Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

March Books 3) The Unfree French, by Richard Vinen


The first and simplest conclusion of this book is that life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable.

This is a terrifically well-researched and fluently written account of occupied France during the second world war. It is a subject where of which my previous knowledge could probably have fitted on the back of a postcard - collapse in 1940, Pétain and Laval, resistance, D-Day, don't take 'Allo! 'Allo! seriously. I had never considered the impact on France of the continuing imprisonment of the two million - two million! - soldiers captured in 1940, plus the hundreds of thousands more subsequently conscripted for forced labour in Germany even as the Nazi regime was collapsing. It was also interesting to learn about the internal ideological manœuvres of the Pétain regime, building a cult of personality as a replacement for actually exercising power and delivering services. And he reports humanely and fairly neutrally on the épuration, the retaliation by both state structures and people taking the law into their own hands, against collaborators after the Liberation.

Vinen also illustrates well a point that I often consider in my professional work - that people rarely know the full picture of what is going on, and definitely don't know the future; in the summer of 1940, it seemed entirely probable that the war might be over in a few months with a German victory; in 1944, we tend to remember Operation Overlord as the successful sweep from Normandy to Belgium that it became, forgetting that to those on the ground, the winner did not seem at all clear, and in any case pockets of Germans were left behind as the invasion swept past.

But much the most interesting parts of the book deal with the effect of the occupation on women, looking especially at those on the margins - those who fell in love with Germans, or became prostitutes, or were successful entrepreneurs in the black market, or found some other nonconformist means of survival in miserable circumstances; and they of course were most likely to be targeted in the épuration. He makes the point that we have very few first-person accounts from these sources; the odd iconic photograph which represents only one story of the many. All of it is fascinating, but some of those accounts are heart-breaking.
Tags: bookblog 2013, history: wwii, world: france
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