The Charlie Hebdo murders provoked the largest street demonstration in Paris since the Liberation of 1944. Now, in the aftermath of the November massacre of Parisian civilians, it is instructive to remember the resilience (and indeed the confusion) of a people in dark times . . .

This is the period of the l’Occupation (1940-44) of collaboration, circum­spection (attentisme) and la Résistance, a time as richly atmospheric in retrospect as an Alan Furst novel. In reality, though, it seems to have been a drab time of deprivation, suspicion and rumour, punctuated by violence. The ‘dark years’ have been the abrasive subject of many French movies and novels (Army of Shadows, Lacombe Lucien, Lucy Aubrac, The Army of Crime, among them) and, most uncomfortably, ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ (Le Chagrin et la Pitié), Max Ophul’s 1969 documentary of collabo­ration under Vichy. Since 2009 the Occupation has rerun as TV drama in Un village français and in 2014 the French novelist Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, for novels that explore the seamy side of what one of his characters calls that ‘murky chapter’ of history.

This is hardly surprising for, according to the French historian, Henry Rousso, the Occupation, ‘left a profound mark on the whole of French society, with the result that it survives as an essential point of reference in the collective imagination, in political debates, and on the cultural and intellectual scene’. It also shaped post-war attitudes to the French on the part of Europe and America.

Controversy surrounds a period that began with France’s lightning military collapse in 1940, and the willingness of a great part of a country of forty million people to embrace a collaborationist Vichy regime – at least in its early days. The late Tony Judt summed up the situation in Reappraisals (2008): ‘A rotting, divided polity collapsed unprotesting when its incom­petent military caste caved in before a magnificent German war machine.’ Hitler’s invasion of France began on 10 May 1940. After the Allied dis­aster at Dunkirk and the humiliating outflanking of the French defences along the Maginot Line, his forces marched into Paris on 14 June, having scattered the population before them (this city alone lost two thirds of its citizens overnight, the exodus compellingly caught by Irène Némirovsky in Suite Française) – as well as the surprised government. The fascist journal­ist Alfred Fabre-Luce suggested that ‘the terrible Exodus created the moral foundations of the Armistice’.

It certainly sanctified the old veteran of Verdun, Marshal Phillippe Pétain, latterly French ambassador to Spain. As France’s Third Republic collapsed and Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned, the 84-year-old stepped in to save, in his eyes, the honour of the nation by signing an Armistice. To Pétain, continuing the war from French North Africa would be ruinous. Besides, as Arthur Koestler observed in his personal experience of the fall of France (Scum of the Earth, 1941): ‘We did not know that England would carry on the fight alone; nothing in her conduct during the last pre-war decade, nor in the first nine months of actual war, led one to suppose it.’ And then, to many the Armistice was a political gambit, after which the government would position itself favourably in a new Germanic Europe. To oppose collaborating with Germany would have been to oppose the will of France’s legally elected government.

The Armistice reorganised France, creating an Unoccupied Zone in the south, a ‘free’ zone to be governed from the spa town of Vichy by Pétain and his deputy, Prime Minister Pierre Laval. The Germans would directly control an Occupied Zone, which included Paris and the north and western coasts, from which an invasion of England could be launched. The army and navy were demobilized and the one and a half million French prisoners of war were to be held in Germany. Finally, the Occupation was to be paid for by the French (itself ruinous economically). All this was sweet revenge to the Germans for the punitive Treaty of Versailles, of 1919. As we learn from one of the contributors to ‘The Sorrow and The Pity’, the German relationship with the French was summed up with the line, ‘Give us your watch and we’ll give you the time’.

However unfavourable these terms were, the alternative seemed worse. The French had endured the loss of almost a million and a half men in the First World War (they were to lose the same number again as POWs, at least for the war’s duration). What Pétain offered his countrymen was a comforting new perspective on humiliation – without reference to Ger­man occupation – a ‘National Revolution’ (though as a reactionary he ap­parently preferred the term ‘renovation’ to any noun that would tie him to Republican notions). He offered, in short, traditional values: ‘Travaille, Famille, Patrie’ (work, family, homeland). Consequently many venerated Pétain, despite the fact that, in Julian Jackson’s words (see his magisterial France: The Dark Years 1940-1944) his government ‘liquidated France’s democratic institutions’.

