The building where the Gestapo tortured, maimed, and killed hundreds of French men and women, and from where thousands were dispatched to gas chambers in the east, sits at fourteen avenue Berthelot near the River Rhone in central Lyon.
Lingering beneath the cooling plane trees lining the courtyard outside a structure that was originally a health college run by the military, it is not difficult to imagine trucks pulling up to disgorge prisoners into the interrogation rooms and dungeons run by the notorious Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon. There are not a lot of distractions as you sit here; few visitors come to what is now Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation or, in English, simply the Museum of the Resistance.
If the history of war is written by the victors, the victors also get to create the museums and the memorials dedicated to those wars. In Britain, visits to Bletchley Park outside London, and the Churchill War Rooms, not far from Westminster, leave no doubt as to who won World War II.
The French at the Museum of the Resistance are less certain. They resisted, unquestionably, as the war went on, and Lyon was a center of that resistance.
But the museum must deal with a darker, more complicated reality: a covenant with the Third Reich that allowed the Vichy government to maintain control of southern France after the defeat of the French army in 1940; the dictatorial anti-Semite, Marshal Pétain, who ran Vichy, and had no trouble announcing that the Jews were responsible for the defeat of France; a population that had even less trouble believing him. As the museum points out, it was not the Germans who rounded up Jewish citizens. They didn’t have to. The French did most of the rounding up and deporting for them.
The British don’t have to deal with these unpleasant facts of history—or do they? This summer, Britain was rocked by ancient black and white footage showing then Princess Elizabeth, her mother, and her sister, Margaret, in 1933 practicing their Nazi salutes, egged on by a happily enthusiastic Uncle Edward, who didn’t think the Third Reich was such a bad idea.
No sooner had the Nazi salute controversy flared, than Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, featuring a photo of him marching at his sister’s funeral with Nazi officers in full uniform. Turns out three of his sisters married German aristocrats who became top Nazis. One sister, Sophie, was pictured at Hermann Goering’s wedding, seated opposite Hitler.
The controversies swirling around the Royal family’s German ties, the close proximity of the sites where history unfolded, all of it has the effect of reminding a visitor just how close the Second World War remains here seventy years after its end.
In North America, the war tends to fade into the background. In Britain, it remains an ever-present reality—and a popular one at that.
On a hot, humid July afternoon the crowds line up down the block from the impressive bronze entranceway of what are now called The Churchill War Rooms located beside the Clive Steps next to the Treasury Building in Whitehall.
Surprisingly, there are large numbers of millennials for whom the world wars started by their grandparents shouldn’t hold much interest. But all ages and nationalities push through the cramped rooms where Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet huddled underground during the worst days of the Blitz. The rooms on display are a mixture of what was originally there and what has been recreated since they opened to the public in 1984 (the Churchill bedroom had to be reconstructed; it had been used for years as a storage area).
Visiting the site, you are overwhelmed by the sheer size and complexity of the effort to defeat the Nazis, particularly when peering into the map room where a small band of men and women gathered information and somehow kept track of a conflict that literally raged around the world, more or less held together by a lot of colored pins poked into a big wall map. High tech is not exactly a word that comes to mind when visiting the war rooms.
It doesn’t even fly off the tongue at Bletchley Park where another band of stout-hearted Brits broke the Nazi codes and thus, according to what they tell you at the park, shortened the war by at least two years—“The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled,” as Churchill memorably put it.
The crowd poking through The Mansion, the headquarters pile built in 1870, is older, much closer to their parents’ war than the kids lined up outside the Churchill rooms. But then the Bletchley estate isn’t easily reached, located in Buckinghamshire, an hour’s drive through a series of roundabouts outside London. What’s more, the men and women who worked here were unknown for nearly thirty years after the war.
Even now, the reason most people visit the park on a perfect summer afternoon, has a great deal to do with the popularity of The Imitation Game, the Academy Award-nominated film about Alan Turing, the conflicted genius who helped create the massive computer, the Bombe, that could quickly break German codes and led to the computer age of which we are all forever a part.
Turing is barely mentioned in either the story about the effort to break the German codes presented by the park or by the guide who shepherds us through a tour of the facility.
In fact, it becomes clear after a few hours at Bletchley that a great deal of The Imitation Game is well-done fiction: no Russian spies, no Eureka moments, and a lot of Poles who played an important part in creating the machines that broke the German Enigma codes.
However, the Bletchley overseers are well aware that the movie, to paraphrase Churchill, is the modern-day equivalent of the goose that laid a golden egg of publicity. Thus, not only is there no effort to confront the falsehoods of The Imitation Game, the movie is actually celebrated with an exhibit of costumes and a couple of sets used when the production filmed inside The Mansion.
The truth of Bletchley is much more complex than any film depiction. No matter how much you read about how they went about it, the whole business of breaking the Enigma codes still leaves most of us scratching our heads. But thankfully, a lot of people knew what they were doing. By war’s end, close to ten thousand people were working at Bletchley, codebreaking on an industrial scale. You cannot help but be impressed by the level of dedication, the breadth of the cunning, and the absolute determination it took to do what they did.
Back at the Museum of the Resistance in Lyon, one leaves the various exhibits and returns to a shadowy courtyard less certain of cunning and determination. Instead, there is a gloomy sense of the immense waste of the war, the brutal and unending ways in which it managed to take so many millions of lives. In today’s world, the fundamentalist killers of the East are the barbarians, but they have nothing on what the Europeans did to one another through two wars of the world over a span of less than thirty years.
Exiting fourteen avenue Berthelot, you think over the experience of the Imperial War Museum, Bletchley Park, the Churchill War Rooms, arriving at the uneasy and unheroic conclusion that there is peace in the Western World largely because an entire continent finally exhausted itself killing one another.
The victors don’t advertise that part so much.