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War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945

War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945

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War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945

456 pagine
6 ore
Mar 28, 2008


During the first half of the twentieth century, the French Basque province of Xiberoa was a place of refuge, conflict, and foreign occupation. With the liberation of France in 1944, many Xiberoans faced new conflicts arising from legal and civic judgments made during Vichy and German occupation. War, Judgment, and Memory in the Basque Borderlands traces the roots of their divided memories of the era to local and official interpretations of judgment, behavior, and justice during those troubled times.
In order to understand how the Great War affected the Xiberoan Basques’ perceptions of themselves, Ott contrasts the experiences of people in four different communities located within a fifteen-mile radius. The author also examines how the disruption during the interwar years affected intracommunity relations during the Occupation, the Liberation, and its aftermath. This narrative reveals the diverse ways in which Basques responded to civil war, world war, and displacement, and to one another.
Mar 28, 2008

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War, Judgment, And Memory In The Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945 - Sandra Ott


War, Judgment, and Memory in the Basque Borderlands, 1914–1945


University of Nevada Press

Reno and Las Vegas

The Basque Series

University of Nevada Press, Reno, Nevada 89557 USA

Copyright © 2008 by University of Nevada Press

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ott, Sandra.

    War, judgment, and memory in the Basque borderlands, 1914–1945 / Sandra Ott.

        p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-87417-738-1 (hardcover : alk. paper)

    1. Pays Basque (France)—History—20th century.  2. World War, 1914–1918—France—Pays Basque.  3. World War, 1939–1945—France—Pays Basque.  I. Title.

DC611.B319088    2008

    944′.716081—dc22         2007040984

ISBN-13: 978-0-87417-742-8 (ebook)

For my beloved sister, Sharon Ott


List of Illustrations





1: Insiders, Outsiders, and Trans-Pyrenean Relations

2: Urdos, a Borderland Moral Community

3: Basques in the Great War

4: The Roots of Divided Memories in Maule

5: Class Conflict, Displacement, and Fear of the Other

6: Xiberoans Under Vichy

7: The German Occupation and Resistance in Xiberoa

8: The Tragedy of Ospitaleku

9: Resisting Divisiveness Through Ritual in Urdos

10: Denunciation, Rumor, and Revenge in Sustary

11: The Divisiveness of Liberation

12: Uneasy Commemorations

13: Remembering the Resistance in Popular Theater







PHOTOGRAPHS (following page 130)

Uztarroze Basque family, Erronkari Valley, Nafarroa, c. 1910

Swallows from the Erronkari Valley, in Maule, c. 1927

German officers, Hotel Bidegain, Maule, 1943

The town hall, war memorial, and medieval fort in Maule

Canon Ithurbide with colleagues and pupils, Collège de Saint-François, Maule, 1943

A Xiberoan shepherd-passeur and a child, 1980

Clement de Jaureguiberry

Mme Lasserre Davancens

Xiberoan Resistance leaders and Alsatian refugees at the Liberation in Maule, August 1944


The cycle of giving and receiving blessed bread in Urdos


Map 1. The Basque Country and adjacent territories in France and Spain

Map 2. Pyrenean borderlands: Xiberoa, Nafarroa, Aragón, and Béarn

Map 3. Occupied France, 1940–1945


Anthropologists who have conducted fieldwork in France rarely devote more than a few pages to the two world wars, which profoundly altered French culture and society in the twentieth century. Few ethnographers mention the German Occupation in their analyses of village life and its recent past (Wylie 1974; Zonabend 1978).¹ The ethnographic gap may derive in part from ethical issues and the reluctance of informants to talk about local experiences, actions, and events that pitted the French against their fellow citizens during 1940–45. In some parts of France villagers rarely, if ever, saw Germans or Allied soldiers and never suffered the physical damage caused by combat and bombings. Yet, as Laurence Wylie shows in his account of one such village in the Vaucluse, the war nevertheless had a devastating effect on intracommunity relations there. Wylie describes a wartime atmosphere of bitterness, deprivation, and distrust among villagers, who were deeply divided by suspicion, jealousy, and personal animosities. The formation of a maquis in the area exacerbated tensions among local citizens. No violence, arrests, or serious denunciations occurred in the village, but intracommunity quarrels turned people against each other to such an extent that feuding factions continued to exist after the war ended (Wylie 1974: 27–30).