The self-deluding rhetoric of moral renewal came cheap, but to some ears it served a second purpose. To monarchists, pacifists, and reactionaries who held fascist sympathies Vichy’s programme offered revenge, albeit extreme, against the Republican socialist left with its Communist ties. The difficult years of the 1930s had widened the fault-line that Graham Robb, in The Discovery of France (2007), had seen existing in French life even be­fore the Revolution. The failure of Pierre Laval’s conservative government to bolster the economy led to the Popular Front being swept into power in 1936. Yet despite Léon Blum’s Socialist agenda – including an eight hour day and annual leave – his government’s failure to arrest recession, sup­port the Spanish Republicans, or arm against German militarism brought it down also. Meanwhile right-wing forces coalesced.

In April 1937 the fascist writer Drieu la Rochelle observed, ‘The only way to love France today is to hate it in its present form.’ When it fell, to many the culprits were clear to see. Arthur Koestler was told that the reason for the defeat was ‘an international conspiracy of plutocrats and Socialists, in­spired by Jews’. Freemasons were another favourite target, being complicit in defence of the Third Republic. They were worse than Jews, according to Pétain, having the freedom to choose their allegiance. It was also argued that England had bullied France into taking an aggressive stance with Ger­many, before deserting it. As Fabre-Luce reasoned, ‘For a time [the Wehr­macht] was a force for order in a hysterical nation’.

Initially German behaviour seemed to confirm this. The conquering forces were portrayed in tireless propaganda as the friend of the French, respect­ful, admiring, almost tourists. The German Ambassador, Otto Abetz, did his best to establish the image of a Franco-German alliance, spending French money lavishly on exhibitions of ‘non-decadent’ art, German or­chestra tours and cinema (via the German-controlled ‘Continental’ films) and always on newspapers and journals. On 23 August 1940 Jean Guéhen­no, writer and teacher at the best Parisian lycées, wrote in his frequently acerbic Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: ‘That old cliché according to which the vanquished are supposed to have civilized the victors, the Greeks civilising the Romans – what a joke.’ The German sub-text ran, in an of­ficial report, ‘In terms of political power, France is at our mercy. We must now try to dominate her in spirit’.

This was perhaps less obvious in Vichy France where the government could count on the semblance of normality, with business, the Catholic church, the courts and the police on board. Life was a little more regi­mented than hitherto. School children were taught to sing of Pétain, and national holidays (even Bastille Day, symbol of the Revolution) were given a Vichy make-over. In the Free Zone cultural life continued. Books were not banned; American films like Gone with the Wind played. Freder­ick Spotts, in his absorbing The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (2008) explained: ‘Formal cen­sorship there was, of course. But newspapers aside, it was light, aleatory, occasionally ridiculous and as much for moral as political reasons’.

The Occupied Zone had a German presence and consequently a different tempo. In Paris things continued superficially the same (unlike blacked-out London). No doubt introduced to its theatres and cabaret nightlife, one young German observed, ‘I doubt if I ever enjoyed anything so much in my youth as those three or four months in Paris’.

However, the idea of business-as-usual could not be sustained for long, despite German encouragement, because the reality belied any real har­mony. Soon there were the deportations and increasing retributive violence by the Germans against acts of resistance (471 hostages were executed by the Germans between September 1941 and May 1942). Jews, Communists, and Freemasons were habitually persecuted in both zones.

The Jews of France constituted a little under ten percent of the popula­tion at the outbreak of the war, more of them exiles than citizens. A series of ordinances beginning in October 1940 in the Occupied Zone gradually deprived all of the right to earn a livelihood or to travel. In the Unoccupied Zone, where anti-Semitism also thrived, the Jewish Statutes resulted in the dismissal of almost 6,000 public servants. The demand that all wear a yel­low badge created a great deal of sympathy among the general population and there are many instances of heroism where Jewish families or children were hidden from the Germans. Nevertheless 75,000 Jews and 30,000 oth­er ‘undesirables’ were sent to concentration camps over a two year period. The Jews had to fight for themselves and many joined the growing Resist­ance movements.

After the war Vichy would deny allegations of anti-Semitism, but the fact remains that it had been overzealous in persecuting the Jews. To take one instance: in July 1942, when almost 13,000 Jews were arrested and held in the Vel d’Hiv sports stadium by French police, prior to being deported, Prime Minister Laval proposed the inclusion of Jewish children.

For the average non-Jewish Frenchman the real burden in life became the shortages. A Parisian visitor in August 1941 wrote of experiencing an ‘in­credible silence’; petrol had been requisitioned and travel curtailed. This chimed with Vercor’s famous resistance novella from the war, ‘The Silence of the Sea’ (‘Le Silence de la Mer’), where silence in seen as the appropri­ate response to the presence of the enemy.

