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Living with the Enemy

French and Germans, Germans and French: A Personal Interpretation of France under Two Occupations, 1914-1918/1940-1944

by Richard Cobb
Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 188 pp., $15.95

Northeastern France was occupied twice by a German army in the first half of this century. Between 1914 and 1918, it was behind the lines, on the German side of the trench system over which the opposing armies struggled for four years. Following the armistice of 1940, it was under direct German occupation for another four years. Richard Cobb has had the interesting idea of comparing these two experiences, concentrating on the industrial area around Lille, Tourcoing, and Roubaix (the départements of the Nord and the Pas-de-Calais). To this he has added a couple of chapters on how French and Germans got along with one another in everyday experience in occupied Paris during the years between 1940 and 1944.

It is the daily lives of ordinary people that Cobb wants to re-create. This is a “personal interpretation,” the subtitle tells us, and he has relied more upon novels, personal memoirs, the recollections of friends, and his own instructed imagination than upon archives. “This [is] very much a spoken book,” Cobb tells us; it originated in public lectures. It originated also in years of listening as well as of speaking. Since the late 1930s, as student, soldier, and researcher, Richard Cobb has nourished his “second identity” in France and Belgium by striking up conversations and listening acutely. 1

Richard Cobb makes us listen too. The sounds of trains in the night in occupied Lille near the end of the terrible winter of 1917-1918 mean something different for each kind of listener. For the inhabitants of the corons, the dreary brick row-houses of working-class Lille, who have already burned their furniture and even the woodwork to keep from freezing, and who lie huddled together in the dark, the trains mean that the thaw has begun. For some Lille women, they mean the imminent departure of the German soldier asleep beside them, and the loss of extra rations or fuel. For the German soldiers, they mean the opening of the spring campaign and the likelihood of death. The trains go out to the trenches carrying soldiers sitting upright, and they return carrying them lashed together in fours, head to foot, bound for a common burial ditch.

Cobb has a special predilection for the sounds of language. Military occupations produce polyglot official neologisms about rationing, curfews, and passes, along with slang expressing the reactions of both soldiers and civilians to them. (Cobb provides a glossary, along with some choice Parisian argot.) The forced cohabitation of German soldiers and French civilians engendered another new vocabulary, as the chtimis (the inhabitants of Lille and its environs) and the boches (they were simply boches at Lille, and not chleuhs, fridolins, or doryphores) tried to communicate in a mixture of Bavarian, French, and Flemish. We listen to provincial climbers making places for themselves in occupied Paris, losing their rustic twangs and burrs, and perfecting their long Paris a‘s.

Even silences evoke a vivid image of an occupied city. A friend in Lyon told Cobb that as he lay in bed at night he could hear the Rhône surging past, a sound he had never heard above the peacetime urban din.

Cobb enjoys reading historical significance into the most mundane objects—hats, for instance. He calls the 1930s and 1940s in France “the age of the beret.” This Basque shepherd headgear spread to Paris schoolchildren between the wars, mostly because it was simple and waterproof. Then Vichy adopted it as an emblem of outdoors vigor and francité—collaborators with a conqueror, Cobb observes, being particularly devoted to the display of national symbols. Period photographs show the beret atop aging scoutmasters, athletic priests, army officers, and members of youth movements, worn in a range of expressive angles. For a few years, the beret nourished a lively cottage industry in the south. Then, at the liberation, berets were quietly hidden away, having been contaminated by association with the anti-Resistance commando squads of the hated Milice, the Vichy French auxiliary police.

Richard Cobb follows his own enthusiasms and curiosities unabashedly and with contagious relish. In a brief autobiographical preface he describes himself as an “extreme individualist,” who by the age of thirteen had already adopted the maxim “Let us assume that our own country is always wrong.” His recalcitrance to the stereotypes of class, organization, and nation are already apparent in the evolution of his scholarly work. After a celebrated study of one of the more spontaneous institutions of the French Revolution, the urban militias of 1793,2 he gravitated steadily away from the study of organizations or groups or administrations toward the study of those who wriggle free of them: misfits, criminals, outcasts, spontaneous rebels.3 No one should expect to find in this book a systematic account of the Vichy state or German policy or organized interest groups. Richard Cobb makes the individual and the region the warp and woof of his tapestry of occupied France.

The people who attract his attention are those who blur an overrigid dichotomy of occupant and occupé. In the forced cohabitation of an occupation, life somehow has to go on. A network of everyday encounters is woven between the two groups. Black marketeers, “horizontal” collaborators, minor civil servants, purveyors of essential goods and services, aristocratic hostesses—all for one reason or another are brought into systematic contact with the occupants at one level or another.

