The long march to the country and back

Fleeing Hitler
August 3, 2007

When the victorious German troops entered Paris on June 14, 1940, the city was almost empty. Most of the inhabitants had fled over the previous five days. This mass departure was the last ripple of a population avalanche that had spread from Belgium and northern and eastern France after the Germans attacked on May 10. In four weeks some 8 million people had abandoned their homes. Only a biblical comparison seemed adequate to contemporaries to characterise this extraordinary phenomenon, which has been known ever since as "the Exodus".

Every book on France in 1940 makes a passing reference to the Exodus, but most historians then pass briskly on to the Occupation. So Hanna Diamond's study, Fleeing Hitler , the first full history of the Exodus ever published in English, is especially welcome. Based mainly on eyewitness accounts, her readable book superbly conveys the strange unreality of those hot summer days of 1940.

It was no orderly evacuation. The Government had not issued any advance evacuation plans because it did not want to frighten the population. So when it became clear that the battle was going badly, people were left to their own devices. Alarmed by memories of alleged German atrocities in 1914 or by the more recent German bombing of Rotterdam, they used any available means - cars, bicycles, prams, wheelbarrows, carts - to transport their most precious belongings. Most did not really know where they were going, apart from a vague sense they would be safe south of the Loire, only to find many bridges destroyed by the time they got there.

At first there was almost a holiday atmosphere among those leaving Paris. The weather was good, and they believed that the French army must be regrouping for an offensive. The mood turned to despair when they witnessed the despondency of the French soldiers they encountered on the roads. Panic set in when German planes machine-gunned the columns. People found themselves refugees in their own country, and not always welcome ones. The Exodus strained the resources of the localities where the refugees landed up: the population of the rural Dordogne department swelled by 200,000 in a few days. Some refugees met with hostility - there are stories of peasants charging for glasses of water - and others with generosity.

Historians may have neglected the Exodus because it was over so soon. Once the Armistice with Germany had been signed on June 22, repatriation could begin, although for months newspapers carried anguished appeals from parents in search of children they had lost. By late autumn most people had returned home. It was in the interest of the German occupiers that normality be restored as soon as possible so that the French economy could start to work for them. Nonetheless, in March 1941 there were still 1 million homeless refugees who for various reasons had not been able to return home.

The Exodus may have been short-lived, but its consequences were far-reaching. For the new authoritarian and collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Petain, the Exodus was a way of demonstrating the incompetence of the preceding democratic Republic. To a population traumatised by this upheaval, Petain's father-figure persona was reassuring.

But the Exodus was not only a source of Vichy's legitimacy. Places where refugees remained concentrated could be fertile breeding grounds of resentment against Vichy for its failure to obtain their repatriation. Structures that had been organised during the Exodus to succour the refugees were often later revitalised to help Jews flee the Vichy police. Thus the Exodus was a crucible both of collaboration and resistance.

Recently the Exodus has received media attention through the 2003 film Les Egarés ( Strayed ), starring Emmanuelle Béart as a young mother who flees Paris, and through Irène Némirovsky's novel Suite Française , written in 1941 but published only three years ago. Apart from this, however, it has left limited traces in films and novels (although Diamond has overlooked Georges Simenon's novel The Train ). It was possibly an event too confusing to fit neatly into narratives of courage or victimhood.

The strength of Diamond's book is to convey the poignancy, drama and ambiguity of an experience that directly touched the lives of many more people than the Resistance ever did.

Julian Jackson is a professor in the department of history at Queen Mary, University of London.

Fleeing Hitler: France 1940

Author - Hanna Diamond
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 2
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9780192806185

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