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Son of French soldier killed in WWII files compensation claim in Germany

The son of a French soldier who was killed during World War II after being forced to fight for the Nazis has filed a complaint against Germany, demanding the same compensation as orphans of German soldiers.

Son of French soldier killed in WWII files compensation claim in Germany
An exhibition is Alsace remembering the 'Malgre Nous'. Photo: AFP

The father of Gerard Michel was one of 130,000 French soldiers from the Alsace region of eastern France conscripted into German forces in World War II. 

The group are known as the “Malgre Nous” (Against our Will).

“Germany refuses to compensate us in the same way as the German orphans, telling us we're not German,” Michel told AFP.

“But they dragged away our dads, labelling them as German – whether they liked it or not,” he said, noting that he is asking for “exactly the same compensation as German war orphans and widows – not a cent more, not a cent less.” 

Michel filed the complaint over the forced conscription of both his father and uncle in 1944 and 1943 at the public prosecutor's office in Strasbourg, alleging a crime against humanity, he told AFP, confirming a report by regional daily L'Alsace.

The Malgre Nous soldiers received a one-off payment after France and Germany reached an agreement in 1981. But they did not receive monthly German benefits, as they were considered French veterans.

“My father sacrificed himself… leaving behind my pregnant mother. He was buried in a mass grave in Poland, like so many others, and Germany has not even apologised,” Michel said.

He said that French orphans of fathers killed fighting for Germany received €920 under the 1981 accord. But he complained that a person who had volunteered for the SS could collect €400 a month or €192,000 over a 40-year period. 

“That's 200 times more,” Michel said.

In June, the French Armed Forces ministry confirmed that five ex-soldiers were among the 54 people in France who receive German World War II pensions. 

In February, the confirmation that a handful of Nazi collaborators in Belgium still receive German benefits sparked outrage.

These monthly benefits are awarded to Belgian citizens who worked with the German Wehrmacht, as well as those forcibly conscripted from the annexed parts of eastern Belgium. 

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WAR

Germans urged to ‘defend democracy’ 75 years after Dresden WWII bombing

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Germans to "defend democracy" on the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Dresden in World War II on Thursday, as the emboldened far right rattles the political establishment.

Germans urged to 'defend democracy' 75 years after Dresden WWII bombing
Photo: DPA

The anniversary has a complex legacy in Germany, where right-wing extremists have long inflated the number of people killed in the Allied air raids in a bid to play down the Nazis' crimes.

In a speech at Dresden's Palace of Culture, Steinmeier sought to strike a balance between remembering the 25,000 victims, while stressing Germany's responsibility for the war.

Steinmeier warned against the “political forces” that sought to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon”.

“Let's work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering,” he told an audience that included Britain's Prince Edward.

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in forming a human chain of “peace and tolerance”.

As in past years, neo-Nazis were gathering in Dresden to hold “funeral marches” for the dead. The far-right AfD party meanwhile set up an information booth to tell the supposed “truth” about the bombings and demand a grander memorial for the victims.

READ ALSO: Germany remembers 75 years since Dresden's destruction

A candle being lit for victims of the Dresden bombing. Photo: DPA

Martyrdom

Hundreds of British and American planes pounded Dresden with conventional and incendiary explosives from February 13-15 in 1945.

Historians have calculated that the ensuing firestorm killed some 25,000 people, leaving the baroque city known as “Florence on the Elbe” in ruins, and wiping out its historic centre.

The devastation came to symbolise the horrors of war, much like the heavily bombed city of Coventry in England.

But in Germany, Dresden also became a focal point for neo-Nazis who gave the city a martyrdom status that experts say is belied by historical facts.

READ ALSO: 'Heal the wounds of history': Dresden and twin city remember 75 years since bombing

“The myth of the 'city of innocence' lives on,” the regional Sächsische Zeitung daily wrote.

This year's anniversary is especially charged as Germany reels from a political scandal that erupted in neighbouring Thuringia state last week, where an AfD-backed candidate was elected state premier for the first time.

Although he swiftly resigned, the drama marked a coup for the AfD – laying bare the struggle of mainstream parties to maintain the firewall against a party that has called for Germany to stop atoning for its Nazi past.

In a nod to the Thuringia debacle, Steinmeier warned of vigilance against politicians trying “to destroy democracy from within.

“There is a clear border between a liberal democracy,” he said, “and authoritarian, nationalist politics”.

“We must all defend this border.”

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday. Photo: DPA

Inflated figures

Some observers have questioned whether the indiscriminate bombing of Dresden was justified so late in the war, an argument hijacked by neo-Nazis eager to shift the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors of WWII.

The Allied forces however considered Dresden a legitimate target on the eastern front because of its transport links and factories supporting the German military machine.

In the immediate aftermath, Nazi propagandists claimed over 200,000 people had lost their lives in Dresden — but historical records showed early on they had simply added a zero to their estimates.

Yet right-wing extremists continue to cite wildly elevated tolls.

AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla told Der Spiegel weekly that his grandmother and father recalled seeing “mountains of bodies” after the firebombing.

He said he believes the victims numbered “around 100,000”, prompting critics to accuse him of historical revisionism.

Founded just seven years ago, the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has risen to become the largest opposition party in the national parliament.

It is most popular in the country's former communist east. In Dresden's Saxony state, the AfD came second in regional polls last year.

Dresden bombing survivor Ursula Elsner, who was 14 when her mother dragged her to safety past burning buildings, told Spiegel she was tired of the anniversary being misused for political gain.

The 89-year-old wants the occasion to serve as a warning against war.

“This day belongs to us,” she said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

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