• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

France Without Glory


Anyone seeking to understand more fully the intolerable atmosphere of the time should turn to La France à l’Heure Allemande, Philippe Burrin’s anatomy of occupied France, which is in my view the best work to date on its subject, judicious, thorough, exhaustively documented in German as well as French sources, and damning in its very fairness. Burrin makes the obvious distinction between active collaboration, whether venal or ideological, and the mundane accommodation of people who more passively “went along” with the Nazis and Vichy, and lived in what is sometimes called a “gray zone.” He pays particular attention to such accommodation, showing how it grew out of pre-war disillusion with the Republic and the widespread desire to return to “normal” as soon as possible after the defeat—the wish that Pétain might keep the country out of harm’s way fathering the thought that he had indeed done so. With each accommodation to the occupiers—all too often undertaken in anticipation of their desires before they were expressed—it became harder to take a stand the next time.13 What Daladier said of Gabriel Le Roy Ladurie and his colleagues at the Worms bank was also true for most of the Vichy officials: “They weren’t traitors in the ordinary, traditional sense, but rather men eager to accept defeat. Emigrés in their own land.”

Burrin is particularly acute about Vichy’s abandonment of the Jews under its control, initially the foreigners, then those of French nationality. It was shameful, but it was not an act of vicious, premeditated anti-Semitism, an enthusiastic policy of assistance in the Nazi project of mass murder. It was ordinary, quotidien French anti-Semitism of the kind that had been rampant in the Thirties and before. This is confirmed in Renée Poznanski’s exhaustive account of Jewish experience under Vichy, where she shows, paradoxically, that the Vichy government was not preoccupied by anti-Semitism. Its rulers didn’t care for Jews, of course, but for the most part they weren’t determined from the first to persecute them. Anti-Semitism was just one of the ways in which Vichy sought to ingratiate itself with the occupier and obtain concessions. And so, in Poznanski’s words, Jews were first excluded from the national community, then deprived of their nationality, later of their employment and their possessions, and only then abandoned to the Germans.14

And sometimes it was not even abandonment, just unthinking unconcern. The point is brought home forcibly by Burrin’s detailed retelling of the story of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, co-founders of the historical journal Annales. Anxious to preserve the journal’s right to publish under the Nazis, Febvre brought intolerable pressure upon his Jewish friend and colleague to remove his name from the masthead. When Bloch initially demurred, Febvre resorted to the most contorted arguments, finally insisting that it was an act of intellectual and national resistance to keep the journal in print, and that it was somehow self-regarding and un-French of Bloch to refuse to make a sacrifice. The outcome is well known; Bloch finally conceded and went on to join the Resistance and be tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Febvre published the journal through the war years and inherited the mantle of the Annales school thereafter. This sad story captures much of the self-delusion but also the meanness of spirit with which the French entered the abyss during the Vichy years. 15

If Vichy’s daily betrayals were acts of commonplace mediocrity, its major crime was its very existence. This is Burrin’s second theme. Because a “French state” existed, and undertook its own initiatives (such as the execution of Communist hostages) in order to assert that existence, the choices that faced men and women in other occupied Western European countries were more complicated in France. Thus while it is true that a higher percentage of Jews from the Netherlands or Belgium died in the war (75 percent and 40 percent respectively, as against some 25 percent of the Jews from France), it is also true that individual Dutch and Belgians were more likely to protest the persecution or exclusion of a Jewish colleague or to dissent from an official order.

That orders to persecute people were given by a French government and enforced by French police tended to confuse the public—at least until 1942, after which the mood of the country swung steadily against the regime.16 In other occupied lands the Germans were the persecutors, along with a handful of unpopular quislings, and the occupied nation was the victim. In France it was the established elite of the country—generals, prefects, civil servants, professors—who were giving the orders, while the categories of victims expanded in stages—first political refugees, then Communists, then foreign Jews, then resisters, then French Jews. There were limits to the popular capacity for accommodation to this situation, but thanks to such “salami tactics” they took longer to reach. It is for this reason that Léon Blum was right to recoil in a horror of anticipation when Pétain was voted full powers: “Je considère la France comme déshonorée.”

