Books October 2001

France's Downfall

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

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."

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