Who Said No?

Resistance in Vichy France: A Study of Ideas and Motivation in the Southern Zone 1940-1942

by H.R. Kedward
Oxford University Press, 311 pp., $21.00

Marshal Pétain
Marshal Pétain; drawing by David Levine

The last years of the 1930s were a period of intense confusion for the French. Traditional anti-German chauvinists had become apostles of appeasement. Leftists had found that their pacifism overwhelmed their antifascism. The Popular Front deeply divided the French. It had been at first a tremendous source of hope for its followers; it turned into a fiasco and a bitter disappointment for them. French fascists were split into rival sects arguing over what to do about the threat from Germany. Communists, had moved in a few years from revolutionary defeatism to antifascist patriotism, from class warfare to pleas for national union.

Then in 1939 came the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the war, and more confusion. A nation that lacked enthusiasm for a new bloodletting, twenty years after the massacre in which one and a half million Frenchmen had died, turned its fury on the Communists, whose leaders, at Moscow’s request, had now come out against the war, and were branding as “imperialist” the very conflict that, no later than at the time of Munich, they had called on the French to prepare for.

Thus all the old alignments and beliefs had been undermined. Each group looked for a scapegoat. Whatever political community had existed in the Third Republic dissolved. The period of the “phony war”—between the attack on Poland in September 1939 and Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe in the spring of 1940—demoralized the nation further. The non-Communists were often more eager to provoke Stalin than to confront Hitler, and the Communists were torn between their patriotic instincts and their bitterness at being persecuted as belated appeasers by the appeasers of yesteryear.

Then, in less than five weeks, beginning in May 1940, disaster struck. The French army was destroyed, more than a million and a half soldiers were taken prisoners, ten million refugees from Belgium and France fled in front of the Germans, the Wehrmacht occupied more than half of the country, and the parliamentary regime abdicated into the hands of eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain. The armistice he called for and got put the Germans in control of two-thirds of France, left Pétain’s government in charge of the poorest third, and the two zones separated by a formidable barrier.

No wonder that the immediate reaction of most people was, on the one hand, to try to put their daily lives in order again—by returning to their abandoned homes, or by looking for a job, for food and shelter, for news of their relatives captured by the Germans; and, on the other hand, to entrust the nation’s fate to the providential savior, Pétain, who would, many hoped, spare France the fate of Poland and maintain a modicum of French sovereignty. The search for personal survival, plus collective hero worship, in the midst of the ruin of old alignments and beliefs meant in effect that, for a long while, France was no longer a nation of…

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