To be liberated, first you must be defeated.
Everything about these D-Day anniversaries reminds the French of that humiliating sequence. When de Gaulle landed in Normandy for a one-day visit on June 14, he traveled back-and-forth across the English Channel in a British warship. De Gaulle’s ability to establish a provisional government depended on the permission of U.S. and British authorities—and so, ultimately, would the even more fraught question whether France would be accepted again as a major ally.
For four years, Vichy France had supplied and aided Germany. Vichy planes had bombed Gibraltar in 1940; Vichy tax collectors had extracted resources to pay the German occupiers. When Italy changed sides in 1943, it was treated as a liberated nation—but it was not accepted as a co-belligerent. France’s post-D-Day status utterly depended on British and American goodwill. For a man like de Gaulle, that dependency rankled.
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De Gaulle’s famous speech of August 25, 1944, after the liberation of Paris, starkly reveals the fictions that would restore French pride.
“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France! … It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.”
France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.
But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”
Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.