One can only wonder what archival research might reveal about those lingering antagonisms and their wartime roots. As my own research in the northern Basque Country has revealed, departmental and other wartime archives contain a wealth of ethnographic material that enables in-depth explorations of complex, delicate issues such as denunciation, local betrayals, collaboration, and collaborationism.² For the anthropologist, the archives also have much to teach about the mundane concerns of everyday life under occupation, the conflicts and tensions that existed before the Germans arrived, and the web of relationships in which local citizens became entangled as they tried to cope with their unusual circumstances.

As Richard Cobb (1983: 108) once observed, it is difficult to recapture something of the familiarity, even the sheer banality of day-to-day relations between people who experienced the Occupation. Certain local studies, memoirs, wartime correspondence, and works of fiction do, however, give a human dimension to the choices people faced during 1940–45.³ The literary and cultural critic Tzvetan Todorov (1996) provides a dramatic account of civil war in one French town, where the local resistance group made an ill-fated attempt to liberate their community in June 1944. Resisters executed their hostages (collaborationists) and triggered a reprisal by miliciens and German soldiers, who rounded up and killed Jewish citizens in the town. Todorov’s examination of the events that culminated in such tragedy raises important moral questions about the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility in wartime, a theme in my own study of Basque resistance groups and their relationship with civilians.⁴

In his study of several different communities in the Loire valley, social historian Robert Gildea (2002) explores the diverse and often surprising ways in which the occupation affected the lives of citizens who were neither Good French nor Bad French but often a mixture of the two. Like me, Gildea was interested in the varied and often contradictory experiences of ordinary citizens and the strategies they used to cope with their circumstances. His research shows that Franco-German relations were not always as brutal as people often portray them. Some Germans and French citizens learned how to live together. Gildea also found that the dark years of occupation were not always characterized by hunger, cold, and fear. The French also demonstrated imagination, resourcefulness and Gallic cunning in order to make the Occupation liveable (ibid.: 419). My own local study of Basques under the Occupation reveals a similar picture and offers some new insights into Franco-German relations at a grass-roots level.

Another eminent British historian of Vichy and the Occupation, H. R. Kedward, was likewise interested in the experiences of ordinary people, especially those who became maquisards in southern France. In his classic study of rural resistance, Kedward investigates the nature and life of the maquis, which he analyzes as both a choice and as a necessity in the face of increasing German pressure and demands (1994: vi). Kedward shows how the maquis was an inventive adaptation of everyday lives to new forms of wartime survival (ibid.: 284). His analyses of the maquis and the culture of the outlaw demonstrate that the maquis inverted the traditional rule of law under Vichy in the name of higher justice (Diamond and Kitson 2005: 2–3). His theoretical work on the inversion of power relationships under Vichy and occupation has special relevance to my own research on class and ethnic conflict in the Basque town of Maule.

Robert Gildea and H. R. Kedward combined the techniques of history and anthropology by drawing upon wartime archives and extensive interviews with people who had direct experience of the Occupation. Their works inspired me to write this local study of Basques under occupation and to fill a major gap in the existing literature about a little known corner of France, Iparralde, literally the northern side of the seven provinces that constitute the Basque Country (Euskal Herria).⁵ I focus on the easternmost, mountainous province of Xiberoa (Soule, in French), one of three Basque provinces located in the French state in the western Pyrenees. Located in the Spanish state, Nafarroa (Navarre) lies to the south and the Occitan province of Béarn lies to the north and east of Xiberoa in France.