The sour taste left by this experience contributed significantly to the confused feelings of the postwar years.17 As Daladier had anticipated in July 1942, France was liberated by others. There was resentment of their liberators, and a sense that things were somehow worse in 1945 than they had been under the occupation, as indeed they were, since some of the most serious damage to French buildings and communications was done during the German retreat that followed the Allied landings.

The result was what outsiders saw as a distinctly ungracious and ungrateful mood. Observing the June 18, 1945, parade of General Leclerc’s famous Second Armoured Division the British Ambassador, Duff Cooper, commented: “One couldn’t help thinking that all these [airplanes and vehicles] and most of the equipment was of Anglo-American origin. Not a single English or American flag was shown. There was no evidence of an ounce of gratitude and one felt throughout that France was boasting very loud, having very little to boast about.”

Uncertain how to regard their liberators, the French were also at a loss for ways to digest the memory of their own victims. Survivors from the concentration camps, if they had been deported for acts of resistance, could legitimately be celebrated as heroes and, in the case of those who did not return, as “morts pour la France.” This established a link, in the public mind and on numerous village memorials, with the dead of World War I and helped restore some sort of meaning and pride to the years of occupation. But many of the dead were killed by other Frenchmen in what had become, by 1944, an unacknowledged civil war; others—some 74,000—had been deported and exterminated on racial grounds. Plaques marking the graves of pre-war politicians like Georges Mandel and Jean Zay, murdered by the Vichy Milice, initially described them as the victims of “France’s enemies” or of “Nazi barbarity.” Only forty years later were they revised.18 In the town of Pithiviers, near Orléans, a monument was erected in 1957 “A nos déportés morts pour la France.” Here, too, it was not until 1992 that the municipality put up a new plaque, more accurate if less reassuring. It reads: “To the memory of the 2300 Jewish children interned at the Pithiviers camp from July 19 to September 6, 1942, before being deported and murdered in Auschwitz.”

The difficulties of remembering (and forgetting) the recent past were not high on the list of private concerns, however. Postwar France was in a sorry state, at least as dilapidated as it had been in the Thirties and a lot poorer. The economic infrastructure was in a dangerously neglected condition—there were nearly twice as many fatal accidents in the mines in the early postwar years as there had been before 1939, and France had lost over twenty thousand kilometers of railway. Two million six hundred thousand dwellings had been destroyed or damaged, from a housing stock that was already seriously inadequate before the war began. There was a critical shortage of food—Janet Flanner reported in 1945 that Parisians were hungrier than they had been in any winter during the war. Workers in one Gennevilliers factory weighed on average nearly 17 pounds less in 1945 than they had in 1938, and fourteen-year-old boys in 1946 were found to be seven centimeters shorter on the average than boys of the same age and from similar backgrounds just eight years earlier. There were bread riots in some provincial towns.

Within two years the well-founded grievances of France’s working population led to mass strikes and deep social discontent. The newly minted Fourth Republic seemed unable to address these problems, and the instability of its coalition governments was made worse by a constitution that deliberately weakened the executive branch (a legacy of longstanding and well-grounded republican fears of executive dictatorship, from Bonaparte to Pétain). A newly introduced system of proportional representation gave disproportionate influence to a few dominant political parties, without allowing any of them to form a stable government. Meanwhile the rise of a powerful Communist Party divided the country and seemed to threaten civil war, at least until 1948. There were depressing and frequently noted indications that the country had come through another war only to return to the Thirties, “a climate of indubitable and growing malaise,” Janet Flanner wrote, “…as if the French people, or all European people, expected something to happen or worse, expected nothing to happen.”

