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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.