“Neither Heroes nor Villains”

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

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.

The German occupation in France, as you point out, was much gentler than in Eastern Europe. How much of this was due to cultural similarities between the Germans and the French? You describe several cases where the French people you interviewed admired German officers for their education, erudition, or musical abilities—or in the case of some women, fell in love with them. You even mention one case where a German officer took French children to the fair.

The Nazis had a kind of racial hierarchy—the Teutonic race was at the top, and the French were basically seen as Latin, just about acceptable. People like Slavs were rubbish and Jews were unspeakable. So in their hierarchy, the French were quite high up. And if you like looking at the Franco-German thing, there was a long history of rivalry but also respect.

Also, before 1944, there wasn't fighting going on in France. There was fighting on the Eastern Front, or in Greece or Yugoslavia, so local populations in those places suffered more from German brutality. As long as the Germans weren't having to pin a population down, they treated them fairly decently. And I think for a lot of German soldiers, if you had a posting in France it was regarded as a sort of holiday, whereas if you were sent off to the Eastern Front it was a nightmare.

To what extent was Vichy synonymous with the Nazis, and to what extent did the French invent their own brand of fascism? I was surprised to read, for example, that public dancing was outlawed by Vichy but not by the Germans. The same seems to have been true for film censorship—you say that the Vichy government was more restrictive about sexual content than the Nazis were.

Some people have characterized Vichy as authoritarian rather than fascist. There were French fascists who tried to get power in Vichy, but didn't really succeed until 1944. Really, though, it was a kind of traditional regime, and its agenda was to regenerate and revive France after its defeat—to turn France into a winning, healthy, vigorous nation. So Vichy had a moral agenda, whereas the Germans wanted to make sure the French were defeated and didn't oppose them. They couldn't have cared less about French morals. Probably the more corrupt and decadent they were, the better.

You mentioned earlier that the people you interviewed wanted to make small acts into gestures of resistance. In the book, you write about French farmers who managed to keep their butter and other produce away from German soldiers. Some of them later said they did this to take a stand against Germany. You seem to disagree. What do you think was their main motive?

I think at the time, people were looking after their own families and their communities. Sometimes they were keeping things back from the Germans. Sometimes they were selling things to Germans on the black market and making quite a lot of money. What I try to explain is that after the Liberation, people would use terms like "passive resistance" to describe keeping things back from the Germans. This was portrayed as trying to undermine the German war effort. But it wasn't really an act of resistance. It was an act of looking after your own, really.

Another distinction you draw is between acts of resistance and ordinary youthful rebellion. For instance, when you write about young people who broke the law to organize secret dances in the woods, you say that they were apolitical and mainly concerned with having a good time. What about more borderline cases, like the teenagers who got in trouble for laughing aloud at German film reels?

I think people wanted to show their disapproval of the regime without getting into trouble. If you whistled at a German newsreel when Hitler or Goering came onto the screen, the danger was the Germans would turn the lights up and try to arrest the ringleaders. But it was safer to do that than to take a pot shot at a German officer.

Things like the dancing—I had quite a long discussion with a fellow named Julian Jackson who wrote his own book on the occupation. He thought that if you danced when it was banned, that was an act of resistance. Well, there are two problems with that. One is that it was Vichy who banned dancing—it wasn't the Germans. I mean, the Germans wanted people to be tucked up in bed at ten o'clock, but that was for security reasons, not because they disapproved of dancing.

And when I interviewed some people who played the accordion or the trumpet at these clandestine dances, they said, "We weren't doing resistance. We were just having a good time." One of them told me that when the Resistance came around and it looked like they might get caught up in some showdown, they were very upset and sort of made for the bushes. So I don't think dancing was really an act of resistance; it was an act of defiance of Vichy and defiance of moralistic old people.

Around that same time in Germany, there were underground youth organizations like The White Rose—some of whose members were executed for distributing pamphlets about what the Nazis were doing on the Eastern Front and in concentration camps. Compared with that, a lot of the acts of French resistance seem to have been more narrowly patriotic—scrawling "V" for victory signs on walls, for example, or tying a tricolor to a lightning rod. Were there many young people in France who protested wide-scale Nazi crimes against humanity and not just the occupation of their own country?

I think that the French were a lot more worried about their own sons and brothers being taken off to work in German factories and much more keen to protest that than to protest about Jews being taken away. And I don't know how much they knew about what was actually going on with the Jews. They knew the Jews were being taken east, but they thought they were being sent to labor camps.

Do you think that's what they really thought?

