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Indiespensable

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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 9th, 2003


 

Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation

by

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The German occupation during the Second World War remains the great blemish on the French nation and an episode that still engenders shame, bitterness, recrimination, and evasion. In this stunning work Gildea, a professor of modern European history at Oxford, attempts to move "beyond praise and blame" to explore the ever shifting lines between accommodation and defiance, cynicism and loyalty, and prudence and altruism that the French negotiated through their ordeal. He succeeds brilliantly. Unlike Julian Jackson's recent history, France: The Dark Years, this isn't a bureaucratic or political account; rather, Gildea examines the occupation on the ground, limiting his study to three departments in the Loire Valley, where he has meticulously and skeptically analyzed local archives (more than half the files he assessed had previously been closed) and the often contradictory testimony of surviving eyewitnesses. The complex picture that emerges will dismay those who like their history neat. The French devised informal but often clear rules for collaboration (drinking with a German officer at a bar was acceptable, but having him to dinner at one's home was not), even as the distinction between cunning and treason remained blurry, and was often only a matter of timing, of "changing direction as the occasion demanded." Provincial mayors saw collaboration to protect their communities as a patriotic duty, and by and large their charges were and remain grateful for their efforts. "Resistance" could be a cloak for thuggishness, and those members of the Resistance whose violent actions provoked reprisals against the local populace were and are often regarded by the community as irresponsible, if not criminal; and relations between occupier and occupied "were not always as brutal or even as one-sided as they have often been portrayed." In his nuanced and intricate work of historical reconstruction Gildea has grappled heroically with the ambiguity at the heart of history and in the heart of man.


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