It is thus not surprising that, after a short-lived moratorium, the prejudices and habits of the pre-war decade reasserted themselves. Charles Maurras’s Action Française was revived under a new name (though its founder languished in prison), and its spirit hovered loweringly over the fragile democratic consensus. Even anti-Semitism resurfaced—the taboos of a later generation had not yet taken hold, and much that would be frowned upon after the Sixties was still acceptable in the late Forties.19 As in the Thirties, the left was not immune. It was Jacques Duclos, the wartime leader of the French Communists, who would later call Pierre Mendès-France “a frightened little Jew,” while in 1948 his colleague Arthur Ramette drew attention to some prominent Jewish parliamentarians—Léon Blum, Jules Moch, René Mayer—and then asserted, “We Communists have only French names,” a claim that was as unseemly as it was untrue.20

Part of the story of these years, from the liberation of Paris until the first signs of economic recovery and civil stability, is retold in a lively and attractive book by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, who confine their attention to Paris. The authors make particularly good use of published and unpublished diaries, notably those of the Parisian gossip Jean Galtier-Boissère and of Duff Cooper, British ambassador for much of this period. Duff was married to the glamorous Lady Diana Cooper and the Coopers moved in the most exalted circles. As a result the book at times reads like the Bottin Mondain, full of duchesses and princes, every page liberally sprinkled with particles and hyphens. The authors write with great intimacy of these people (as well they might—one of the authors is Duff Cooper’s grand-daughter). But for the most part they see their subjects clearly enough, and we learn here not only that “Coco” Chanel, Arletty, and Florence Gould consorted happily enough with SS officers throughout the war, but that the SS men were entertained by a remarkable number of prominent French magnates from the banking, champagne, and horse-racing worlds, not one of whom seems to have suffered in later years for his or his firm’s imprudent choice of wartime company.

After the war such things were soon forgiven. Where amnesia was not enough, hypocrisy filled the gap: “The sales staff in smart shops who had served Germans without a tremor now patriotically refused to serve the wife of a collaborator.” Meanwhile new clients and a flourishing black market brought the carriage trade back to life; the authors give a full account of some wonderful-sounding dinner parties and balls, and the bitchy remarks made at them, including the Mistresses’ Ball in June 1949, given in honor of Lady Diana by some of her husband’s former lovers. (Commenting on the Coopers’ marital arrangements, the Duchess of Windsor is said to have remarked that “the worst part of having an affair with Duff was the prospect of Diana coming to comfort you when it was over.”)

A passing reference to Sartre is the occasion for the authors’ only major gaffe: Charles de Gaulle did indeed advise against arresting Sartre—“You don’t imprison Voltaire”—but he said this not in 1947 but twenty years later, as president. In 1947, whatever he thought of Sartre’s writings, De Gaulle was, to his own regret, in no position to recommend for or against incarceration of his opponents. On the whole, however, the book is accurate, even though it pays too much attention to a gratin that was more than a little curled at the edge.

A more balanced account of France in the postwar era is to be found in The Locust Years, a thorough reconsideration of the Fourth Republic by Frank Giles, a senior British news correspondent. He is informative and wise about the lost illusions of France’s postwar foreign policy, including the forlorn attempts to restore in Germany and Central Europe a French influence that was gone for good; and about the errors, and worse, of colonial policy, by which France spent millions of francs (one-third of the national budget in the early Fifties) only to suffer a costly defeat in Indochina and a debilitating, pointless “dirty war” in North Africa. Giles also reminds us that there was in the late 1940s and 1950s a shadowy, persistent threat of military rebellion by an officer corps embittered by its earlier humiliations and alienated from all civil authority.

But Giles astutely notes the achievements of the Fourth Republic, too, all the more striking for its unpromising beginnings. Not only did France share in the birth of a postwar European community, whose coming was announced by its foreign minister, Robert Schuman, with the presentation of his “Plan” in Paris in May 1950; but at some indefinable moment in the mid-Fifties, even as the Algerian war was sounding the death knell of the Republic itself, France shook off many of its nineteenth-century habits, and, by reorganizing production and methods of distribution, entered the modern world. This development was symptomatically registered by the brief flourishing of the populist demagogue Pierre Poujade and his supporters, nervous provincial shopkeepers who had no future in the coming France of hypermarchés and Euro-subsidies and who somehow obscurely understood this before almost everyone else.