I have returned to Xiberoa every year since 1976 and thus have had a rare opportunity, as an ethnographer, to maintain close friendships there and to create new ones with a wide range of Basques across the province. During leave from my duties as an administrator at the University of Oxford in 2000, I became interested in the Resistance and Occupation in Xiberoa and spent several weeks there working on a project that dealt, in part, with Xiberoans’ experiences during 1940–44. When I took up my academic appointment in the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2002, I began the research upon which much of this book is based. I concentrated on Xiberoa for various reasons. I had numerous well-established contacts there and spoke their dialect of Basque. The French edition of my monograph about a Xiberoan shepherding community (Ott 1993a) and a documentary film I made there with Granada Television (1986) had been well received by Xiberoans as a record of practices and rituals that had become obsolete and as a means of recovering aspects of a past that they wanted to remember. Many Xiberoans had already linked me with the preservation of la mémoire, a process of remembering the past that is valued in France for what it has to teach younger and future generations. The province also offered an opportunity to study the impact of both Vichy and German rule in a Pyrenean borderland.

I did fieldwork in Xiberoa for a period of eight months, at different stages, between the spring of 2003 and February 2005. I was primarily based in the Xiberoan capital, Maule, where I lived in the house of a couple who often shared their memories of the Occupation with me. I spent three weeks in the village of Sustary and another three weeks in Urdos.⁶ To complement my fieldwork, I spent eight weeks working in the departmental archives of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in Pau, where I concentrated on classified documents relating to Vichy, the Occupation, and post-Liberation trials of suspected collaborators and collaborationists.⁷ In 2003 I also spent two months in the provinces of Lapurdi (Labourd) and Behe Nafarroa (Lower Navarre). Both provinces came under German control soon after Philippe Pétain signed France’s armistice in June 1940. Only Xiberoa fell under Vichy rule in the so-called Free Zone, until Germany occupied all of France in November 1942.

As happened elsewhere in France, Xiberoan Basques responded in a variety of ways to the opportunities that life under Vichy and German occupation presented and the threats posed not only by those regimes, but also by fellow citizens and by strangers who passed through the territory (Gildea 2002). In both towns and countryside, the experience of war and occupation tested the resilience of local values and institutions and often undermined accepted standards of human conduct. In some Xiberoan communities, war and occupation also led to the suspension and, in some cases, demise of long-standing local customs and social practices. In order to understand how traditional sociocultural practices conditioned Basques’ responses to resistance, collaboration, and the process of liberation from 1940 until 1945, I trace the roots of the Xiberoan moral community to Basque customary law and then chart the legacy of political conflict and socioethnic tensions from the first decades of the twentieth century until the post-Liberation period.


First of all, I would like to thank the Xiberoan people who kindly shared their memories, family photographs, unpublished memoirs, private archives, their homes, hospitality, and friendship with me. I could not have written this book without their assistance, trust, and encouragement. The fieldwork upon which the book is based spans thirty years. Many of the Xiberoan Basques who first talked to me about their experiences during the Occupation have now passed away; I remain extremely grateful to them. Of the sixty people who worked closely with me during fieldwork in 2003–2005, I owe special thanks to M. Joanny, who introduced me to a wide range of former Secret Army resisters and sympathizers, as well as to some of their critics. Through her, I met M. Micki Béguerie, a former resister who kindly arranged for me to meet CFP veterans and generously included me in their annual commemorative gatherings at Ospitaleku. I also thank the Xiberoan playwright M. Jean-Louis Davant, whose detailed knowledge of Xiberoan resistance greatly aided my research. I am very grateful as well to M. Jean de Jaureguiberry, the late M. André Barbe-Labarthe, M. Georges Recalt, and M. Georges Althapignet, veteran resisters who shared their memories of the Occupation with me. M. Jojo Malharin generously lent me his father’s substantial collection of private-correspondence and military reports about the Resistance (CFP) in Xiberoa.

