What are the social habits of a population living in a police state? How does a society behave in exceptional circumstances, such as under the French Occupation? Since the collapse of the Gaullist myth of France as a people of resistants, these questions continue, 50 years on, to preoccupy a nation periodically gripped by its past, but have so far been the object of true reflection only in a very limited part of the historical output devoted to Vichy. To reply necessitates the sidelining of both partisan history and collective memory, which too often coincide, but above all the painstaking charting of signs of adaptation or acceptance on the one hand, or independence and discreet shows of opposition on the other.
Following Pierre Laborie (in L'Opinion Francaise sous Vichy, 1990), Robert Zaretsky embarks on his study of public opinion by way of local history, limiting his field of enquiry to one, felicitously chosen departement: situated in the free zone, the departement of the Gard contains a strong Protestant minority, whence the adoption of an innovative axis of interpretation based on the religious rift within public opinion. Basing himself on the contemporary press and on archival material to which access in other departements might have been refused, Zaretsky has delved into those sensitive files which safeguarded the little secrets of rural France (letters of denunciation, police reports, evidence of compromise with the forces of occupation by local worthies) but also, albeit more rarely, true acts of civic courage.
The feeling of having seen and heard it all before which may arise when reading Zaretsky's research underscores the impasse inherent in the enquiry: how can it be possible, by starting from the study of individual behaviour in a fragmented society deprived of free speech, to talk of "public opinion"? Despite the wealth of documents unearthed, Zaretsky's interpretation does not escape the pitfall of a positivistic approach to history: the departement of the Gard, he concludes, produced no more resistants than collaborators; and procrastination and passive resistance were widespread. Reduced to such partial knowledge, the academic enquiry may see no alternative to the via media, which no doubt contains an element of truth, but which refuses to admit to its impotence to establish historical certainty.
We shall never know how many concierges denounced Jews and resistants - even if the archives of the police, the militia and the Gestapo were finally made available, or how many others warned them of an imminent raid. But the impossibility of this calculation does not allow us to arrive, faute de mieux, at a reassuring judgement. Only one thing is certain: all the administrations of the Vichy regime collaborated with and, on occasion, went beyond the wishes of the occupying forces. And the knowledge gained of a society's attitude through the role of its institutions says enough about the behaviour of those of its citizens who were administrators, high and low, to make painful the Vergangenheitsbewaltigung (surmounting of the past), which France in its turn is finding so difficult to achieve. It is not the least merit of Nmes at War to make the reasons for that obvious.
Sonia Combe is librarian, Biblioth que de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine, University of Paris-X.
Nimes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938-1944
Author - Robert Zaretsky
ISBN - 0 1 01326 5 and 013 3
Publisher - Pennsylvania State University Press
Price - £44.95 and £16.95
Pages - 6