Overrun but not entirely overruled

The Fall of France - Verdict on Vichy - Marianne in Chains
August 1, 2003

The events of the occupation of France continue to appeal to scholars and the general public in the UK and elsewhere. The way the French behaved during the "dark years" remains a topic of intense fascination to us. After the nine months of the "phoney war", unexpected defeat came in six weeks. As the population fled south in the wake of the invading German army, Marshal Petain took control and signed an armistice dividing the country into two zones with the Germans occupying the north and the establishment of the Vichy regime in the south. In October 1942, the Germans marched into the southern zone and the full extent of Vichy collaboration became more apparent to the French, who increasingly lent their support to a growing resistance movement rallied by De Gaulle in London. France was finally liberated in August 1944. American and British historians such as Robert Paxton and Roderick Kedward have made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of these events, which continue to provoke intense discussion. The books reviewed here are primarily interested in exploring Vichy and in dissecting the nature of collaboration, rather than engaging in an exploration of resistance in any detail.

Julian Jackson, author of the outstanding France: The Dark Years, has produced another book that very rightly draws our attention to the "strange defeat" of France in 1940, an event that has been somewhat overlooked in recent writing about the period. Opening with an account culminating in the German breakthrough in the Ardennes (which makes gripping reading), the narrative includes adventure and pathos, and even readers who do not consider themselves adepts of military history will be intrigued by the personalities and the progress of events. The true extent to which the French military was outmanoeuvred and unable to respond effectively because of its conservatism, mismanagement and lack of appropriate forces soon becomes apparent. At the same time, the courage and audacity on the German side (particularly in the case of Rommel) is revealed. The French retreat began almost as soon as the Germans managed to break through the French lines at Sedan. Jackson shows how the worst-equipped and least-trained troops were forced to face the full onslaught of the German offensive in the absence of any aerial support.

Quoting pertinent contemporary sources, and including helpful maps and photographs, he highlights the opportunities that the French had to weaken the Germans and offset their advance, something they repeatedly failed to do. Lack of communication, delays in the transmission of orders, dithering in the French High Command and a failure to read the military situation properly all led to the steady advance by the Germans, who "themselves were completely taken aback by their success" and qualified their victory as a "miracle".

This book is intelligently crafted with a logical structure that beautifully interweaves narrative and interpretation. Using a clear and lively style, Jackson argues convincingly "against some of the more 'catastrophist' interpretations of the Third Republic and explicitly challenges the idea that the defeat was unavoidable". He argues that the French military command learnt little from the experience of the first world war, and rather than concentrate on the political shortcomings of the Third Republic, as has traditionally been the case, he shifts his gaze to the "very specific conditions of the phoney war". He holds that "the politics of the 1930s do matter in discussions of the fall of France, but they help to explain the consequences of the defeat more than its causes".

For the opponents of the Republic, the defeat provided them with their moment of triumph and the Vichy regime used it as a foundation myth to build and justify an ideology set up in opposition to the decadence of the political values of the Republic that the defeat had supposedly revealed.

Jackson goes on to show how the defeat was crucial in transforming the international balance of power and changed what was in essence a European conflict into a global war. Moreover, the consequences of the events of 1940 were to long outlive the end of the war in 1945, since not only did the defeat "inform the attitude of the British to France post-1945", but most notably De Gaulle's doctrine and "persistent suspicion of 'Anglo-Saxons'" was born out of his experience of the British in 1940. For De Gaulle, "weakness of state turned military failure into national catastrophe" and his subsequent political doctrine promoted the idea of a strong state and the need to preserve national independence. Jackson describes French foreign policy as haunted by the defeat, arguing that France could not destroy Germany and therefore built Europe as a way of living with it. This is a scholarly and accomplished book that will be helpful to historians but also an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the period.

Where Jackson's book seeks to understand the defeat at a national level, Robert Gildea's tome explores France's experience of the war at a local level. His 500-plus pages are a remarkable feat, combining extensive archival research with oral interviews. They offer a plethora of anecdotes that capture the daily realities of life in the Loire Valley during the occupation. Gildea's main aim is to tell this story to his readers. His narrative is very cleverly put together and the text moves quite seamlessly from local colour to national context. It is a lively and engaging book that is at times polemical. Gildea's work points to the key national debates and its main originality is in showing how these debates play out in this part of France. It is explicitly designed to be accessible to a general readership and areas of controversy are consistently well contextualised and clearly presented.

Following along the lines of the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin's work, Gildea demonstrates that French people were able to find a reasonably comfortable accommodation with the Germans, certainly in the earlier part of the occupation. His portrayal of the French not as a defeated people but as survivors who were able to develop new relationships and networks that helped them to deal with the challenges and crises provoked by the specific conditions of the occupation may come as a surprise to the less specialist reader. Gildea presents the example of "the relationship between the Feldkommandant and the prefect as more complex than one of command and obey", but compares it with the kind of "indirect rule" that existed between colonisers and indigenous elites in Nigeria under the British empire. He shows how local authorities were able to mediate between the occupying forces and the local communities in a way that was generally quite effective in the early months of the occupation. But from late 1941, this "was replaced by a new form of collaboration based less on negotiation than a form of diktat with the imposition of German terms". Local authorities then became increasingly "squeezed" between the interests of both parties as their relatively comfortable collaboration ceased and the emergence of armed resistance led to increasing distrust of the French authorities by the Germans.

