Books October 2001

France's Downfall

The most comprehensive account of the most sordid period in French history
More

The history of the German occupation of France is fraught, dirty, tragic, and sometimes darkly comic. It is also one of the most intensely researched subjects of past decades: more than 8,000 books and articles have been devoted to the story of France's defeat, occupation, collaboration, resistance, liberation, persecution of selected groups, and purges of persecutors and those identified with them during the four years from 1940 to 1944. Julian Jackson's monumental tome does not add to the accumulated knowledge but fuses and presents it as clearly and comprehensively as can be done for times and activities that were violent, tedious, and untidy. Above all, it connects this bleak, confused period with what went before and what would come after.

The French had been at odds with one another since the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and certainly since 1789. Bloody civil wars tore them apart in the 1790s, in the 1830s, in 1848, and in 1871. Conflicts less gory but morally as destructive resurfaced in the 1880s and 1890s, and again in the 1930s. Beginning in 1934 moral and political turmoil kept threatening to erupt into something worse. With the Great War less than two decades in the past, a postwar tone gave way to a pre-war mood; politics became more polarized, social conflict more inflamed, intellectual debate more virulent. Overtly and covertly this continued through the Vichy years.

In May of 1940, when the Germans attacked, the French didn't know what had hit them. Eight months of phony war had dulled the vigilance of generals. In June the Germans entered Paris. In July 569 representatives of the people gathered at Vichy—because the spa offered plentiful lodgings—and voted full powers to Philippe Pétain (eighty voted against, seventeen abstained). Eighty-four years old, the hero of Verdun was vain and a bit deaf; his memory was unreliable, and he tired easily. But affairs would mostly be handled by Pierre Laval, the ex-Socialist mayor and deputy of a working-class constituency, who never could see any sense in war and who never faced a horse trade that he couldn't close.

When in the saddle at Vichy, Laval sought to make the best of an armistice under whose terms the French paid all the costs of the German presence on their soil, and which effectively rent the country into several morsels, only one of which (the southern zone, unoccupied until November of 1942) was directly controlled from the overcrowded spa. Laval's relations with the Führer were marred by his scruffiness and his chain-smoking, both of which Hitler detested. In German-occupied Paris, meanwhile, fascistoids advocating closer collaboration with the occupiers denounced a geriatric regime that they regarded as insufficiently cooperative with the Germans. With Vichy and collaborators in the occupied zone trying hard to outbid each other, Hitler played both like an expert angler. As for Pétain, he looked in good shape, and most people—including the Socialist Léon Blum, who voted against him—noticed his handsome features, the nobility of his bearing, and "the simple and honest gaze of his blue eyes," behind which Jackson detects peasant suspicion, duplicity, and high self-regard.

For the Vichy regime defeat would be the springboard for national regeneration. Pétain, compared to Joan of Arc, became France's Messiah—a marshal-Christ who sacrificed himself for the redemption of his people. He would lead a National Revolution that would purify the corrupt and misled masses. Vichy's "French State," which we associate with long-drawn-out national humiliation and self-castigation, set out à la recherche de la France perdue. It replayed long-standing themes, fulfilled long-standing aspirations, exacerbated long-standing divisions, all at the shrillest pitch. Jackson, a history professor at the University of Wales at Swansea, has written about the Popular Front years and knows, for instance, that the interest in regionalism and folklore, and the campaigns—so dear to Vichy ideologues—to carry culture to the masses, date back to the 1920s and 1930s, if not long before that. Likewise, nostalgic references to the redemptive soil and to a peasantry unpolluted by modernity did not begin with Pétain's assertion (coined for him by an urban Jew, Emmanuel Berl) that the land did not lie (as democratic politicians did). They went back at least to the nineteenth century, and entailed wistful praise of ancestral acres unsullied by urban corruption, and of role-model ancestors lying beneath them.