I think so, although neither the local people nor the authorities did much to stop it. But in terms of resistance—as you say, raising tricolor flags and demonstrating on the fourteenth of July where they could—it was patriotic. It was an attempt to recreate the French nation, which had been divided and trampled, to recreate it in a symbolic way.

But there were also different strains of resistance—for example, a Communist strain. In a chapter called "Terror," I start out describing a bunch of young Communists who were arrested for painting graffiti and handing out leaflets on the first of May. They ended up getting shot. That was both a Communist act and a French act. It wasn't a very serious offense, but they just happened to get caught and the Germans were in a bad mood.

You mentioned the French people who were drafted to work in German factories. According to your book, most of them managed to avoid having to go to Germany. In one wave, only 25 percent of the 3,650 people drafted actually went to Germany—the rest hid or kept a very low profile until the end of the war. If this kind of mass civil disobedience was possible, why couldn't French society have resisted the occupation in other ways?

I think people didn't want to go and be drafted to work in Germany partly because it was seen to be dangerous—Germany was being bombed—but also because people didn't want to leave home. So people disappeared into the woods and hid. Some have argued that these people who disappeared and refused to go to Germany immediately became part of the Resistance. My point was that some of them did but most of them didn't. Some of them became just ordinary robbers, because once they'd gone underground, they couldn't use their ration cards or normal I.Ds. They had to rob farms and post offices—it was like the Wild West. The countryside was filled with bands wandering around. Some of them were doing resistance and waiting for arms drops to come. Others were just trying to fend for themselves and keep alive.

The way you talk about these bands of men deflates a major legend of the Resistance—as you write in your book, we tend to envision the Forces Francais de l'Interiéur like Robin Hood's "Merry Men," running through the countryside and actively fighting the Nazis. You describe them in a different way.

That's the kind of thing that makes me unpopular. You're not supposed to say the things that I do. I mention one supposed hero who was active in the Tours area and really was a crook with an armed gang. He was eventually shot by the French authorities. He was exceptional, but there were lots of other people doing similar thuggish things in the summer and autumn of 1944.

One of your chapters is called "Trimmers." From what I understand, "trimming" is a sailing term that means moving the sails in the direction of the wind. Can you explain the way you use this analogy?

Trimmers were people who tried not to commit themselves in order to survive the occupation. What I'm really interested in there are mayors or local officials who, rather than committing themselves overtly to collaboration or resistance, simply tried to stay in power, protecting their local populations where they could, going along with some orders and not going along with others. They were a bit two-faced and played a double game.

Our picture of the occupation is, on the one hand, the German authorities and, on the other hand, the atomized French population. But in fact, local government went on as usual. So it's important to look at those local notables and officials to see how they managed the occupation. In a sense they provided a kind of buffer between the population and the Germans. They did try to make things easier for ordinary people where they could, although they certainly didn't have clean hands.

A number of French mayors were able to stay in office through both transitions, not only through the Nazi takeover but also through the Liberation.

I think when De Gaulle came in, he needed people on the ground who could run the country. Provided they hadn't completely discredited themselves, he was happy to keep them there. I think the interesting thing is that after the Liberation, there was a kind of combing of local officials and mayors. If they had been compromised, they were replaced. But the big story was continuity. And it wasn't until the elections were introduced—the local elections and then the national elections in 1945—that the big clear-out took place.

In the chapter on "Saints," you go into the relationship between the Church and the government, a very controversial subject. On the one hand, we know the Church did pledge loyalty to the Nazis in the Occupied Zone. On the other hand, we have these images, as in the movie Au Revoir les Enfants, of Church officials who hid people and resisted in brave ways. After so many firsthand interviews, what's your view of the Church and where its loyalties lay?

In the book, I tell a story about the Bishop of Nantes, who refused to let the Germans use the cathedral. His excuse was that the Germans were Protestants and his cathedral was Catholic. So I don't think the Church was an arm of the Nazis, but to a large extent it was supportive of Vichy and agreed with Vichy's moralizing, traditional sentiments. At the end of the day, my view is that the Catholic Church looks after the Catholic Church against whichever enemy, be it Nazis or Communists or anyone else. That's its main function. But I also make the point that, in a time of occupation and distress, a lot of people turn to the Church and to spirituality for some sort of way out. Saint worship is probably going to help more people than pulling a gun on somebody.

In what way do you think it helped people—by making them feel better or by actually changing the situation?

