France’s Dark Years
Newsday, 10 August 2003
Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation, by Robert Gildea
Metropolitan Books, 507 pages
On August 25, 1944, as Free French troops marched into Paris, a rather different scene was unfolding in the tiny village of Maille. There, less than 200 miles to the southwest, Nazi soldiers machine-gunned the town’s inhabitants and reduced the town to smoking rubble. The attack was in revenge for an ambush organized by French Resistance forces the day before.
To this day, according to Oxford historian Robert Gildea, many survivors blame the Resistance for the deaths of friends and family in Maille. Gildea retells the story in “Marianne in Chains,” a book that attempts to recreate the complex emotional and moral world of France during the German occupation. He focuses his attention on the Loire Valley, where he interviewed 50 survivors and gained access to many previously restricted documents. The result is a book combining an impressive command of detail with often cavalier judgment.
The “mythology” of the French Resistance — the notion that France stood united against the German occupation of 1940-44 — has long been discredited. As early as 1971, Marcel Ophuls’ shattering documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” cast a reproachful eye on the legions of French citizens who quietly supported the collaborationist government in Vichy. “They all tell me they did their share for the Resistance,” an aging veteran tells the camera. “I have to listen to these fairy tales without wincing.”
A year later, Columbia University historian Robert Paxton added academic credibility to such testimony. Vichy “enjoyed mass support and elite participation,” he revealed, and there were “no serious problems of dissent for the regime until well into 1941.” Since then the celebrated trials of war criminals such as Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon have helped make the Vichy regime, according to one recent historian, “the most intensively researched in French history.”
But Gildea probes deeper into the life of ordinary French citizens than any historian. His general argument is that French citizens held up pretty well under the occupation — notwithstanding a few missed meals, a few outbreaks of tuberculosis and a few massacres. Here’s a taste of the language he uses to make his argument. The occupation presented “ample opportunities for profit and pleasure that many were only too ready to take.” “French women, for their part, were equally fascinated by the Ubermenschen who had taken control of their country.” The French were “only too delighted to procure wanted goods and sell them to the Germans.” “Germans did their bit to tackle France’s demographic deficit by fathering between 50,000 and 70,000 children.” Farmers and winegrowers “generally did well under the occupation.” “[T]he French were only too happy to turn one another in” to Nazi authorities.
And so on. There is a disturbing glibness to such judgments, particularly coming from one safely ensconced in a Western institution of higher learning during peacetime. Some of Gildea’s most inflammatory claims have little direct evidence to back them up. He writes that citizens of Nantes greeted the invading German soldiers in an “atmosphere of festivity,” though none of the evidence he provides supports this. (Gildea writes about the invasion in a chapter entitled “Encounter” — as though France had invited Germany in for cocktails.)
Sometimes, even, the evidence directly contradicts his argument. He begins one chapter with the tale of Paul Guillaume- Louis, a doctor who was sacked as director of the Medical School of Tours in 1942 for protecting the career of a Jewish colleague. Most readers might be inclined to praise Guillaume-Louis for standing against the rising tide of anti-Semitism, even to the point of losing his own job. Not Gildea, who calls the dismissal a “blessing in disguise” for Guillaume-Louis, since it allowed him to resume his prestigious career after the occupation, untainted by collaboration. In Gildea’s judgment, the doctor was a “trimmer”; that is, someone who changes his political views for cynical opportunistic reasons.
Not surprisingly, Gildea has encountered some French resistance of his own. In his introduction he tells of presenting some of his research in a talk at the Academy of Tours, only to face a shouted question and a “wave of murmuring and shaking of white heads in the room.” Gildea bizarrely describes this scene as a “riot” — proof, at the very least, that it isn’t just the French who like to embellish a tale, or to embrace the role of victim.
Gildea’s misjudgments are particularly discouraging given the dizzying scope and exquisite detail of much of his narrative. Particularly strong are his discussions of youth culture and the mania for dancing, the revival of Catholicism and the small symbolic gestures that a few French citizens used to express their displeasure with German rule (some took to wearing tiny badges depicting symbols of the defeated French Republic; others quietly sold red, white and blue flowers evoking the French tricolor).
Far less vivid are descriptions of hunger, disease and the trials of the occupation. “Hunger was, of course, one of the main characteristics of the annees noires,” Gildea explains, “but French people are much more eloquent about the tricks they got up to in order to obtain food than about standing forlornly in bread lines.”
A point that tends to be obscured in Gildea’s book is the change in French attitudes during the years of occupation. In his introduction, Gildea writes that “the German occupation meant in many ways less dictatorship and more negotiation between two (admittedly unequal) bureaucracies,” implying that this situation held throughout the war. Three pages later, he admits that this description is only accurate until June 1941, after which “the negotiated period of the occupation may be said to have ended.” The book continues to confuse these two distinct arguments.
But to understand France under the occupation, it is important to appreciate that popular resistance grew slowly — far too slowly — but steadily during those four dark years. According to the renowned Harvard political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, “Much of what went on earlier can be forgiven … because of the price paid, and of the slowly opening eyes.” Hoffmann and his mother were Austrian Jews who were saved from deportation by a French schoolteacher who provided them with false papers.
Hoffmann’s judgment does not support the mythology of French heroism. But it is a far more convincing assessment of French compromises than what Gildea offers.