The subsequent introduction of the compulsory labour draft of able-bodied men to Germany in September 1943, more than any other measure under Vichy, alienated the French population and changed their attitude towards Vichy and the Germans. Gildea's comparison between the actions of the French police in implementing the compulsory labour draft and their role in locating and rounding up the Jews is revealing. Where they tracked down Jews with efficiency, their attitude to the deportation of French workers was altogether less conscientious. "The degree of opposition shown by the French authorities, even the Church, to the deportation of labour, compared with their lack of action when it came to protecting the Jews, suggests a double standard that throws at least some light on the question of French attitudes to the threatened Jewish population."

The Jews also feature in Michael Curtis' account, indeed they are its prime subject. Quoting President Chirac in 1995, Curtis explains that his book seeks to "ensure that the role of Vichy and its representatives are fully brought to light" and he constructs a very detailed narrative that meticulously tracks the various Vichy agencies involved in the persecution of the Jews in France and picks up many of the same themes that interest Gildea. Much of this account makes grim reading and bears witness yet again to the disastrous consequences of French collaboration. Curtis is particularly interested in the roles and responsibilities of specific individuals and the extent to which they were brought to justice for their part in events. His book may be more appropriate for the specialist reader as he leaves the facts to speak for themselves without offering much in the way of guidance or interpretation. It is a damning account of greed, complicity and cowardice.

He presents Aryanisation, an idea borrowed from Nazi Germany that aimed to remove "all Jewish influence from the French economy", as a legal excuse for dispossessing Jews of their assets and passing them on to Aryans.

Curtis explains that hundreds of thousands of French people embraced this Aryanisation process and many were able to make considerable personal financial gain from it. He asks whether "their consciences were salved by the fact that its implementation was couched in functional and technical language and not in terms of anti-Semitism". On top of this, many officials were engaged in illegal stealing and pillaging of Jewish possessions. The French were less guilty of this than the German occupiers, but the French police did little to stop it. An extraordinary detail included here is the case of Goering, whose private train carried art objects from France to his private home in Germany and elsewhere from February 1941 until August 1944, two days after the Allied forces entered Paris.

Curtis is interested not just in the main players, the high-profile cases such as Petain, MauricePapon and ReneBousquet, but he also focuses on those individuals who had power, those senior officials who just stayed in post and obeyed and implemented measures that so obviously went against the grain of the republican ideals they were trained to respect and defend. He identifies what he qualifies as an unquestioning attitude of obedience to the regulations introduced by Vichy and notes that the zeal of the officials in implementing the anti-Jewish legislation sometimes surprised the Germans and was even at times found to be excessive. French police were certainly an example of this zealousness, playing a crucial role in implementing Vichy policy that was very convenient for the Germans, who were short of manpower and relied on the French police to do their job for them. Indeed, national and municipal police forces had the main responsibility for enforcing the anti-Semitic legislation.

As Gildea also shows, Curtis points to the fact that at the liberation, retribution was at best uneven. Local communities were often left unhappy and the feeling was widespread that justice had not been done. Officials and professionals were punished less than others, and most of those condemned by the courts were pardoned between 1948 and 1953. No police officials ever suffered any serious penalty for their collusion and collaboration. De Gaulle's policy after the war was to commute many sentences in an attempt to reconcile those who had been involved with Vichy in his efforts to retain the elites he thought necessary for the reconstruction of the country.

Like other historians of Vichy before him, Curtis concludes that Vichy policies and actions were not wholly dictated by Nazi Germany, nor did they imitate it. Vichy policy-makers were sometimes more extreme than the Germans. He refutes the stance of those who attempted to defend their position by simply explaining that they were following orders, arguing that they could have refused to carry out those orders or have resigned their posts. He never takes on board the possibility that these individuals might also have acted the way they did because of their fear of repercussions for breaking ranks. Indeed, Curtis appears not to appreciate fully the psychological aspects of these power relations. He further complains that "few ever expressed regret or remorse, or doubted that they had acted properly in their various roles in excluding and eliminating Jews from French life". For this, though we may understand the roles they played and the reasons they acted in the way they did, Curtis takes a strong moral line and finds Vichy overwhelmingly guilty of causing the civil exclusion of Jews from French society and their physical death by internment and deportation.

Taken together, these books provide us with an interesting progression from the general to the more specific. Jackson's exploration of the national and international consequences of France's defeat shows how it laid the ground for the Vichy regime. Gildea picks up the story by presenting the regional picture, demonstrating how life under the occupation was negotiated between local communities, government officials and the Germans. Curtis' study homes in on the specific group of individuals who were responsible for implementing Vichy policies of exclusion. These authors present a picture of France during the war that emphasises the complexities of a society reacting to extraordinary circumstances that sadly often served to empower the most prejudiced and blinkered members of that society. Their works are a welcome contribution to an important area of debate that continues to be played out in the French courts and newspapers even today.

Hanna Diamond is senior lecturer in French history and European politics, University of Bath.

The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940

Author - Julian Jackson
ISBN - 0 19 280300 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 263

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