Strident rhetoric about "France for the French," which can still be heard today, also harked back a long way. So did anti-Semitism—or, at least, disparaging references to Jews, which serve and long have served as examples of xenophobia. Xenophobia did not need the support of a regime identified with the right to thrive. Indeed, it had long marched behind red flags, whether in the Commune of 1871 or in 1903, when miners of the north hunted down competing Belgians, or in the pogroms that killed thirty Italians (denounced as dirty, superstitious, and far too hardworking) from 1881 to 1893. References to "foreign hordes"—Poles, Germans, Spaniards—drew cheers at fin-de-siècle workers' meetings. And when, in 1886, the Socialist Cri du Peuple denounced "The Invasion!" the editorial was signed by an emblematic Marxist leader of the day, Jules Guesde.

Difficult economic conditions—unemployment before World War I, devaluation in the 1920s, depression in the 1930s—along with greater-than-usual political instability, the challenges of modernity, the threat of decadence, all evoked foreign scapegoats, particularly those scapegoats of choice, the Jews. The association of Jews with usury and capitalism excited both left and right. The Jews' association with Germany (Yiddish sounds much like German) sparked jingoistic ire. Jewish hostility to Germany provoked the hostility of embattled pacifists. Jewish identification with modernity in cinema and the arts evoked howls against Negro-Judeo-Saxon corruption. Long before Vichy named him ambassador, first to Bucharest and then to Berne, the sophisticated stylist Paul Morand had blamed national decadence on foreign plagues: "Italian eczema, Romanian blemishes, American boils, Levantine pus."

Then came the Popular Front, the looming Communist menace, a flood of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, and finally half a million more from Spain, pouring over the Pyrenees from February to May of 1939. (Vichy would later find the concentration camps into which the Republic had crammed Spaniards ready for its own prisoners.) Meanwhile, a slim but much noticed contribution by that delicate and witty playwright Jean Giraudoux presented France as an invaded country over which barbarians had swarmed "like fleas on a puppy," and called for the creation of a Ministry of Race to stem the infiltration of hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazis escaped from Polish and Romanian ghettoes. In July of 1939 Edouard Daladier put Giraudoux in charge of French propaganda services.

Nazis (and not only Nazis) had been working hard at turning race into a "scientific" conceit. But in France as elsewhere "race" was not yet a fighting word, let alone a very clear concept. The term tended to denote family or clan (the race of the Du Ponts) or profession (the race of policemen or pharmacists), and it could as readily be used for Bretons, Americans, poets, or Asiatics. It was not necessarily derogatory. But familiarity with this burgeoning if still amorphous notion facilitated the term's exclusionary use. Vichy was never sure how seriously to take the term, and its own view of race most often coincided with religion. But Vichy did not need clear definitions, not even allegedly scientific ones, to exclude whomever it wished from a national community that it defined at will. Before its advent, however, and despite the xenophobia of the late thirties, France took in a higher proportion of refugees than any other country in the world.

Vichy's National Revolution was neither national nor a revolution. Its first recipes for national revival involved singing the virtues of honor (readily besmirched), of the family (Pétain had been a notorious womanizer), of motherhood (a good excuse for discouraging the employment of women), of youth (fresh air, bare knees), and of folklore and francité (an idiotism for fundamental Frenchness). When it didn't involve parades of a military recently beaten hollow, the emphasis on national identity meant above all exclusion of those decreed to be non-French: the too recently naturalized, Freemasons (who were expected to abjure their secularist allegiance or lose their jobs), Communists, and, of course, Jews. These last were barred from employment as public servants, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, journalists, moviemakers, and, naturally, elected officials. The National Revolution aimed for repentance, expiation, and then redemption. But expiating was assigned to others.

Vichy issued twenty-six laws and twenty-four decrees against the Jews. Considering how few the Jews were (about 300,000 in 1939, a third of foreign origin), their power to harm must have been thought vast. Jews in the unoccupied zone were registered; their identity papers and ration cards were stamped JEW; and they were gradually squeezed out of normal society even before roundups and deportations began, in mid-1942. Vichy's concern with its dubious sovereignty put it in competition with the Germans in confiscating Jewish property and interning tens of thousands of people in atrocious conditions. When the roundups began, three quarters of the arrests were carried out by the French police—gendarmes—and, later, the paramilitary milice. Even so, "only" 24 percent of the Jews in France were deported, some 75,000, of whom 2,500 eventually returned. Only Denmark and Italy can show a better record. Fortunately, as Jackson demonstrates, public attitudes shifted from "indifference and hostility" in 1940-1942 to "solidarity and rescue" in 1942-1944, just when the danger to and need of the Jews became most acute.

