On the ferry heading over to France for my holiday this year I noticed that the shop on board had a few books that were crammed in with the chocolates, fags and booze. On the way home I chose to dispose of some euros and picked up Richard Vinen’s book. It seemed an odd thing to be selling on a boat that would include a fair amount of French passengers.
Still why not with this promising to dispel some of the myths of the occupation years and inform a general reader of what happened in France just before Hitler and company took over and the resulting four years.
If there were one word that sums up what happened during those years it would have to be “confusion”. No one seemed to know what was going on and as a result the army fled, fought when the war was over, and the general population often had no idea what was going on. In terms of the politics it was almost the same with Vichy trying to stand for some sort of French rule while having to accept that there was powerlessness in the face of German demands and wishes.
The other word that could also be taken away from this book is cruelty. Sometimes the fate for those that were taken as prisoners of war dragged to work in Germany or dammed by association with Germans was incredibly cruel. Obviously the Jews suffered but other groups were also victims of a regime of oppression and a country that was occasionally quite prepared to denounce each other.
The reasons for the fall of France are probably covered better elsewhere in military histories but the military historians usually walk away after the battles have been fought. Vinen is different and what he does is use letters, memoirs and other primary sources to patch together what it felt like to be living in France during the war years. As a result he manages to get that randomness of fate that meant some survived and others took a wrong turn and were dealt a much harsher hand.
One of the lasting impressions this book will leave me with is the impact that Blitzkrieg can have not just militarily but on the psyche of a nation. France never really recovered from the attack that swept pass the Maginot Line and saw Hitler walking into Paris. The people had various groups to blame – the army, the politicians and external agents – but ultimately the fingers could have been pointed into the air because there was no satisfaction for anyone trying to pin blame.
History needs to be understood and read because it contains millions of stories of normal people that were living through extraordinary times. Vinen gives voices to several and the effect is to open your eyes. How would you have reacted? Would you have fled, supported Vichy or joined the resistance and fought on? The insights of those who really faced those decisions can provide a great deal of food for thought but ultimately thankfully the reader of this history doesn’t have to find answers to those questions.
A trip to France will never quite be the same again and for that Vinen deserves a great deal of recognition.
If there is one theme that summaries what it must have been like for the French under German occupation it is ‘confusing’. That might sound flippant but it is not meant to be because some of the consequences of that confusion could be deadly with lives lost or saved as a result.
The confusion, that stemmed from the top, also allowed those wished to a chance to exploit the situation. So there were collaborators that slipped through the net, neighbours that settled old scores and Generals who used their Machiavellian abilities to return not just as conquering heroes but also heads of state.
What is clear is that for the vast majority of people there were problems. If you were Jewish you were in trouble; a soldier then you wasted years as a prisoner of war; if you were a young man then you got sent to work in Germany; and finally if you were a woman you risked being denounced and having your hair shaved for showing affection to personnel from the occupying forces.
The other word that might be used is complicated with no one quite sure who was good or bad in some cases after the liberation with French communists finding the Russians not quite what they expected and returning prisoners finding a country that had in some cases forgotten them.
An interesting read and a very interesting choice to be sold in the shop on a cost channel ferry to France.
A review will be posted soon…
As this book moves on to cover what it was like for those sent to work in Germany as ‘volunteers’ it shows how polarised things were around the question of prisoners.
Those that spent in some cases four years in captivity were initially made out to be heroes while those that stayed at home faced being dragged off to Germany to work for their work effort or being hounded out by locals and family that were ashamed of their attempts to stay at home.
But as with most things in life if you were well off and had connections then usually you avoided being dragged off to germany and were supported through the war.
With presumably the resistance as the last major area for this book to cover you already have a picture of a country divided not just between German occupied and Vichy rules zones but a country divided along class lines.
The final parts of the story are to come…
Having painted a picture of confusion as the Germans advanced and invaded the country the situation gets worse. Those surrounding the Petain government in Vichy seem confused and divided not just about what they stand for but what they are actually able to do. Then for the vast majority of people there is a failure to understand the danger that the Nazi party poses.
part of the problem appears to be the incosistency that is linked to where you lived and who you came into contact with. But for those that were jews or deemed to be against the system the results were often imprisonment, deportation and death. The levels of jews that were deported to the gas chambers of the camps is sadly staggering.
meanwhile of course women starved olf male companionshop seemed only too happy to start relationships with officers and soldiers of the occupying army.
One of the odd things about catching a P&O Ferry is the odd assortment of books that are offered in the shop. Among a smattering of the Richard & Judy summer reads there are various historical books that all seem to be ramming home the war theme.
I was always brought up to keep the subject of the war to myself when going over to the continent but it seems that those on the ferry can’t get enough of it. One thing has always puzzled me about the Second World War – the attitude of the French to occupation. Bearing in mind their attitude to Bermuda shorts in the campsite swimming pool and the insistence I had to wonder how they behaved when told what to do by Petain and his German backers.
Some of the answers are unfolding while reading this account. Establishing that following the collapse of the resistance against the German attack the confusion spread through both army and civilian population. The result was an exodus away from Paris and the North to the South.
But the confusion lasted longer than just the first few months and throughout the Vichy government there seemed to be confusion about not only what Petain was trying to do but what those around him actually stood for.
Of course the resistance movement is well documented in films and fiction but two chapters in and you wonder as much what Hitler thought about it all with the French squabbling between themselves in Vichy and drifting away from reality.
More to come…