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OUT of the snow-covered landscape, an outstretched hand catches the circular setting sun in a constructivist concrete sculpture at the centre of the Glieres Plateau.
North-east of Annecy, it commemorates a memorable battle fought here by the Maquis in March 1944 against German and French fascists.
The largely communist Maquis numbered around 400 and were led by the legendary Tom Morel. They were pinned down by 2,000 Vichy police and militia and 4,000 regulars of the infamously murderous Ordnungspolizei (Orpo), commanded by the SS.
The British supplied weapons in three parachute drops but crucially the reinforcements promised the one Captain Jean Rosenthal — liaison officer for Britain-based Free French forces of general Charles de Gaulle — never materialised, leaving the Maquis high and dry.
Defeat became inevitable in the harsh winter conditions and the ultimate sacrifice by the fallen maquisards came to symbolise, in decades to come, the urgency and nobility of anti-fascist struggle.
Seventy-four artists entered the national competition for a national Resistance monument instigated, in 1973, by the survivors of the battle.
A jury of five maquisards from Les Glieres and four others including art historian Bernard Dorival and painter Hans Hartung decided on a sculpture by Emile Gilioli, a son of immigrant Italian shoemakers who had attended the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs de Nice.
To Gilioli the sculpture symbolises hope as much as the indomitable spirit and comradeship of implacable resistance against fascism.
As Gilioli explained, he wanted to create a sculpture-architecture that would embody the ultimate commitment of the Glieres fighters and to visually harmonise it with the surrounding mountains: “It soars like a V for victory from which the solar disk emerges as an allegory of rebirth,” he said.
The massive “hand” – over 15 metres high, four metres wide and 21 metres long — brings to mind Lissitzky’s Red Wedge. The disc of the sun alone weighs 65 tonnes and its precarious position serves as a reminder that freedom is always under threat and has to be fought for continuously.
There is a secluded chamber inside the V designed to offer respite and invite reflection. The motto “Vivre libre ou mourir” (Live free or die) of the Bataillon des Glieres, given to it by Morel, is set in its concrete walls.
During the unveiling ceremony in September 1973, writer, Spanish civil war veteran and former minister of culture Andre Malraux compared the Maquis’ heroism in the face of overwhelming odds to that of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. He said their sacrifice will remain forever embedded in the consciousness of the French. And so it is.
The geometric regularity of the sculpture, its colour and scale contrast breathtakingly with the organic shapes and swathes of the kaleidoscopically changing seasonal colours of the surrounding nature. It etches itself on the retina much as Malraux predicted it would.
The vicinity of the sculpture is a destination for an annual organised pilgrimage for anti-fascists but also a place for winter sports and in the summer it becomes a popular picnic area surrounded by spectacular vistas.
Nearby is the Departmental Resistance Museum, built by the surviving Glieres veterans in an old mountain chalet. It is dedicated to the history of the Haute-Savoie region during WWII and the local Maquis. Next to it the graves of 105, including that of Morel, constitute the Necropolis Glieres.
In the late 1980s the remaining survivors, in an extraordinary gesture, donated their property to the museum to secure its continuity and with it the maintenance of the Glieres monument.
The 2021 Les Glieres gathering organised by Citoyens Resistants d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui (CRHA–— Resisting Citizens of Yesterday and Today)i s scheduled for the last weekend in May. For more information, visit: citoyens-resistants.fr
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