Special thanks are also owed to Mme Madalon Rodrigo Nicolau and M. Román Pérez, who provided invaluable information about trans-Pyrenean relations and the experiences of Navarrese and Aragonese people who settled in the Xiberoan capital, Maule, during the 1920s and 1930s. M. and Mme Amigo offered many insights into relations between factory owners and workers in Maule. I also thank Mme Odette Huerta for having made two scrapbooks for me with photos and narratives about her two brothers, both of whom she lost as a result of the war. I am equally indebted to the late Mme Marie-Louise Lasserre Davancens, who bravely told me about her experiences during the Occupation and in the Nazi camp at Ravensbrück. I also cherish the many hours I spent listening to Mme Rosemary Siedenburg, who participated in the Normandy landings in 1944 and whose husband was interned at Gurs during the Occupation. I owe special thanks as well to Giselle Lougarot and Poyo and Odile Althabegoity, Denis Cassard and Marie-Antoinette Cassard Althabegoity, Jean Duhau, Dominique Baptiste, Rufino Jaureguy, Paul Fagoaga, and to the family, who have included me in their household since we first met in 1979, and whom I dearly love.

Several local educators also deserve special acknowledgment. I am greatly indebted to M. Robert Elissondo, a history teacher who recorded several elderly Xiberoans and shared their narratives with me. M. Elissondo kindly read and commented on several chapters of this book. The director of the Collège de Saint-François in Maule, M. Christian Espeso, invited me to several educational events at the school. I owe special thanks to two teachers at the college, M. Joël Larroque and Mme Luxi Etxecopar Camus, for their assistance with my research and generous hospitality. M. Larroque provided detailed comments on several chapters, for which I am most grateful. A retired school teacher, M. Pierre-Paul Dalgalarrondo, let me copy twenty tapes of interviews recorded by local history enthusiasts during the 1960s and 1980s, in which people described their experiences during the 1930s and under occupation.

I am also very indebted to colleagues whose encouragement, advice, and constructive criticism helped me make a difficult transition from university administration back into academia. I shall always be immensely grateful to the late Rodney Needham, my friend and mentor of many years, and to Simon Collison, a long-standing loyal friend who unselfishly provided much needed moral support as I made important personal and professional transitions at the start of my research. In 2000 Geoffrey Thomas generously granted me leave from my position in the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford and thus played a vital role in relaunching my academic career. His ongoing support is greatly valued. Special thanks are owed to Gloria Totoricagüena, former director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada (Reno), for her encouragement, support, and friendship. I am also very grateful to my other colleagues at the Center: Jill Berner, Kate Camino, Argitxu Camus Etxecopar, Bill Douglass, Xabier Irujo, and Joseba Zulaika. I would like to give special thanks to William A. Christian for his friendship and mentorship. I am grateful for the time and energy spent by Francesca Cappelletto, Rob Zaretsky, Yves Pourcher, and Bill Kidd in reading and commenting upon draft chapters of this book. I appreciate Sarah Fishman for encouraging me to join French history societies in this country and for including me on conference panels. I value the copyediting performed by Sarah Nestor. Joanne O’Hare, Charlotte Dihoff, and Sara Vélez Mallea’s support and interest in my work have been indispensable. My greatest debt of intellectual gratitude is to Rod Kedward and Robert Gildea, whose studies of the Resistance, Vichy, and the Occupation have long inspired me and whose guidance and detailed comments on my work have helped me tremendously.

I am grateful to the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, for having funded many of my research expenses during 2003–2005 and to the College of Liberal Arts for a generous Scholarly and Creative Activities Grant awarded to me in 2006. I am also grateful to Martine de Boisdeffre, the minister of culture and communication, by delegation, and the director of archives in France for having granted me permission to consult classified documents in the departmental archives of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and to the staff responsible for those archives in Pau. I am very grateful as well to Matt Sauls for his instructive comments on several chapters, his patience with me while I wrote this book, his intellectual curiosity, and his many kindnesses. Lastly, I extend my heartfelt thanks to my sister, Sharon Ott, and to Matt for their encouragement, friendship, and love.