Worse than the absence of petrol were the fuel shortages in the bitter win­ters. Vichy’s National Revolution had promoted the image of the contented family at home in some idealised, rural France. The truth was a constant search for food and warmth. It was a time of long queues, of wooden-soled shoes, of acorn coffee, and sunflower leaf cigarettes. Jean Guéhenno, living in the Occupied Zone, wrote on 14 February 1942: ‘Everyone is huddled in his house without a fire. The only ones who can eat are those who are lucky enough to have relatives in the provinces to send them provisions.’ He describes turning the dial on the radio after a meagre meal, hearing the depressing war news, ‘Then we savour that drop of wine we had been saving for the end of the dinner, we keep it in our mouths for a long time’.

Adrienne Monnier, who owned the rue de l’Odéon bookshop, wrote of managing the cold and the poor food with a diet of vegetables she did not like and sitting by the stove to write. In the absence of food others sat at ta­ble reading about raising rabbits or vegetables, whereas in the early days of the Occupation there had been a rush on the classics, because ‘a homeland is a language first of all’.

Those who collaborated with the Germans were more likely to have a chance of being adequately fed, if by that inflammatory term we refer to those prompted by avarice, ambition, or revenge. Julian Jackson, however, makes the telling point that, as a bureaucrat, even Jean Moulin (emblematic figure of the Resistance) had worked with the Germans. For that matter a number of writers connected with the Resistance published under the Oc­cupation, including Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Paulhan, Mauriac, Aragon, and Anouilh. Then there were the workers whose occupations necessarily connected them with the occupying forces in some way (railway workers, nurses, teachers, for example). Finally, others chose to believe in collabo­ration for motives of patriotism or pacifism. Rod Kedward, writing of the Catholic intellectual Emmanuel Mounier in La Vie en Bleu (2005), argued that ‘he was one of very many who moved into a Vichy of their own intel­lectual construction, discovered rigidity, and moved away’.

No doubt the average French person avoided contact with the enemy wher­ever possible. It was more difficult for those in the public eye, from politi­cians to actors, artists, and writers. These were more accountable for their actions, writers especially, since they contributed openly to forging the national mood. Consequently, in the Occupied Zone the works of Jewish and ‘anti-German’ authors (including Thomas Mann and Freud) were pro­scribed among a thousand books.

Many writers and artists had fled in anticipation of the Germans’ arrival. Some had gone to New York, like Vladimir Nabokov or Jacques Maritain. Gide decamped to Tunis in 1942. Some lost their lives in attempting to leave (most famously, Walter Benjamin). Others died for not making the attempt. Marc Bloch, the historian, was shot as a Resistance member in 1944. Surrealist Max Jacob died at Drancy on his way to Auschwitz in the same year. Some, like Pierre Bonnard, stayed put in the Unoccupied Zone, working on their projects. Picasso was one of those who remained in Paris, where he did his best to keep a low profile in working on his ‘degenerate’ art.

The need to publish, however, necessitated some form of collaboration. Publishers could only continue business by signing an agreement with the Germans and one hundred and forty did, despite the fact that publishing in­volved banning certain writers and accepting the burning of others’ works.

‘Today in France legal literature means treasonous literature’, proclaimed Les Lettres Françaises, the resistance newspaper. There were those in Hamlet’s phrase, who ‘did make love to [their] employment’, or as Drieu La Rochelle put it provocatively in February 1944: ‘All Frenchmen of in­telligence have more or less slept with Germany during these last years, not without quarrels, and the memory will remain sweet.’ He took over the leading intellectual journal Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF – aka ‘NR Bo­che’) and led it to the extreme right, despite the sympathies of its publisher. Arguably the most reprehensible of newspapers was the wildly anti-Semit­ic ‘Je suis partout’ (‘I am everywhere’ – also known as ‘Je chie partout’: I shit everywhere) edited by Robert Brasillach and his staff (a ‘feverish club of ambitious little pederasts’, according to the novelist Céline, himself histrionically anti-Semitic).

Intellectual life was always a sideshow, however, and the fortunes of war upturned everything. In November 1942 the Germans occupied the whole of France. The Allied landings in North Africa and the impotence of Vichy in challenging them locally dealt a terminal blow to Pétain’s vision. As the political journalist Raymond Aron argued in his book-length interview The Committed Observer (1983), ‘the gravest accusation against the Vichy gov­ernment and against Pétain was the failure to have understood in November 1942 that they could have saved everything [the navy, North Africa, the forces there]; that is, saved French resources in the war and assured the uni­ty of France’. André Malraux, novelist and later Minister, put it succinctly, ‘His case became indefensible the night he did not leave’ for North Africa.

