Inside the Panic

Strange exodus, with no Promised Land and no Moses. But in May 1940 in France, Belgium, and Holland, the word “exodus” came into use at once. It must have seemed appropriate to the biblical proportions of this human tide, which Hanna Diamond calls the largest population movement in history up to that point. On May 10, the very day Hitler launched his attack on France and the Low Countries, people began leaving their homes in potential combat zones. At its peak, between late May and mid-June 1940, some eight million French, Dutch, Belgian, and other refugees—no firm count could ever be made—were on the road. Counting witnesses, helpers, and relatives, a majority of the French population was affected by the exodus.

The monumental jam of weary pedestrians, laden peasant carts, jalopies with a mattress on the roof, luxury limousines, and retreating military that clogged the highways of western France from mid-May into mid-June 1940 was the single most powerful image of the fall of France. Observing from the air, French air force pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry thought of a grape squeezer: a whole people was flowing along the roads “like a black juice.”1 Soon a large part of this people would accept the father figure of Marshal Philippe Pétain with relief.

In her readable and well-informed book, the first general account in English and one of the most satisfactory in any language,2 Hanna Diamond states that the exodus of 1940 had no precedent. That is true if one refers to its extent and its political impact. But noncombatants had always fled from battlefields. Pitiful refugees with their meager possessions trying to escape from armies were a familiar form of misery from earliest times up through the particularly devastating Thirty Years’ War that began in 1618 and on to the evacuation of Moscow as Napoleon approached in 1812.

By the outbreak of World War I, warfare had come to encompass far wider areas and to entail far greater destruction. The exodus of August and September 1914—contemporary journalists already used the term—in which civilians fled the invading Germans in Belgium and northern France reached proportions approaching those of 1940. About a million Belgians escaped into neutral Holland, where about 100,000 remained interned for the duration of the war. Another quarter of a million Belgian refugees reached England. Still others entered northern France, where the local inhabitants joined them on the road.

Rumors of atrocities by German soldiers fed the urge to flee. After World War I, such rumors were often debunked and the stories of German soldiers’ misdeeds attributed to Allied war propaganda. Recently this subject was brilliantly demystified by John Horne and Alan Kramer of Trinity College, Dublin, who showed that while the babies with severed hands and the mass rapes were mostly if not entirely imaginary, and while the Allies did indeed use these rumors for propaganda, German soldiers’ violence against civilians in Belgium and northern France was very real.3 Drawing upon its belief that armed…

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