During the spring of 1977, I spent most mornings copying parish records in a chilly, musty room in the town hall of a Pyrenean borderland community in the northern Basque province of Xiberoa. In an adjacent office, the priest spent most of his time on the telephone, talking to the authorities about the welfare of local citizens, their schools, roads, and agricultural subsidies, and employment opportunities for young people who did not wish to remain on the family farm. In keeping with local custom, the priest played a dual role as the community’s spiritual and secular leader. As the town-hall secretary, he effectively controlled relations between his parishioners and outsiders, including representatives of the French state. The priest enjoyed arguing with departmental and cantonal officials and was quite proud of his success as a negotiator and a defender of both individual citizens and the wider community. He greatly admired his predecessor, who had mediated the delicate relations between his parishioners and the Germans who occupied the community continuously from December 1942 until late August 1944.

When I opened the slightly damp, leather-bound book of death records for 1943, I found an entry for one young shepherd, Tomas Garat. Beneath his name, the priest had written in tiny letters: died in Buchenwald, November 1943, twenty-one years old. When I returned to the farmhouse in which I lived, I told my hostess, Gabrielle, what little I knew about Tomas Garat. She told me that he was a clandestine guide who regularly took fugitives across the mountains into Spain during Vichy rule and the German Occupation. One night, the Germans caught Tomas taking four Jews to the Spanish border. They took Tomas to the Gestapo headquarters in Sustary and then deported him to Buchenwald in the summer of 1943. I don’t know what happened to the poor Jews. After a long pause, she added: "We can’t blame everything on the Germans, Sandy. We hated them, for what they did to people and for being here. But we ourselves were responsible for some of the terrible things that happened." Gabrielle was twenty-eight years old when the Germans arrived in her mountain community one cold December day in 1942, by which time her fiancé had already spent two years in Germany as a prisoner of war.

During the course of my fieldwork, several other survivors of the Occupation echoed Gabrielle’s resentment about the long-term presence of the Germans in their mountain valley (A. Carricart, M. Idiart, M.-L. Lascombes 1978: pers. comms.). Such resentment arose in part from the Germans’ requisitioning of property, which had more than economic value for the local people. Their resentment also derived from notions of space and belonging, recurring themes in this book. Although Gabrielle’s remark about responsibility (ardüra) struck me forcibly at the time, I did not fully appreciate it until 2003–2004, when questions about responsibility arose repeatedly as elderly Xiberoans recalled events and experiences during the Occupation and afterward. As they made clear, responsibility entailed individual acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions.

By the spring of 1977, Gabrielle and I had established an evening routine that included watching the news on television and then sitting beside the open fire. Gabrielle took a keen interest in my learning Basque and in my ethnographic research. Taking up her knitting or some unfinished sewing, she always sat opposite me while I wrote my field notes and often quizzed me about what I had learned that day. One evening our conversation returned to the Occupation, and I mentioned the Garat family. From another local woman, I knew that Tomas Garat’s father had also been arrested and deported by the Germans. By revealing such knowledge, without identifying my source, I hoped that Gabrielle might be persuaded to tell me more about the tragedy. Once people knew that I had gained a basic understanding of a delicate local matter, they often felt more disposed to give me details. As one woman explained, the burden of responsibility rested with the first person to divulge information that a household or the wider community regarded as confidential (A. Carricart 1977: pers. comm.).

