April 21, 2006


SWEPT UNDER THE CARPET: reviews of Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland By Carmen Callil and The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation By Richard Vinen (Simon Heffer, April 2006, Literary Review)

After the purges of 1944-45, whose climax was the execution of the Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval and the sentencing to death (commuted to life imprisonment) of the 89-year-old Marshal Petain, French society seemed to draw a veil over what, to put it mildly, had been an unhappy episode. War criminals who had helped the Nazis deport Jews and round up dissidents went unpursued, even when tried and sentenced in absentia. It became impolite to discuss such things, as the Fourth and Fifth republics set about constructing and maintaining the myth of social unity as a means of recovery from the trauma.

That was why in 1969 Marcel Ophuls' four-and-a-half-hour documentary Le Chagrin et la pitie - which recounted events during the occupation in France in general and the Auvergne capital of Clermont-Ferrand in particular - caused such outrage that it was not shown on French television until 1981. Throughout the documentary, a series of interviews demolishes the myth brick by brick, as interviewees reveal their contempt for other sections of French society and expose the frequently less-than-heroic behaviour engaged in at the time. France's rampant Anglophobia is also exposed, with the occasional expression of the view that, after the capitulation, France was better off as a neutral bystander while the two apparently equally appalling nations of Britain and Germany slugged it out.

Worst of all for those who chose to avoid reality was Ophuls' use of newsreel footage, showing (for example) French functionaries shaking the hand of Heydrich as they busily went about his mission of removing Jews from the face of the Third Reich. [...]

Richard Vinen's book is a refreshing contrast to those stodgy histories of the Occupation that deal solely in the high - or, more often, low - politics of the period. This is a history of the French people under occupation from their point of view, using their own accounts and records of everyday life. After dealing with the humiliation of 1940 and the establishment of Vichy, he looks in detail at the lives of significant groups of the French, though with less emphasis on the Resistance than is usual in such works. Vinen's aim is not to concentrate on either the heroics or the frequent wickedness of daily life under the Germans, but to present a picture of what was a remarkably normal existence for a majority of people, who chose simply to get on with their lives.

He mentions the often surprisingly courteous relations that the Wehrmacht had with the conquered people, contrasting them with the barbarism of the Gestapo towards the Maquis and the terrifying reprisals that took place - such as the slaughter of whole villages - as the Germans were being driven out in the summer of 1944. He examines the fate of Jews, though not in such a specific fashion as Callil, and reveals how certain hill towns in the south became havens for Jewish refugees - the Germans lacked the right vehicles to access them, and so never bothered. He deals with the everyday survival of the French people - much of their food and wealth were being sent to Germany throughout the occupation, as, before long, were many of their workers. There was also the fate of prisoners of war, many of whom were disappointed when not repatriated immediately after their country's capitulation; and he writes with tact and without prurience about the other great feature of the occupation, that of horizontal collaboration, and the women who found themselves abused, paraded (often naked) through the streets, their heads shaved in the orgy of self-righteousness that followed the liberation.

Finally, Vinen deals with the other great postwar French myth: that the French had, somehow, liberated themselves.

I'm reading a terrific thriller, The Devil's Halo, by Chris Fox. It's set in the near future and has France leading an attack on the United States. Imagine that instead of hating Catholicism Dan Brown were a Francophobe. The website for the book opens with an image sure to bring a smile to every American, whether they've been subjected to The Red Balloon or not.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2006 2:37 PM

When I first heard about Klaus Barbie and the orphans of Lyon, I was just a little kid, but I never forgot it and my impression of France and the French has gone downhill from there. It sickens me to see so many Americans in the thrall of French culture even today when it takes a deliberate effort not to be aware of their despicable actions.

Posted by: erp at April 23, 2006 8:39 AM