Chan Lowe: The WWI commemoration's most compelling story

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PITTSFIELD — The most compelling story to come out of the Paris centenary commemoration of the WWI armistice was not President Trump's decision to forgo visiting the Aisne-Marne American cemetery and memorial. After all, that was in character. Had his handlers remembered to carry a golf cart in the belly of Air Force One and told him that the cemetery was a course packing uniquely challenging obstacles, he might have played through the rain.

It wasn't even his inability to differentiate between the Baltics and the Balkans, or his crass post-trip tweet that the Parisians were learning German until the Americans came along.

For once, let's ignore him and move on to a small village outside Paris that abuts the Compiegne forest, where arguably the world's most famous railroad car sits on a siding. In that car in late 1918, German generals and officials signed the armistice, which was tantamount to conceding defeat. A mere 22 years later, Adolf Hitler, bent on avenging the dishonor of that day, forced the French to capitulate to his forces in that same railroad car, then went on to dance a jig in front of the Eiffel Tower.

PAULETTE MONIER

Last weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Compiegne to unveil a commemorative plaque in the presence of 1,000 invited villagers and dignitaries. A 101-year-old woman, one Paulette Monier, somehow ended up between them, and President Macron shook her hand. She marveled, "A little old woman like me, shaking hands with the president of the republic! Now don't make me cry!"

Then the crone turned to Chancellor Merkel and asked her, "Are you Mme. Macron?" In French, Frau Merkel said, "I am the chancellor of Germany." The woman, clearly confused, asked her again if she was Mme. Macron, so she repeated it: "Je suis chanceliere allemande."

"C'est fantastique," the old woman exclaimed, "Fantastique!"

Imagine if you were born in 1917, too young to remember the armistice itself but having your childhood in the 1920s shaped by the knowledge that your country had just endured the deadliest conflict in history, in which one out of every 20 Frenchmen and women were killed, and where many more wounded walked the streets — begging, missing limbs and faces and racked with coughing from inhaling poison gas. It would be eight long years before France regained its prewar economy — and that country was nominally one of the war's winners.

As a young girl, this woman faced a severe shortage of eligible males as well as a paucity of life's necessities, since her country had racked up an enormous war debt — most of it owed to the United States.

By the time Paulette reached the age of 21, Adolf Hitler, leader of a resurgent Germany, had been seriously menacing Europe for four years. The Munich Conference was right around the corner. Imagine the terror that young woman felt upon hearing the news that "Les Boches" were at it again.

OCCUPATION

Sure enough, at 23, she witnessed the Wehrmacht — using revolutionary blitzkrieg tactics — once again invading. This time, the Germans overwhelmed French forces and occupied her beloved country. She may have joined the crowds on the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees in 1940 to watch silent and stone-faced as the Fuehrer himself passed in his Mercedes staff car, arm outstretched, performing the fascist salute.

Thus began four years of deprivation as the crude occupiers toured her capital city's landmarks, ate in its fine restaurants and took over its hotels. She and other Frenchwomen either repelled their advances or succumbed in exchange for food to feed themselves and their families, so desperate were the times.

In 1944 came liberation at the hands of cocky, well-fed Americans who buzzed by in armored vehicles, tossing Hershey bars to the crowd. She may have even jumped up on a Sherman tank and kissed one of them. It was one of the happiest days of her life.

Last Sunday this spry little woman, over a century old, found herself between her president and a woman whom she mistook for the first lady of France. That nice woman then told her, incredibly, that she was the heir to the office once occupied by Hitler himself, the leader of the nation Paulette had grown up hating and fearing with every sinew in her body. She can be forgiven for seeming a bit confused.

When Donald Trump chose to relax in the U.S. ambassador's residence that Sunday to watch TV rather than acknowledge the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom, he dishonored not only those brave soldiers but also Paulette Monier's long, war-torn life, as well as the generational sufferings of her countrymen. Chancellor Merkel, on the other hand, managed to show up to take part in the remembrances.

Predictably, Trump blamed his advisers for failing to warn him that ditching the memorial ceremony was a public relations disaster in the making. You'd think the president of the United States, showman that he is, could have figured that one out for himself.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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