Interviews November 2003

“Neither Heroes nor Villains”

Robert Gildea, the author of Marianne in Chains, talks about his efforts to demystify the French experience under Nazi occupation
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Marianne in Chains

Marianne in Chains
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Robert Gildea
Metropolitan Books
507 pages, $32.50

In the immense canon of books about Europe during World War II, numerous works center on France, immortalizing the glory of la Résistance or revealing dark scandals of Nazi collaboration. Marianne in Chains is a different kind of story. In its pages, author Robert Gildea tells the tales of ordinary French people who were less concerned with abetting or resisting the Nazis than with maintaining their everyday lives.

Rather than surveying the entire nation, Gildea chose to focus on the Loire Valley, a coastal region that was part of France's occupied northern zone. Exploring newly opened archives and interviewing numerous older citizens, he was able to reassemble a picture of daily life during the occupation, complete with farmers, café owners, priests, and accordion players. More sensational characters do make occasional appearances: underground activists, corrupt officials, and informants reminiscent of Dickens's sinister Madame Defarge. But Gildea's research centers first and foremost on mainstream citizens, and his stated purpose is to move "beyond praise and blame... to understand actions and sentiments in terms of the options and values obtained under the occupation, the one extremely limited and the other extremely fluid."

Compared with other parts of Europe—most notably the Eastern Front and the Balkans—the Nazi occupation of France was relatively gentle. The French, whose Latin heritage ranked them high in Hitler's racial hierarchy, were given more freedom than those of other nations to maintain their local governments, churches, and ways of life. Food was scarce, but rather than focusing on hunger and poverty, Gildea looks at the resourcefulness of the French people as they satisfied their daily needs through clandestine networks and "gray markets." In one chapter entitled "Circuses," he spends two full pages listing youth clubs and leisure organizations that existed in occupied France, demonstrating that the French people did not spend the war years "cowering at home."

Gildea's demystifying approach to history has not always made him popular with French academics. His book begins with an account of a 1997 paper he presented at the Academy of Tours, in which he argued that not all French people spent the war years in misery and starvation, and the riot his conclusions provoked from the audience. This reaction inspired Gildea to expand his research, and the conclusions he draws in Marianne in Chains are comprehensive and nuanced:

Informal rules were devised by the French governing what was legitimate and illegitimate in Franco-German relations.... To rip off the Germans by small-scale black marketeering was just Gallic cunning, but large-scale dealing that deprived the community of scarce resources was not considered right.... Socially, it was acceptable to drink with a German in a bar but not to invite him home... Flirting with Germans was normal.... Exaggerated merrymaking by French women and German soldiers was frowned on, however.... In spite of the repressive policies of both the Germans and Vichy..., [the French] demonstrated imagination, resourcefulness, and Gallic cunning in order to make the occupation livable.

While Marianne in Chains marks Gildea's first in-depth research on the World War II era, he has written five books about French and European history. He is a professor at Oxford University in England, where he lives with his wife, Lucy-Jean, and their four children.
I spoke with him by telephone on October 15.


Robert Gildea
Robert Gildea   

Most of your work has focused on France during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How did you first become interested in French history?

I was sent to France at the age of fourteen because my father was a sort of "good European" who thought we should learn French. He fixed us up with a family to exchange with. My sister went the year before me, and then I went. I didn't get on very well with my pen friend, but we went off to the country and I was introduced to his cousins. He had five female cousins, and as I went to a single sex school, it was quite interesting. I think the combination of France and the French cousins seduced me.

What inspired you to write this portrait of France during the Nazi era?

As you said, I'd written all these books on French history. I'd written a book on the nineteenth century, and I'd written a book on France since 1945, but I had avoided the period of Vichy and the occupation like some sort of black hole. I'd been teaching a course on it for about ten years, and I thought I needed to do some hands-on research. Also, I wasn't very happy with the interpretations that were coming out of France. The French basically took either the view that most people were in the Resistance or that most French people collaborated and sent the Jews to their death. The alternative view was that the French were oppressed and miserable and cold and fearful, and they basically hid for four years until they were free.

I didn't agree with any of those opinions. I decided that the only way to find a contrary view was to get into the archives, which were then opening up, and to interview people who had been around at the time.

What was the greatest collective virtue of the French people during the occupation?

Cunning, probably—the ability to improvise and make things work against the odds.

Why did you choose to focus on the Loire Valley?

My initial plan was to look at three very different parts of France. But I went with my family, and my wife said, "If we're going to France for a year, we're just going to stay in one place, thank you very much." So we lived in Angers, partly because we knew people in the region and partly because it was a beautiful area. People have heard of the places I wrote about—a lot of people holiday there or drink wine from there. I also chose it because it was a fairly average part of France that hadn't seen a huge amount of resistance. It wasn't too badly hit. There were some violent areas, particularly near the coast, like Nantes. But I was always looking for a kind of cross-section of France, and that area seemed as good as any.

This book draws a lot of its material from oral history, individual interviews with people who lived through the occupation. When you're conducting this kind of research, how do you decide when a person's comments reflect something of larger social significance and when they are just individual anecdotes?

Very often, people pattern what they say on standard accounts. People are quite keen to show that they did a bit of resistance. That can be very minimal, such as the man who told me that when the Germans arrived in his town in 1940, they were throwing cigarettes to the crowd and when one landed next to him, he said he spat on it and stomped on it—and that was an act of resistance. In fact, that might have been the only thing he did that could be categorized as resistance, but he was keen to show that he did something.

Then people tend to tell their own stories. I started with a clipboard of questions, but that was hopeless. I'd ask, "What did you think of the mayor of your town in 1942?" They probably couldn't remember who he was. But if I'd just say, "Tell me your story of what it was like under the occupation," they'd start in on some event that really traumatized or affected them. Then I'd take it from there. I suppose the easiest thing to do was to try and figure out if they were making up a story because they wanted to come across as good French persons. When they sort of got things wrong, I figured there was maybe more to it than the nice story they were trying to tell me.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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