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Making the best of defeat

19 May 2006

11:34 AM

19 May 2006

11:34 AM

The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation Richard Vinen

Penguin/Allen Lane, pp.496, 20

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Vae victis, the Roman warning to the defeated, was probably more threatening than sympathetic. Ever after they themselves had been subjugated — forced, literally, to bow their heads under the Samnite yoke — they made a habit of ruthless winning. The defeated could expect slavery and pillage. After June 1940, both were endured by the French for four years which had traumatic consequences. They include the cussedness of France’s foreign policy and her resentment of les Anglo-Saxons. Helping hands too get bitten.

As soon as he entered Paris, General de Gaulle set about fabricating the myth that Paris had ‘liberated herself by her own efforts’, which was much truer of Naples. As Richard Vinen says, the myth of the Resistance derived its strength from everyone’s knowledge that it was false. Had it been true, de Gaulle would have been irrelevant as a rassembleur, a national reconciler. As it was, the disparate groups of résistants, with the Communists at odds with the nationalists, were neither cohesive nor purposeful enough to take control. De Gaulle was as providential in 1944 as the majority of Frenchmen had believed Philippe Pétain to be in 1940.

The latter’s defenders promoted the myth of the Shield and the Spear: the claim that, while Pétain stalled and hoodwinked the Germans by his pretence of collaboration, de Gaulle prepared the shaft that would skewer them. In fact, most Pétainists hated de Gaulle as an insolent upstart; the Communists as a Fascist.

If the Vichy government was stigmatised as a nest of traitors, its legitimacy could hardly be questioned. Nevertheless both Pétain and Pierre Laval, his unloved and unlovely prime minister (who, unlike the Marshal, had openly proclaimed his hopes of a German victory), were condemned to death for treason, though only Laval was executed.

Most of those with dubious records but good social connections escaped lightly. Many fonctionnaires were Vicars of Bray, schooled to sing from any hymn-sheet. Maurice Papon, who had supervised deportations from the Gironde, became de Gaulle’s Préfet de Police in Paris during the police riots of 1962, in which some 200 Algerians were flung into the Seine and drowned. Papon was tried and condemned for war crimes only as an old man, in the late 1990s, and died in prison.

In 1944, the most conspicuously abused were the tondues, the women whose heads were shaved, and sometimes tarred, for having slept with Germans. Some had sentimental, others mercenary motives; very few had indulged in revealing pillow-talk. As Marguerite Duras, as scriptwriter, illustrated in Hiroshima, mon amour, Alain Resnais’ film, horizontal collaborators were easy scapegoats for sadism.


The number of tondues was, in fact, far fewer than that of French women who took German lovers. Richard Vinen shows that during the four years of the Occupation 200,000 children were conceived with German fathers; in Rouen alone, something approaching 4,000.

Irene Nemirovsky’s recently published novel Suite Française is remarkable for its candid depiction of the occupiers’ cultivated ‘correctness’, especially in the early days. In the absence of some two million French men and husbands in POW camps, nature often took its course: a man was a man, and faute de mieux a German.

POWs in Germany were used to keep Vichy in a postulant role; their return was always imminent, and forever postponed. To hasten it, Laval organised conscription for the soon infamous STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire), in which young men were sent to Germany, as if to do their national service, supposedly — in the Pétainist style of donnant-donnant — in exchange for POWs. Some, en bon enfant, were advised by their families to report for what was said to be their duty; most had to be rounded up; many more absconded to the Maquis.

POWs were encouraged to become transformés — men who traded military for civil status, and jobs (often with happy access to German peasant women whose husbands were at the front), in return for working in factories or on farms. Did this make them no better than the tondues? Maybe, but of the 250,000 transformés none had his head shaved for sleeping with a German woman. However, STO volunteers were mal vus after the war. George Marchais, the Communist leader, was regularly embarrassed by the charge that he had been one.

The strength of Vinen’s book is that, while recapitulating a familiar tale, he produces a fat dossier of myth-puncturing detail. Human inconsistency is exemplified in Auguste Cambonnet, a typical provincial bonhomme who, in the midst of the débâcle of 1940, asked the president of the Senate to lend him his office in order to write postcards to his constituents. Such a man might be assumed to have proved a servile Pétainist. In fact, he became a hero of the Resistance.

Family-minded Vichy could be expected to relegate women to the role of mother and housewife, but it was under its aegis that French women were first eligible for town councils. No feminism was involved: although Vinen does not mention it, anti-clerical politicians had opposed votes for women not out of male chauvinism, but because provincial females were more pious (and hence right-wing) than their men.

The Catholic Church, especially at the top level, had little to be proud of in supporting Pétain’s vicious Vichy measures against Jews, but the rector of Louis Malle’s Carmelite boarding school hid three Jewish boys, as Louis commemorated in his film, Au Revoir les Enfants. Protestants, however, with Huguenot memories, were more generally protective of fugitive Jews.

While alien Jews in particular were pitilessly hounded, Guy de Rothschild, a Proustian toff and a hunting crony of the Marshal’s, swanned openly round the ‘Free Zone’. Later, he was fast-tracked for immigration into the US. Yet all his mother’s relatives died in Auschwitz.

A friend of mine went with her misguidedly law-abiding father to register as Jews at the local prefecture and then waited for some three years, in dread of the arrest that never came. Inefficiency has its graces.

Written evidence does not always tell the full story. An extant letter shows a Monsieur Cougouaille, allegedly entrusted with the 10-year-old son of Berthe Gheldman, a deported Belgian Jewess, denying all knowledge of the boy. This might seem to illustrate his indifference to the boy’s fate, whereas in fact this particular Français moyen had done all he could to save the mother and succeeded in hiding her son, who survived.

Faits divers are also piquant. The singer Georges Brassens went awol from the BMW works in Bavaria and holed up in a Parisian working-class flat, where he entered into a ménage à trois so durable that he contined to sleep with Jeanne le Bonniec until 1966. The radical politician Henri Queuille started a charcoal business in Neuvic d’Ussel only because young men who worked in that trade were exempt from STO. Fifty years later, his neighbour remembered him doing so, but not that he also became one of the Fourth Republic’s many prime ministers.

Another unlikely true story is that, after the 1943 fall of Mussolini, Italian troops stationed on Corsica lost more men fighting for the liberation of the island (245 of them were killed when they turned against their erstwhile allies) than the Resistance and the Free French invasion force combined.

Repatriated deportees were often ill at ease in their do-nothing family circles. The résistant Hélie de Saint Marc had spent his 20th year in Buchenwald and found that the only relative with whom, as a returnee, he had any fellow-feeling was a cousin who had joined the Vichy Milice in the last stages of the war. Hélie eventually joined the Foreign Legion.

Fernand Braudel argued, after four years in a prison camp during which he wrote his thesis on the Mediterranean under Philip II, that history is best understood in the light of the longue durée, which (by chance?) discounts historical blips, such as France from 1940 to 1944. Yet ‘How different events appear,’ observed Euripides, in Ion, ‘when far away and when seen close at hand.’ Vinen proves his point.


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