Private battles, public front

August 17, 2007

New research on occupied Europe in the Second World War shows that its citizens had to cope daily with complex moral and material choices. Huw Richards reports.

The Second World War may be the most intensively studied event in history, but it retains a tenacious encrustation of myth to which not even historians are immune. Robert Gildea, professor of French history at Oxford University, gives a striking example from the research on everyday life in occupied Europe that led to the book Surviving Hitler and Mussolini, which has just been published in paperback.

The research was a collaborative European Science Foundation project. Anette Warring, co-editor and professor of history at Roskilde University, Denmark, devoted a comparative chapter to "Intimate and Sexual Relations". She estimates that there were 40,000 to 50,000 wartime liaisons between Germans and natives in Denmark, perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 in Norway, and that perhaps 200,000 French children had German fathers. There is very little, though, on the parallel experience in Eastern Europe.

"We had a Polish contributor who was supposed to work with Anette," Gildea explains, "but she simply refused to accept that any Polish women would have slept with a German. It shows that even an academic historian can prefer myth to reality."

Gildea is sufficiently enthused by the experience of cross-European collaboration to have initiated another such project, dealing with the cultural and police experiences of 1968 in a dozen different countries. He does not, however, pretend that it is always plain sailing. At the opening meeting in Trento in 2000 for the research team of one of six parallel ESF funded projects, he recalls: "We found that one of our two team leaders had resigned and the other had not turned up. It left me, a Greek, an Italian and a rather grumpy Czech. Our first decision was whether to fold the project at the start or carry on. We decided to carry on. I became one of the leaders along with Olivier Wieviorka from the Ecole Normale Superieure de Cachan in Paris and we brought in Anette."

Eleven writers are listed in the book, although five others made important contributions to the research. It was, Gildea says, a genuinely collaborative project: "We worked together over a long period. Our conferences were not like most academic conferences - where you give your paper, go away and your paper is either published or not - but were workshops, producing genuine convergence and co-operation between the contributors."

His own experience of working on occupied France - perhaps his best-known book is Marianne in Chains (2002) - forewarned him that it is not only Poles who cherish myths about the period. "I remember giving a paper to a local history society in Tours. They wanted to be told that French people during the war had been either heroic or victims. My own version, that it was much more complicated, went down like a lead balloon and they refused to publish the paper."

While the French state's overdue admission of complicity in the treatment of Jews was welcome, it may also create new myths. "There has been a seizing on Serge Klarsfeld's statistic that 75 per cent of French Jews survived and an assumption that they were saved by the French population. Many of them, of course, saved themselves, and there is plenty of evidence in the archives of anti-Semitism or people who tried to benefit from the dispossession of the Jews, writing to the German authorities to ask to be given shops or other businesses that had been taken from Jews."

A key question Gildea's group asked was: "Is it possible to have anything you can describe as 'everyday life' when there is total war?" He argues that we need to reconsider some of our familiar images: "While parts of the war were the inferno we think of, not all of life in occupied territories was like that. Life did go on; people still went to work and to school."

Experiences were not, of course, uniform across occupied Europe. The massacres of Eastern Europe were the exception, although they did happen in France, Denmark and the Netherlands. Gildea cites Otto von Stulpnagel, military governor of occupied France, as warning in 1942 against the adoption of "Polish methods" in his territory.

There were, though, broad points in common. Gildea argues that the least helpful myth is the polar dichotomy between "resisters" and "collaborators".

"Too many accounts," he says, "particularly in France, begin with Resistance with a capital "R" as a given. The reality was a good deal more complicated and messier than that. People had to find ways of coping and muddling through. There were a lot of tough moral and material choices and very little in the way of black and white, but a huge range of shades of grey."

The saboteurs and guerrillas who dominate traditional images of resistance were in reality a small minority regarded very ambivalently by most of the population, not least because of the savage German reprisals their actions provoked. Drawing on his study of Ascq in northern France, Gildea says: "When you get older people together to talk about what happened in their communities, they are initially reluctant, but what eventually emerges is that they think that whatever resisters did, they should have done it elsewhere."

This was, he says, "an entirely natural reaction, to keep your head down and hope that life would go on". Most forms of resistance were what James Scott, professor of politics at Yale University, described as "weapons of the weak" in his much-cited book of the same name, such as the go-slow tactics of imported labourers in Germany known as Arbeitsbummel (which roughly translates as "dawdle-work").

One consequence, Gildea says, was a narrowing of horizons. "People ceased to be concerned with the nation or patriotism and concentrated on the local, their families and their jobs." But for some there was a widening of opportunities and experiences - people who found themselves working in different countries or women who took over their husbands' work. Gildea cites the woman, decorated for her contribution to motherhood by the profoundly traditionalist Vichy Government, who explained that she could not attend the presentation because of the demands of running a large family business.

Women found, in Warring's vivid phrase, that their bodies were "a combat zone". Gildea contrasts the fiercely censorious attitude towards the wives of French prisoners of war who associated with German soldiers with the lack of criticism of French prostitutes who did the same thing.

There is a useful comparison with relationships between British women and American soldiers during the same period, which aroused the same local sexual jealousies. "In both cases, the foreign troops had the attractions of being better paid and having a greater air of success about them." The relationships that earned a well-publicised minority of women the humiliation of a public head-shaving in the immediate aftermath of war were often, he suggests, "another coping strategy, the outcome of the sort of moral versus material calculation that was part of living under occupation".

No research project is ever the final word, and Gildea, a firm proponent of "history from below", believes there is still much more to be learnt, particularly about experiences in Eastern Europe, where many archives remain to be fully explored, and those peculiar to Italy, with the mid-war transformation of its relationship with the Nazis, from ally to occupied enemy.

Surviving Hitler and Mussolini: Daily Life in Occupied Europe, edited by Robert Gildea, Olivier Wieviorka and Anette Warring (Berg, £17.99).

Sleeping with the enemy: a group of men shave the head of a young woman in post-liberation France. Her 'crime' was probably to have had sex with a German. As many as 200,000 French children from the period are estimated to have had German fathers.

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