At the opposite end of Paris from the Gare de l’Est there is another square, the Place du 18 Juin 1940. It is drab, stuck within a complex of shopping streets, movie theaters, fast-food outlets, and the Gare Montparnasse, the city’s least attractive railway terminal. The date that it celebrates is of course that of the speech on BBC radio given by an obscure French general who had escaped to London to continue his country’s struggle. Few heard the speech and fewer still followed its example at the time. But as the profligate, delinquent postwar republic ran out its time, the significance of that event was to grow. The Locust Years is worth its price just for Frank Giles’s marvelous account of the last desperate hours of the Fourth Republic, in May 1958, as the army and the colons postured threateningly and the parliamentarians, despairing of their responsibilities, turned in fear and anticipation toward De Gaulle’s retreat in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, to the sound of the “measured tread of the stone statue as it stepped down from its pedestal and began to make its fearsome way forward.” It is the paradox of Giles’s story, and of modern French history, that it was not until an unsuccessful colonial war and a military rebellion had conspired to undermine its democratic institutions and place them in the hands of a reproachful commendatore that France’s postwar recovery could truly begin.


France’s Hollow Years’: An Exchange August 8, 1996

  1. 13

    Thus the Félix Potin company sacked a senior Jewish employee in August 1940, in advance of any legislation requiring it to do so, in the hope of forestalling trouble with the Germans. There were many similar cases.

  2. 14

    Poznanski here provides some support for the views of Henry Rousso and Eric Conan, who have recently argued that it is profoundly misleading to put the Jewish question at the center of our understanding of Vichy France, a form of historiographical overcompensation for previous neglect that carries risks of its own. See Rousso and Conan, Vichy: Un passé quine passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994).

  3. 15

    There is a cruel irony in Lucien Febvre’s victory. He was largely responsible for giving the postwar Annales school of French history and its many foreign admirers a radically structuralist and an apolitical, even ahistorical, cast, something that was alien to Bloch’s vision of the discipline and its responsibilities, and from which some fields of French historical scholarship are only now recovering. He also by his influence and example did much to divert historical attention away from controversial issues from the recent past, especially if they involved personal or political actions. His own wartime record long benefited from this neglect.

  4. 16

    For a thorough discussion of the catalytic effect of the 1942 roundups of Jews on the official Christian community, see W.D. Halls, Politics, Society and Christianity in Vichy France (Oxford: Berg, 1995), especially Part III, “The Scapegoats.” The year 1942 was also a turning point for the organized Resistance, partly as a reaction to increased repression, partly because of the growing hopes for an Allied victory, but perhaps especially as a result of Vichy’s efforts to appease the Nazis by promising to send thousands of young men to work in Germany. Faced with the choice of forced labor or clandestine resistance, many chose the latter. For a timely reminder that there were indeed resisters in occupied France, see André Rougeyron, Agents for Escape: Inside the French Resistance (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), the translation of a memoir originally published in France in 1947.

  5. 17

    Compare the hard-bitten, cynical tone of Marcel Aymé, Roger Nimier, and other “disabused” novelists of the Forties with the comparatively innocent provocation of Raymond Radiguet in the Twenties. E.g., Marcel Aymé, Uranus (Paris: Gallimard, 1948) and Roger Nimier, Le Hussard bleu (Paris: Gallimard, 1950). See also Raymond Radiguet, Le Diable au corps (Paris: Grasset, 1923).

  6. 18

    There is a remarkable discussion of this subject in Annette Wieviorka’s Déportation et Génocide: entre la mémoire et l’oubli (Paris: Plon, 1992), and in the recent survey by Wieviorka and Serge Barcellini, Passant souvienstoi!: Les lieux de souvenir de la Seconde Guerre mondiale en France (Paris: Plon, 1995).

  7. 19

    For a thoughtful discussion of this point, see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Mémoires: la brisure et l’attente 1930–1955 (Paris: Seuil, 1995), pp. 188–189.

  8. 20

    As so often in France, such sentiments probably have more to do with wounded national pride than with unadorned racism. As late as 1976, on learning the details of an exhibition planned to memorialize French victims at Auschwitz, the Ministère des Anciens Combattants requested certain changes—the names on the list “lacked a properly French resonance.” See Sonia Combe, Archives interdites: Les peurs françaises face à l’histoire contemporaine (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994), p. 14.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print