Cobb has the imagination to see that soldiers, too, are as much victims of an occupation’s restraints as are the occupied civilians. As the veteran of a somewhat ambiguous encounter with His Majesty’s Service (he recalls going to some lengths to avoid the army, arriving at camp only after a brief turn in prison and a legendary pub crawl, and then discovering “that one could enjoy very good company in it”), Cobb feels a particular sympathy for other “reluctant and untidy” soldiers such as the rustic Brandenburger Hans Pfeiffer who hangs around the Paris butter-and-eggs shop in Jean Dutourd’s novel Au bon beurre, mostly because of Mlle. Léonie. It seems perfectly natural to him that occupation soldiers should want to escape the “awful masculine collectivity of military life,” and to exchange “the uniform of servitude, the livery of death” for some privacy and individuality.

Other than death, a soldier’s main escapes from the military straitjacket were love and desertion. Not that the two were mutually exclusive; Cobb observes that without the complicity of a woman a deserter could not last long. Getting rid of a uniform was comparatively easy in a big city (Cobb recalls seeing a full British military kit for sale in Brussels only days after the British army arrived in the city, a sign that someone had traded it for inconspicuous civilian attire). But those in the know had only to check a suspect’s boots, for feet were the hardest part of the body to demobilize. As for love affairs between occupants and occupés, Cobb believes they were most frequent among working people, the middle class lacking adaptability, but even General von Falkenhausen, the German commander in Brussels (whose command included the French départements of the Nord and the Pas-de-Calais), returned after the war to marry his Belgian mistress. Cobb rejoices in the healthy numbers of Franco-German infants conceived during the two occupations as a victory for life and humanity amid death and regimentation.

The region is Cobb’s other subject. Away with those Paris-centered perspectives from which everything looks as homogeneous as the bureaucrat on his rond-de-cuir imagines it to be. Cobb knows better, having worked in numerous provincial archives over the years, and having talked and listened after hours. The French state, for him, is another smothering stereotype from which the historian has to escape in order to see reality.

The Nord and the Pas-de-Calais were well chosen to illustrate Cobb’s contention of the irreducible heterogeneity of occupied France. Long historical tradition did as much to set the region apart as did the German decision to administer it from Brussels. A tradition of Anglophilia remained unbroken in 1914-1918, and only partly so in 1940-1944. The Lillois, referred to in the south as the “boches du nord,” returned the favor by taking a dim view of the garrulous and mercurial southerners. For Cobb, regional prejudices of this sort are stronger than potential ideological ties. And he is certainly not wrong; both the north and the “Midi rouge” had strong socialist traditions, but sharply distinct ones, from the days of Guesde and Jaurès to the days of Mauroy and Defferre. In 1940, the northerners considered Vichy a southern regime. According to one wag, it expressed not Maurras’s ideal of “France d’abord” but “Provence d’abord.” They rather suspected that the armistice had been concocted to spare the Midi from becoming a battleground. Although Pétain was a native son, Cobb argues that Vichy was almost nonexistent for the north. Its principal appeal, that of avoiding complete occupation, could hardly move an area already occupied.

According to Cobb, the first occupation of the north was more brutal, rapacious, and humiliating than the second. The main reason for that, of course, was the immediate proximity of the trenches in 1914-1918. Ordinary business came to a halt, and the Germans conscripted all able-bodied men and even young women for trench and supply work. Feeling abandoned by their country, the citizens of the north put their whole trust in local mayors. They and local business leaders led the resistance to German exactions, and some of the wool magnates (lainiers) were deported in 1915.

The second occupation was in some ways a continuation of the first. The Germans took up where they had left off, with economic exploitation and propaganda among the Flemish minority. One German official arrived with his uncle’s card file from 1914-1918. The long-term mayor of Roubaix, Jean Le Bas, who had been deported during the first occupation, died in Mauthausen in 1943.

On the other hand, the second occupation differed in important ways from the first. There was no active front nearby. Some degree of normal life was more nearly possible. Industrialists could produce for Germany this time, and could justify this form of economic collaboration as providing employment for French workers and, after 1943, saving them from the dreaded Service dutravail obligatoire, forced labor in German war plants. Industrialists liked Vichy’s anti-trade-union zeal, too, after their experience of the Popular Front. Many Catholics and peasants were also attracted by Vichy’s “national revolution.” Opposition to the Germans this time was led by railroad workers, miners, schoolteachers, and the Catholic left. Cobb is really telling us that the second occupation divided the people of the north more than the first. That was true for all of France, and it was the existence of a quasi-independent regime at Vichy and its “national revolution” that did the most to make it so.

