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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, November 14th, 2006
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The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation

by Richard Vinen

The Path of Least Resistance

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

At worst murderous and at best tawdry, the history of France under German occupation remains the great stain on that nation, an episode that consistently provokes bitterness, evasion, and recrimination -- and occasionally rigorous, even masochistic, self-examination. For the past few decades it's also been intensely probed by historians, who have recently moved from bureaucratic and political matters (the best study of which is Julian Jackson's France: The Dark Years) to the mean and messy subject of everyday life. In so doing they've confounded those who like their history neat. "Resistance," they illuminate, could be a valiant act, but it could also be a cloak for thuggishness, or, late in the war (when the trickle of resistance had become a flood), simply a matter of opportunistically switching to the winning side. "Collaboration," on the other hand, could be despicable, but more often the shading between realism, cunning, cynicism, and treason was exceedingly subtle (especially so given that the Gallic character certainly prizes the first two attributes, and arguably the third). As the French negotiated their thorny path through the Occupation, they were compelled at every turn to make sordid compromises, perforce an unlovely process. The superb, pathbreaking book Marianne in Chains, by the Oxford historian Robert Gildea, published in 2002, remains the most perceptive and nuanced summation of the Occupation, but the author limited his fine-grained social history to three departments in the Loire Valley. Vinen, a University of London scholar, takes a much broader view. Based mainly on his synthesis of both the vast secondary literature and the ever-proliferating memoirs and diaries that have been published since the 1980s, this exceptionally well-written book looks at the lives of ordinary people throughout France during that low, dishonest half decade.

What emerges is that the Allies' high-minded "Four Freedoms," de Gaulle's "certain idea of France," and Vichy's sacred formula, Travail, Famille, Patrie," all failed to occupy the people's hearts or minds; rather, the subjugated French were obsessed with the struggle, at once petty and vital, to obtain food and warmth. By 1943 the Germans were taking half of all nonagricultural production and an even greater proportion of agricultural production: the near-universal memories of the Occupation are of winter's inescapable cold and the endless food lines; jours sans ("days without -- when butter, meat, or other provisions couldn't be served or sold) was a catchphrase. So the French scrambled -- usually selfishly, sometimes disgracefully, occasionally monstrously, but almost never heroically.

They improvised and cut corners; they cheated the rationing system by conspiring with doctors to get special allowances of milk that had been set aside for the sick; they played the black market, thereby consorting with and supporting violent gangs; they profiteered; they scavenged from Jewish fellow citizens who were deported eastward. In this and other respects -- looting compatriots' homes abandoned before an advancing invader and denouncing old enemies to an occupying force to settle old scores, or, in the case of officials, selling out minorities to protect the wider community -- they behaved no better and, alas, no worse than have most others in similarly unpleasant and desperate situations. (Recall an episode obviously beyond Vinen's purview: authorities on the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles occupied by Nazi Germany, safeguarded the majority by enacting discriminatory measures against the islands' Jews, going so far as to issue orders for their deportation, which in some cases led the Jews to the death camps. They also directed the Germans to the Jews' homes. That British officials under duress performed with apparent reluctance a task some, but by no means most, French officials under similar duress performed with relish would probably be of scant consolation to the victims.)

The burdens and horrors of the Occupation weren't equally shared, and it's no surprise that the rich, the otherwise well connected, and the wily usually fared best. But Vinen's account is most astute, and heartbreaking, when examining those whose lives were most constrained by circumstances -- specifically poorly educated, unattached women, many of whom had little choice but to "volunteer" to work for the Germans. These were the women -- not the glamorous figures guilty of "horizontal collaboration," such as Coco Chanel and Arletty -- who were most likely to be stripped, have their heads shaved, and then be paraded through the streets at the Liberation as scapegoats by self-righteous and no doubt often self-loathing mobs. Vinen's piercing chronicle not only captures the squalid physical and moral atmosphere of France's dark years; it also unnervingly reveals the moral ambiguity that's the stuff of humanity -- and its history.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of the Atlantic.

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