Jackson is right to insist that Vichy public policy was not imposed by the Germans, who showed little interest in French internal affairs until 1942, but, rather, was "an autonomous policy, with its own indigenous roots." The dead live a long time in France: the last head of Vichy's Commissariat for Jewish Affairs was the inept Charles Mercier Du Paty de Clam, a descendant of the major of that name who arrested Captain Dreyfus in 1894. But focusing too narrowly on Jews will skew perspective. At least until 1943 the French police worked closely with the Germans against "terrorists, Communists, Jews, Gaullists and foreign agents." Jews were probably the most helpless and worthy of pity among these, but they never held the front of the stage. From May of 1942 to May of 1943, for example, roughly 16,000 Communists and Gaullists were arrested by the French police, who worked closely with the Germans, used torture as systematically as the Germans did, and happily handed suspects over to them. In July of 1942 the French police went after Jews in like numbers, herding 13,000 of them into the capital's velodrome, the Vel d'Hiv, in an infamous prelude to the deportation of 36,802 Jews—6,053 of them children—by the end of the year. The Germans would have lacked both the information and the personnel to carry out these arrests.

The point here is to stress the bureaucratic professionalism with which magistrates, police officers, and administrators of all sorts carried out their functions and their orders against those who were targeted by the state. One of Pétain's promises had been a leaner administration. In fact the state bureaucracy swelled from 650,000 in 1939 to 900,000 in 1944 and was tied up in more red tape than ever. The newly invented mobile police groups that the Fourth Republic recycled as CRS (Republican Security Companies) swelled also, as did regular police forces—henceforth no longer municipal but nationally controlled, ill equipped yet least inefficient in their repressive role.

A huge and hugely convincing book by Marc Olivier Baruch, Servir l'Etat français (1997), makes clear that only the dedicated efforts of the French enabled small German forces to police and harvest the large space they occupied. And Isaac Levendel's Not the Germans Alone (1999) lays responsibility squarely at the door not only of the Wehrmacht or the Gestapo but also of the civil servants who meticulously carried out their duties while paying no heed to any voice of conscience. Baruch agrees that conscientious objectors were few among functionaries. Respected, competent, intelligent civil servants abdicated personal judgment and carried out their orders. Only a few resigned, and they did so without fuss or trouble. Collaboration evokes some of Jackson's liveliest pages. But the fanatics, cranks, informers, gangsters, sadists, journalists, men of letters, and black marketeers most visibly associated with collaboration played only secondary roles in its tragicomedy. The bilious output of a few dozen scribblers and fewer still talented pamphleteers grips us more than it gripped contemporaries, who had bigger concerns.

In a sensible section on cultural activities Jackson confirms the suspicion that artists can be asinine: Jean Cocteau, for example, was impressed by Hitler's artistic sensibilities. Jackson also relates the triumphs of cinema during the occupation to a desperate escapism. Les Visiteurs du soir, L'Eternel retour, Les Enfants du Paradis, remain the most visible in a spate of fantasies and costume dramas designed to obliterate the harsh realities beyond the flickering screen. Actors, painters, musicians, and writers frequented German "cultural" events in Paris that offered rare opportunities to eat and drink one's fill, and they accepted invitations to visit Germany. But so did businessmen, in greater numbers and to more concrete effect.

"Collaboration" can denote treasonous cooperation or the efforts of people working on a common project. Like civil servants, industrialists and financiers saw themselves in the latter light; and because they kept the wheels of industry turning, and meager wages coming to their ill-nourished help, others saw them that way too. By the end of 1941 the Germans were taking half of France's bauxite, aluminum, wool, shoes, and other leather products; 60 percent of its champagne; 90 percent of its cement. Two years later half of all nonagricultural production and an even greater proportion of agricultural production went to Germany. The caloric intake of the French may have been the lowest in Europe, less than half what it had been before the war. But factories hummed, and workers stayed at work. In 1944 some 14,000 to 15,000 French businesses were producing specifically for Germany.