Gabrielle eventually told me that a local man had sold (saldu) Tomas to the Germans. Among Xiberoans who experienced the Occupation, selling someone to the enemy constituted the most despicable kind of betrayal, not simply because the act entailed reward (or the promise of it). When a denouncer and the denounced belonged to the same community, the act violated rules of conduct requiring members of a community to trust one another and uphold solidarity in the face of opposition from outsiders (arrotzak or strangers). When Gabrielle identified the denouncer of Tomas Garat in 1978, she asked me not to judge the man, who knew Tomas and his family well. "You are not a ‘here person’ (hebenkua), Sandy, Gabrielle explained. You weren’t born here, so you don’t have a right to judge the person who betrayed Tomas. Only we have that right as members of this community."

During my first years of fieldwork in Xiberoa, my intellectual interests did not focus on twentieth-century wars, the Resistance, or the German Occupation. In the 1970s I concentrated on the institutions, values, and complex systems of exchange that ordered secular and spiritual life in rural Xiberoan communities (Ott 1993b). Basques with direct experience of the Occupation often used the war as a point of reference when they talked about the ways in which life there had changed in their lifetimes. People referred to the German Occupation as the black time (denbora beltza). Many informants insisted that it was too soon to talk about what had happened during that period. They felt too close to their recent past, to which the present remained painfully and awkwardly connected in spite of their attempts to forget and to forgive wrongdoing. Yet a core of men and women who had endured the Occupation wanted me to appreciate the dangers they had faced, their anxieties and hardships. In rare moments of privacy, they told me about tragic cases in which people had triggered German aggression against themselves and their fellow citizens. Uneasy relatives sometimes interrupted such conversations and usually terminated them by saying that Sandy doesn’t need to know such things. People talked much more freely when the social process of remembering the war focused on practices that gave stability and order to the community. They were eager for me to appreciate that the Basques had sometimes coped effectively and imaginatively with the Occupation.

More than thirty years have now passed since my first conversations about local denunciations in Xiberoa and the right of here people to judge wrongdoers in their midst. In 2003 word spread quickly across Xiberoa that I wanted to write about the Resistance, even though I tried to impress upon people that my interests broadly focused on trans-Pyrenean relations, the impact of Vichy and German occupation on Xiberoans and their society, and the process of liberation. I was interested in the experiences not only of resisters, but also of ordinary citizens who had simply endured those often difficult and strange years. Xiberoan resistance had a prominent place in the popular imagination for two main reasons: first, the public dimension of social remembering has long been dominated by veterans of the two main, rival resistance groups that operated in Xiberoa during 1943–44. Second, a play about Xiberoan resistance (The Maquis of Xiberoa), written by a Xiberoan and performed by amateur Xiberoan actors in 2001, had given rise to heated debate, in public and private spheres, about what really happened during the summer of 1944, when resisters took military action against the Germans and several Xiberoan communities became victims of reprisal.

During 2003–2004, Xiberoans watched my growing network of contacts with great interest and began to fill in gaps. They introduced me to people who had survived deportation to Nazi camps, to evaders of Vichy’s obligatory work service (STO), and to the loved ones they had left behind. I met former prisoners of war, clandestine guides who passed fugitives across the Pyrenees, couriers for the Resistance, and former members of the numerous escape and intelligence networks that operated across Xiberoa. My research on trans-Pyrenean relations led me to former Spanish Republican exiles who had sought refuge in Xiberoa to escape Franco’s forces, and I became interested in relations between Xiberoans and displaced populations in the 1930s and early 1940s, including Jewish refugees who remained in Pau for the duration of the Occupation.¹ Through a local Catholic school in Maule, I met Jewish people who had been helped by Xiberoans during Vichy and the Occupation. I also worked closely with fifty-two other people who had lived through the turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s with no claims to heroic deeds or miraculous escapes from enemy hands. I had known some of them since 1976, and many lamented that I was now too late to make a comprehensive study of the Occupation, since so many people who knew what happened had died (M. Eyheramendy 2003: pers. comm.; K. Irigaray 2001: pers. comm.).²

As I listened to twenty-first-century survivors of Vichy and German occupation, I was struck by the frequency with which people displayed two conflicting tendencies: the need to question the legitimacy of moral and legal

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