fresh start.