Workers began digging in central France on Wednesday for the remains of dozens of German soldiers said to have been executed by Resistance fighters during World War II.
Local authorities said in July that a potential “mass grave” had been found near Meymac in the Correze department, after a 98-year-old former Resistance fighter went public with claims of the killings. If successful, the excavation would “allow the bodies of these German soldiers, forgotten for 80 years, to be exhumed”, Meymac mayor Philippe Brugere told AFP.
That way they could be “returned to Germany, and perhaps above all to their families”, he added.
Former fighter Edmond Reveil has in recent years revealed how a group of 46 German soldiers and a Frenchwoman suspected of collaborating with the occupying forces were executed on June 12, 1944.
He was a member of the Communist-aligned local partisan group that carried out the killings on a wooded hill near Meymac.
Reveil told AFP that the Resistance had to kill the Germans as their small group, only around 30 strong, had no way of keeping them prisoner.
“If we had let the Germans go, they would have destroyed Meymac,” he said.
The town could have become “a second Oradour”, Reveil added — referring to a town just over 100 kilometres (60 miles) away that was wiped out by the SS the same month.
He had previously told the local newspaper La Vie Correzienne: “We felt ashamed, but did we have a choice?”
References by Reveil and others to the executions as a “war crime” have sparked intense debate in France.
“Freeing (the Germans) would have meant this group of Resistance fighters signing their own death warrant,” Bernard Delaunay, president of the Correze Friends of the Resistance, told France Inter radio on Wednesday.
France’s National Office for Former Fighters and War Victims (ONACVG) is leading the dig, in cooperation with Germany’s VDK war graves authority.
The excavations are set to last until August 27.
A previous dig was carried out in secret in the 1960s, with 11 bodies retrieved.