French people tended to think of a German rather than Nazi occupation. Nazism may have dictated overall German policy towards France and it obviously had a dramatic impact on the lives of some people in France, especially Jews, Communists and Resistance activists, but relatively few French people had much contact with specifically Nazi agencies. For most, the quintessential German was a middle-aged corporal in a non-combat unit rather than a Gestapo man. The French often thought about the occupation in terms devised to deal with the First World War. Anciens combattants, and especially men who had been prisoners of war in Germany, sometimes mediated between the Germans and the French. The term ‘boche’, which had come into use during the First World War, was used by French people, even those who supported Vichy or collaboration, to describe the occupiers. The fact that French people did not experience or appreciate the most radical aspects of Nazism does not, however, mean that their experience of the Germans was benign. ‘Boche’ may sound a rather twee term in retrospect, but the Germans repeatedly punished French people who used it. In Brittany, a typist hired by the Germans spent much of her time reading plays to be performed in village halls and crossing out the word ‘boche’.
Public memories of the occupation in France have tended to concentrate on spectacular acts of large-scale violence: the massacre of civilians at Oradour in 1944 or the deportation of Parisian Jews during the summer of 1942. Sometimes attention devoted to such incidents can give the impression that German behaviour towards French people who did not belong to particularly victimized groups was generally ‘correct’ or that French and Germans cohabited with relative amicability. It is true that there were occasions when French and Germans co-operated in the pursuit of simple mutual interest, but it is also true that even in relatively quiet periods the French often experienced the occupation as a time of low-level humiliation and the constant threat of violence.