That is why one may not follow Cobb all the way in his regional enthusiasm to the conclusion that “both the history of collaboration and that of resistance can be studied only in local or, at most, regional terms.” Cobb himself shows how some of Vichy’s work penetrated the north. The Sections spéciales, the 1941 kangaroo courts set up to judge resisters and communists, tried 1,706 men and 260 women in the north for suspected acts of terrorism and sentenced five of them to the guillotine. The 1940 Vichy census of Jews aided the German and French police in their 1942 deportation of 516 Jews from the north to Auschwitz, from which twenty-five returned. Inattention to matters at the center led Cobb into one of his very rare errors of fact. The yellow star sewn to Jewish clothing, which Cobb believes “so prominent at Vichy,” was in fact never seen in the Vichy zone. This was one case where Vichy knew it had to say no or lose all credibility. An occupation must, of course, be studied in the interplay between center and region, and that is what Cobb really does most of the time.

Richard Cobb makes no pretense to completeness, but it is worth pointing out where his enthusiasm flags. His acute antennae never fix very long on people of power and responsibility, though in a characteristically penetrating aside, he notes that “the greater the responsibility, the more insistent the appeal” of collaboration. Even further outside the range of Cobb’s interest are industrialists. We learn a little of the wool magnates, but nothing at all of the coal executives, the other great enterprise of the region. Did they run the mines for the Germans during the first occupation, too, or was economic collaboration really different in the second?

The first major strike of the second occupation in all of France occurred in the coal mines of the north in May 1941, but we do not read of it here. We encounter one of its leaders, Auguste Lecoeur, but, characteristically, he appears in an account of communist jargon and northern accent. The Communist Party appears by name mostly with reference to its assassinations of German officers, acts which Cobb equates with those of the SS. The Catholic Church also appears often, but there are more references to the marginal Abbé Gantois, defender of Flemish separatism, than to Cardinal Liénart of Lille.

The whole question of “collaboration d’état” is missing, too, to recall the useful distinction devised by Stanley Hoffmann. Collaboration d’état, as distinct from ideological “collaborationism,” was a calculated cooperation by many Vichy high civil servants and professional leaders with Germany in order to keep the French state and economy functioning autonomously, even at the price of carrying out German policy. Cobb prefers to think of both collaboration and resistance as “eminently personal stances that have no past,” though family and regional background might predispose one to one or the other. He thinks of them as choices, more personal than ideological, though accident might place one in a situation that required daily encounters with the occupant. Policemen, a favorite Cobb subject, fall into this category, and Cobb marvels at the continuity of the Paris police across all regimes.

Cobb’s account of Paris collaboration, collaborationism (more public and political than mere collaboration), and ultracollaborationism (the same, with zeal) focuses mainly on social climbers and opportunists such as Jean-Hérold Paquis, the minor provincial journalist who acquired power and polish at Radio Paris. The great collaborateurs d’état do not appear at all: figures such as Jean Bichelonne, the top planner of French industry who negotiated industrial collaboration with his German opposite number, Albert Speer, or Franca+ois Lehideux, the nephew of Louis Renault, who dreamed of a pan-European automobile industry that would run Detroit out of the world market.

Cobb might also have explored changes over a longer span. He barely alludes to the 1870-1871 German occupation around Lille, though he says he once did research for a different project on the Napoleonic occupation between 1793 and 1815 of what is now southern Belgium. Military occupation is almost as old as war, and it would be interesting to compare twentieth-century occupations with earlier experience. No doubt at the most personal level things changed rather little. At some point in modern times, however, foreign armies began to be more dreaded than one’s own army, near the time when citizen armies replaced billeting. The industrialization of war, too, required occupied populations to work and gave rise to the very concept of economic collaboration. How far back do we have to go to determine when collaboration became reprehensible, and is it so only for persons of power and responsibility?

Much remains to be done on the history of occupations. Richard Cobb’s personal reflections will be both indispensable and fun for anyone interested in the German ones. Like Cobb’s recollection of himself in the British army, this book is untidy, but there is very good company in it.

  1. 1

    Richard Cobb, A Second Identity: Essays on France and French History (Oxford University Press, 1969).

  2. 2

    Les armées révolutionnaires, 2 vols. (Paris: Mouton, 1961-1963).

  3. 3

    Terreur et subsistances, 1793-1795 (Clavreuil, 1965); The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford University Press, 1970); Paris and its Provinces, 1792-1802 (Oxford University Press, 1975); Death in Paris, 1795-1801: The Records of the Basse-Gole de la Seine (Oxford University Press, 1978).

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