Well, for example, a lot of people in the Nantes area were being bombed by the British and Americans who were trying to destroy the German U-boat bases and shipyards. But the Allied troops hit a lot of civilians. If you said, "The British or Americans are going to liberate you," they thought, Well, ha, ha! They're the ones who are dropping bombs on us. So maybe God was the only person who could help.

One of your more dramatic chapters tells the story of the fifty French hostages who were killed to retaliate for the murder of a German Feldcommandant. You say that Marshal Pétain, the Vichy leader who was generally considered to be a Nazi puppet, actually drafted a statement offering himself as a "sacrificial lamb" in place of the fifty hostages. Do you think this story sheds a more noble light on Pétain's character?

A bit, although he was dissuaded by his ministers in the end. And it depends what you mean by hostage. At the beginning of the occupation, hostages were important people who were held in a hotel as a guarantee against disorder. They weren't necessarily going to be shot. So it depends whether he was offering himself as that kind of hostage, just a guarantee for public order, or whether he was offering himself as a hostage to be shot.

Do we know the answer to that?

We don't really know. It was a gesture that never materialized. But I think it's fair to say that Pétain was mortified by the attack on the German officer as well as the German reprisal, which was seen to be completely out of proportion. For France, I mean. This kind of thing was going on in the Balkans and Russia pretty systematically. But France was supposed to be different.

You say in this book that there's still a strong current of pro-Pétainist sympathy in France. Have you gotten any criticism in France for pointing that out?

The book hasn't been translated into French yet, although I'm told quite a few copies have been sold in France. Until it's translated, the French won't really take notice of it. I've had the odd letters from people who were Pétainist sympathizers who agree with my book. But I don't want the book to come across as Pétainist. I want the book to come across as a fair account that gives everyone their say.

Your book ends just after Liberation, a time when France was still in economic and political chaos. How did things finally normalize?

It was partly De Gaulle helping to establish a strong French republic, and partly De Gaulle brushing things under the carpet and pretending, as he put it, that only a handful of wretches had collaborated and most people had done their duty and been patriotic. It was partly the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s, in which France became prosperous and so on. But this period of the occupation is not something that has ever really gone away for the French, as you saw with the Maurice Papon trial a few years ago and with previous trials—of Klaus Barbie, Paul Touvier and others. It's a specter that continues to haunt them.

The concept of "eternal France" comes up throughout this book. Having studied France for so many years, do you think there really is such an entity as "eternal France," some continuum of identity that has carried on through the monarchy period, the Revolution, Napoleon, Vichy, and all France's various incarnations?

In a sense, eternal France is something that's imagined. It's there if you want it to be there, and it's not there if you don't want it to be. But I think a lot of French people would say there is a kind of continuity to France. Whatever regime is there, France has got a capacity to return after the periods of hardship. As long as people believe in that and keep it going, it exists.

A few months ago, you wrote an article for The Guardian suggesting that, when it comes to Iraq, the United States would do well to learn from the transition from occupation to Liberation after World War II. What lessons do you think would be most helpful for us?

I suppose the basic lesson is to realize that you can have a sort of rhetoric of Liberation, but the reality for most people is that you are an occupying force. And nobody likes an occupying force. I guess my view is that they need to get an Iraqi regime in place as quickly as possible and then leave. Otherwise they're going to become less and less popular.

Your article also mentioned the French mayors who were allowed to continue on after the Liberation.

I'm not an expert in Iraqi history, but I imagine there must be local leaders who were powerful under the previous regime and would be indispensable for keeping order. It's precisely that level of notables who can keep a community together during a transition period.

You say that your goal as a historian is to move beyond praise and blame. That seems admirable and appropriate for a scholar. But in the popular culture, we tend to depict history through dramatic stories that paint a very black and white picture. When our ideas are so much influenced by legends and Hollywood movies, how can a book like yours change the way society sees the past?

I think this book demonstrates that most people are neither heroes nor villains. Some people have heroic moments or villainous moments, but otherwise they just muddle through and try to survive. The nicest thing that's been said about the book by a number of reviewers is that it's humane, and that it does recognize people's basic humanity. I suppose if one thing is intended to shine through, it's that.

In a sense, what I've tried to do is empower ordinary French people, to show that they simply tried to manage. Sometimes their acts were heroic, and sometimes they were less worthy. But by and large they kept going, and communities stayed together, and the country came back together after the war. Therefore, instead of concentrating on Jean Moulin or one or two other heroes, this book looks at the French people and says, "They weren't just passive victims. They did suffer, but they were also imaginative and retained their sense of humor. They got through it." It's not much of a headline story. But it's the story.