Kevin — Survivors, Not Heroes Or Villains, In Occupied France

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Survivors, Not Heroes Or Villains, In Occupied France
Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation
By Robert Gildea
Illustrated. 508 pages. Metropolitan Books. $32.50.
Even as Allied troops were liberating France in the summer of 1944, Gen. Charles de Gaulle was constructing the myth that the French had heroically resisted German occupation. It was to prove a hardy myth, one that helped France bury the humiliation of its recent past and face the future with some unity. Yet when the myth began crumbling in the 1970’s, it was gradually replaced by a no less simplistic version of history: that France was a nation of collaborators who stood by indifferently as tens of thousands of Jews were deported to Nazi death camps.
To those trapped in the perennial resistance-versus-collaboration debate, Robert Gildea has done a great service in his new book, ”Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation.” Instead of looking at wartime France top-down, he has focused on grass-roots experiences in a tranche of western France stretching from Tours along the Loire Valley to the Atlantic port of St.-Nazaire. And he has done so by studying departmental, municipal and parish records, perusing private journals and listening to aged survivors.
Mr. Gildea’s considerable achievement is to blur the debate.
”What is most striking about the French under the occupation is not how heroic or villainous they were but how imaginative, creative and resourceful they were in pursuit of a better life,” he writes. In other words, recognizing that alone they could not drive out the Germans, they tried to survive as best they could. This meant holding on to jobs, finding food, helping relatives and, where possible, having some fun (clandestine dances on remote farms became a favorite distraction). It also meant coexisting with the occupiers, for which informal rules were drawn up.
”Socially, it was acceptable to drink with a German in a bar but not to invite him home,” Mr. Gildea writes. ”If a German was billeted on a family, it was not thought proper that he should dine at the family table. Flirting with Germans was normal and to have sex with them for money was not a crime, particularly as the German military was very worried about its men catching V.D. Exaggerated merrymaking by French women and German soldiers was frowned on, however, while affairs with Germans by married women such as wives of P.O.W.’s was beyond the pale on every count.”
At first, French officials, from prefects and subprefects to mayors and municipal councilors, served as buffers between the German military and the population at large. Further, since many had held office in the late 1930’s, they provided continuity. Outside cities like Tours, Angers and Nantes, the region’s mood was traditionally conservative. And this led many French to share the view of Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the head of the collaborationist Vichy regime, that Communism posed a greater threat to France than Germany. Unsurprisingly, the Resistance, dominated by Communists until late 1943, made little headway in the zone.
Mr. Gildea, a professor of modern European history at Oxford University, skillfully details the constant give-and-take between occupier and occupied. For instance, Germany did not ban labor unions and it even tolerated strikes over wages, but it insisted on sending skilled Frenchmen to work in Germany. Similarly, it permitted steamy movies (which Vichy considered immoral), but it punished heckling during pro-Nazi newsreels. On the French side, opposition took the form of graffiti or painted ”V” signs or wreaths laid with a message, but nothing more daring.
By mid-1942, however, as the Gestapo began replacing German military administrators, French officialdom’s room for maneuver disappeared. Already in July 1942, French police in the region took part in the arrest of hundreds of Jews, who were sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris. Mr. Gildea quotes a police report warning that ”many are not hiding their sympathy for those who appear to be victims of persecution.” But others, Mr. Gildea adds, moved quickly to take over property abandoned by local Jews. Soon, though, not only ”Judeo-Bolshevik demons” but anyone suspected of opposition was liable to arrest and deportation.
Just as Mr. Gildea tracks how local politicians adjusted to the occupation, he again follows them preparing for the liberation. Many mayors, for example, resigned their jobs. Other officials began making discreet contact with Resistance groups in France and abroad. ”Officials who wanted to survive needed to play a double game, giving the appearance of loyalty while working in the dark to protect French interests,” Mr. Gildea notes. The French response to Allied bombing of industrial zones (high-altitude American bombing caused most civilian casualties) was also ambivalent: lamented, but not opposed.
Once the region was freed in August 1944, General de Gaulle’s envoys quickly ratified all but the most detested officials in their posts as a way of forestalling any Communist grab for power. Some summary justice took place — a few lynchings and many women’s heads shaven for ”horizontal collaboration” with the enemy — but amid food shortages, day-to-day survival soon took priority. And in Mr. Gildea’s view, the general response to liberation was one of disappointment. Life for returning prisoners of war and deportees (and a few Jews who had survived in hiding) proved particularly difficult.
In fact, as ”Marianne in Chains” so powerfully demonstrates, little was quite as it was remembered five decades later. ”Franco-German relations under the occupation were not always as brutal or even one-sided as they have often been portrayed,” Mr. Gildea writes. Nor was the Vichy regime as authoritarian or reactionary as many recall. But a different official memory soon took shape.
Published: 08 – 13 – 2003 , Late Edition – Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 1