Daily Archives: 28 February 2008

False Memories of the Occupation

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 373-376:

Just as the constraints of the occupation were often mediated through the social structures of family and community, so they were also mediated through the cultural structures of people’s understanding. In some ways, historians who ‘demythologize’ the period actually move us further away from understanding it because people’s perceptions and actions were so heavily influenced by false information. False information affected political views. Historians may know, to take the most obvious example, that Laval did not force Pétain into collaboration with the Germans, but the fact that many people saw Pétain as somehow distinct from his own government goes a long way to explaining why loyalty to the Marshal was sometimes so durable. False information also explains many more small-scale decisions taken by people with regard to their daily lives. Prisoners did not make the most of the chance to escape before being taken to Germany in the summer of 1940 because they believed, wrongly, that they would soon be released. Similarly, many young men agreed to go to Germany when called up for Service du Travail Obligatoire in 1943 because they believed, again wrongly, that sanctions would be taken against their families if they did not do so.

Diaries and memoirs of the occupation are full of beliefs that we know, in retrospect, to be false, but diaries and memoirs are usually written by people who are relatively well informed and educated. Imagine how a thirty-nine-year-old illiterate woman from Chartres, who had taken two German lovers and then volunteered to work in Germany, can have understood her experience. Assuming that, like nine-tenths of women who worked for the Germans, she spoke no German, she can only have communicated with her lovers and employers in simple pidgin French. When her first lover was posted to the Russian front, she can have had no means of staying in touch with him. Did his comrades explain where he had gone? Did she try to get other people to write letters on her behalf? Did she hope to resume contact with one or other of her lovers by going to Germany? She would, presumably, have been unable to read the documents that she signed when she went to Germany, and she can have had few means of staying in touch with anyone she knew in France when she went there. By the time that she returned, she seems to have abandoned all attempt to explain or justify herself. She insisted to her interrogators that she had never denounced anyone, but beyond that her responses were autistically uncommunicative….

The memory of the First World War was a unifying one. A very substantial proportion of the French adult male population had undergone similar experiences and those experiences were increasingly seen as sources of pride. By contrast, there was no single unifying experience of the Second World War. Experience in the Loire, where food was relatively plentiful, was different from that in Marseilles, where food was very scarce. Experience in the Pas-de-Calais, where Germans were present in large numbers from 1940 until 1944, was very different from experience in a hill village in the Auvergne where the Germans barely appeared until the summer of 1944. Experience of liberation in Normandy (the scene of heavy fighting between Allied and German troops) was different from that of the south-west, which was largely liberated by the Maquis and which, consequently, often saw the violent settling of scores between French people.

Memories were divisive as well as divided. This was not simply because of explicit political divisions that pitted collaborators, Pétainists and Resistance fighters against each other. It was also because of more small-scale and local animosities that involved communities and even families….

Memory of day-to-day life under the occupation was influenced by something else. During the thirty years after the Second World War, the years that the French know as the ‘trente glorieuses’, the French economy grew fast. The division between countryside and city diminished. Distinctions of locality that had mattered so much during the occupation were blurred by transport, television and social mobility. People writing autobiographical accounts of their lives during the occupation, the kind that many men wrote for the benefit of their grandchildren during the 1980s, were aware that they were trying to evoke a world that would seem distant and inexplicable to many of their readers. This was not simply because the prospect of foreign invasion or highly repressive government became remote. The social conditions that had governed many people’s lives during the occupation had completely disappeared.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, war

France after Liberation: Revenge

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 343-345:

The trials, executions and imprisonments that followed the liberation came to play a large part in the mythology of the right. The very fact that many victims of the legal purge were men from bourgeois backgrounds made their punishment seem all the more striking: the chaplain of Fresnes prison talked of the time when ‘le tout Paris’ was in the cells. Pétainists made much of their status as victims. Pierre-Antoine Cousteau, a collaborationist and brother of the undersea explorer, began one of his books with the memorable words: ‘On 23 November, a large, smooth man, wearing a splendid red robe, trimmed with white rabbit fur, told me rather coldly, that I was condemned to death.’ Cousteau’s sentence was subsequently commuted….

Many defendants were acquitted, many death sentences were commuted and most of those convicted were released within a few years (there were two large-scale amnesties in 1951 and 1953). Some men who had come very close to the firing squad served little time in prison. A thirty-nine-year-old member of the Milice, who had sat on an illegal court martial that condemned Resistance activists on 2 August 1944, was then himself sentenced to death. However, the sentence was overturned on a technicality (he had been prosecuted in both the civilian court and a court martial). A retrial in March 1945 reduced his sentence to twenty years. In 1951 he was released and in 1966 he was officially ‘rehabilitated’. Those who could afford good lawyers were particularly likely to survive. Defence lawyers became the new heroes of the right, which had often in the past been rather disdainful of the pays légal.

The relations between the various forms of formal and informal purges varied with time and place. Generally, the épuration sauvage was most extensive in the south of France. The south was, to a great extent, liberated by French forces, and sometimes by the Resistance, rather than by the Allies. It was also the area where the Maquis had been most extensive and where the Franco-French struggles that pitted Milice against Resistance had been most severe. More generally, the purge was most restrained in areas where conflict during the occupation had been lightest; it was most violent in areas with a history of massacre and reprisal. However, legal and extra-legal punishment did not function independently of each other. Often popular violence pressured the authorities into taking more vigorous action. Sometimes victims were dragged from prison by lynch mobs. Popular violence sometimes increased as it seemed that central government was becoming too lenient. Public anger flared in 1945, at the end of the war, when three different processes coincided. First, de Gaulle seemed ever more inclined to pardon collaborators or to commute death sentences. Secondly, internment camps were closed so that suspected collaborators who had been put in protective custody were released. Thirdly, concentration camp victims, including some Resistance activists who owed their imprisonment to denunciation by their compatriots, began to return to France. Attacks on suspected collaborators, often involving the placing of explosives near their houses, continued into at least 1946 and such illegal and clandestine attacks seem to have increased as the state was seen as less effective in punishing collaboration.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, war