Hindsight suggests that the best characterization of Germany's approach to occupied France was "Give me your watch and I'll tell you the time." But if the Germans looted with all the enthusiasm once shown by Napoleon's armies, they also struck deals that could serve both sides. The new order was European. With French and German bankers, industrialists, and other businessmen meeting regularly, the idea of a United States of Europe was making its way, along with visions of a single customs zone and a single European currency. The European Union, its attendant bureaucracy, even the euro, all appear to stem from the Berlin-Vichy collaboration. Bureaucratic controls proliferated, administrative and business elites interpenetrated, postwar economic planning took shape—as did that greater Europe in which France's Hitler-allotted role would be one of a bigger Switzerland, "a country of tourism ... and fashion." For the present France offered an economy to be milked at will, and a reservoir of labor.

In February of 1943 German demands for manpower forced Laval to introduce the Compulsory Labor Service (STO). Already 185,000 volunteers (including the future leader of the French Communist Party, Georges Marchais) had found work in Germany. But far more numerous than those who, however unwillingly, obeyed the draft were those who would not go—who hid, who ran away, who took to the hills, the forests, the maquis (a term for Corsican scrubland which came into general use by April of 1943). The STO turned law-abiding folk into outlaws and made law-enforcement agencies reluctant to enforce the law. Church dignitaries, most of them silent about the fate of the Jews, criticized the labor draft. In September of 1943 the prefect of Marseille estimated that 90 percent of his police force sympathized with the underground. That was what turned an insignificant trickle of resistance into a torrent.

Hiding out is not the same as fighting. Quite a few of the young men who ran from the STO joined the murderous milice—a chivalric elite dedicated to ridding France of "democracy, individualism, international capitalism, bolshevism, Freemasonry, and 'Jewish leprosy.'" A tall order. A lot took to the maquis. The first réfractaires (defaulters, rebels) who took refuge in the mountains or the countryside broke laws out of necessity, stealing provisions, clothing, ration cards, weapons. Gaullist broadcasts from London turned fugitives into heroes, endowing them with the romantic aura of persecuted bandits. That proved a self-fulfilling fantasy. Real heroes and heroines were thin on the ground in 1943, but they were there; and they provided structure and training for those providential recruits.

Jackson, who is good about a lot of things, is very good on the Resistance. He puts it in perspective, showing how many idealistic resisters started out working for Vichy, and how many of them, right up to the Liberation, shared entrenched prejudices against Jews and foreigners and mistrusted the "British, Jewish and Masonic influences around de Gaulle." He judiciously notes the slow development of any real opposition. He cites Reichminister Albert Speer's answer to a historian's query about the Resistance: "What French Resistance?" The view of the Allies is reflected in the supplies they dropped: from 1943 to 1945 the Yugoslavs got 16,470 tons, the Italians 5,907 tons, and the French 2,878 tons.

Meanwhile, 10,000 adventurers, lunatics, criminals, dreamers, and lost souls who had volunteered for Hitler's Charlemagne Division were sent to fight the Red Army in Pomerania. The five score or so men who survived that bath of blood and mud ended up defending the rubble of the Reich Chancellery in the final battle for Berlin. Joseph Darnand, a much decorated hero of both world wars and the leader of the milice, who had become a Sturmbannführer of the Waffen SS, was brought back to France, tried, and shot in 1945. Exhumed from a mass grave, his remains now rest in a Paris cemetery, sumptuously marked by the proceeds of a public subscription.

Some 9,000 collaborators, suspected collaborators, or people who had simply incurred their neighbors' dislike were killed just before and during the Liberation; about 1,500 more were executed after trial; more than 40,000 were sentenced to prison terms; 20,000 to 30,000 public servants were sanctioned. Among these were few policemen. In August of 1944 the police in Paris and other cities had mutinied against the Germans with whom they had collaborated for so long, and thus qualified for resister status. From 10,000 to 20,000 women (though not Coco Chanel or Arletty) were accused of horizontal collaboration and had their heads shaved, or were subjected to other forms of public humiliation in repulsive and sexist scenes. But 80,000 Frenchwomen of the occupied zone had by mid-1943 claimed children's benefits from the German authorities and requested German nationality for their offspring.

By the summer of 1945 continuity had reasserted itself in the same police officers, the same uncivil servants, the same top people who had attended the same schools, much the same political personnel as in 1939, and some of the cultural personnel of Vichy as well. Hubert Beuve-Méry, who had worked at Uriage, Vichy's main school for cadres, edited the major national daily, Le Monde. Jean-François Gravier, who published his influential Paris and the French Desert in 1947, had written a similar plea for decentralization five years before, while training propagandists for Vichy. Jean Vilar, the founder of the Avignon theater festival in 1947, had worked for one of Pétain's well-intentioned youth organizations. René Bousquet, the Secretary-General of the National Police (another Vichy innovation), had loyally and efficiently collaborated with the Germans before becoming prefect of police in Paris under the Fourth Republic. In 1946 the demographer and economist Alfred Sauvy and the pediatrician and former resister Robert Debré (father of a later premier) published a book on population problems: Des Français pour la France. With regard to immigration they recommended avoiding "credulous and fatalistic Arabs or ... crafty Levantines," and hoped that the "little Israelo-Oriental" ghetto in central Paris would not be replicated. The lyrics had changed slightly, but the tune remained the same.

The knack of shifting blame for national problems also inspired some familiar tunes. Wounded nationalism had prompted much Vichy rigmarole. It colored redemptive patriotic propaganda after 1945 as it had done before. The French bought De Gaulle's fable that France had liberated itself. But the Liberation, which solved the German problem, had not ended hard times or restored national stature. Debilitating forces still sapped French spirit, power, and pride. Since those forces could no longer be attributed to Germans or Jews, they would be attributed to perfidious confederates.

The 1920s and 1930s had spurred denunciations of enervating Americanism: Uncle Shylock (1927), The American Abomination (1930), The American Cancer (1931). These fancies resurfaced even before the fighting wound down. Surveys taken in September of 1944 and in May of 1945 showed a majority of French identifying the United States as the country that disappointed them most. France was poor, the United States was rich. The French had gone through hell, as had the Russians. Soviet Russia was poor, brave, anti-materialist, and, above all, far away. Americans, far more visible, were easier to resent. U.S. foreign policy had long been an extension of U.S. trade. Now trade carried the alien U.S. culture, too. Displaying a remarkable ingratitude toward their genuine liberators, the French held that American culture was high-handed and invasive and represented materialism and other seductive ills. Americans also stood accused of the failure of their own ideals. They would continue to do so.

Jackson has synthesized a wealth of secondary works in an account that is thorough, thoughtful, lucid, and awesomely commodious. What he has not done is to convey the atmosphere of those years: the archaic dottiness of Vichy claptrap, all clean living and fuzzy thinking; the use of "National" to designate the least smokable, drinkable, eatable, or wearable products; the appeals to energy, vitality, virility; the power cuts and lack of heat; the shortages of paper (so painful to pullulating bureaucrats), real coffee, sugar, and tobacco; the stews of cat, crow, or pigeon; the winds of virtue blowing furiously to prohibit dancing, Pernod, Dubonnet, and "Judeo-American" music; the concomitant vogue of jazz, of swing, of clandestine hops, and of the slang connected with them (to be "swing" was to be cool); the rage for wearing berets, preferably capacious ones "practical to cover your ears," and their abandonment after the Liberation, when they were tarred with the brush of Vichy; the doubletalk, the humorlessness, the creeping seediness; the shabby, shiny, stained, and greasy clothes, threadbare and stinking with sweat.

Anonymous tip-off letters are mentioned ("a symbol of our time," a novelist called them then), a deluge of which overwhelmed the authorities; but in fact most of them were not anonymous but signed, because only a signed letter could earn the reward that went with the capture of a Gaullist, a Jew, a Communist, or an Allied agent. And most of these letters were written by women. The terminology of everyday life under the occupation is lacking in the book: Zone Nono (unoccupied zone), jours sans ("days without"—when meat, butter, whatever, could not be served or sold), the blaqueoute, prendre Londres (the BBC at 9:55 P.M.), faire Viandox ("to turn [someone] into dead meat," from a brand name for beef bouillon cubes), and so on. But one can't do everything. Jackson has done almost everything, and he's done it spaciously and well.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In