Olivier Todd reckoned in his biography of Malraux that ‘Until 1942, at least, many French saw in Pétain the shield of France and in de Gaulle the sword; divided in appearance but, deep down, united.’ It took some time for de Gaulle to sharpen the sword of France. In the short term the French had had little choice but to accept their lot. As Raymond Aron observed ‘on one side there was General de Gaulle, who claimed to represent French legitimacy with only a few thousand Frenchmen . . . On the other side, there was the navy, the empire, the administration, Marshal Pétain’.

Charles de Gaulle had been a junior general in 1939 and then Under Sec­retary for War, one of those who refused to accept the Armistice. A some­times difficult, unsympathetic personality to some, he led the Free French government from London. His historic BBC radio appeal of 18 June 1940, exhorting his countrymen to continue their resistance to occupation and the Vichy regime, had limited impact at the time and his relationships with both Churchill and the growing Resistance were vexed ones. Churchill was said to have been impressed with the association of ‘de Gaulle’ with ancient Iron Age Gaul, but found his dealings with the general quickly strained. Eisenhower had been impressed also, but later came to think of the French­man as ‘an apprentice dictator’. For security reasons de Gaulle was later kept out of the intelligence loop. Nevertheless, the Free French had prow­ess as a fighting force and, like the General, increasing symbolic value for the nation.

As far as the organised Resistance was concerned, de Gaulle’s Republican sympathies were in question, especially since the various groups had their own agendas. De Gaulle’s agents in France, like Jean Moulin or Pierre Bro­ssolette, did achieve some measure of coordination between the organisa­tions (as with the trade union demonstration of May 1942) but the relation­ship between France and London hinged on money and on personalities. When it came to a vision of post-war France, the various interests collided. This became apparent in de Gaulle’s perfunctory acknowledgement of the Resistance when Paris was liberated (on the 24 August 1944).

By the end of 1942 the prospect of a German defeat began to fuel opposi­tion nationwide. It had not always been the case. Early resistance had been a matter of individual acts of often misplaced words – from insults to sabo­tage or propaganda – and took different forms in the Occupied and Unoccu­pied Zones. In time groups began to cohere, like the passionately anti-Nazi group of immigrants who formed the Manouchian gang (the subject of the film, Army of Crime). The idea of resistance, as Rod Kedward noted, was ‘partly a reworking of republican and revolutionary concepts of liberty and justice . . . a rebirth of the patriotic “gun-behind-the-door” mentality of bar­ricades and revolt’ and the Paris Commune of 1871.

When politics entered the organisations along with ideology, Communists, Socialists, Monarchists, and Freemasons all developed cells. Networks formed; clandestine newspapers were established. Resistance propaganda competed with the official German variety. Some activity was co-ordinated from London, where collaborators were sometimes targeted by radio. Many French people received their news clandestinely from the BBC. Although the British had killed 1,200 French sailors in destroying the French fleet at Mers el Kébir in 1940 and over 600 French civilians in a Parisian bombing raid in March 1942, what mattered more to the Resistance was the question of what arms the Allies had to offer groups like the Maquis of Vichy (and Brittany), who fought the occupying forces and the paramilitary right-wing Milice. And when the Allies were coming.

Two months after the D-Day landings of June 1944, came the Allied inva­sion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon) which included the French First Army. De Gaulle, in Paris in June, had established a provisional gov­ernment, keen to prevent a Communist alternative being proclaimed. One of his government’s early concerns was to address the insoluble problem of collaboration via an épuration légale (‘legal purge’). There was a need to offer the example of restraint, since at the local level the settling of scores began immediately power changed hands. Those hated collabos that could be found were shot; others went into hiding; some escaped detection al­together and surrogates were found. Women who had associated with the occupying forces were a popular target for public shaming (the shaving of heads became an ugly ritual).

The attainment of justice is inconsistent at the best of times. Pétain and Laval faced trial for treason and, though both were sentenced to death, only the latter was executed. Helmut Knochen and his superior, General Karl Oberg, head of the Gestapo in France, were sentenced to death by both France and England for their war crimes, but later pardoned by de Gaulle. René Bousquet, head of Vichy police and organiser of the deportation of Jews, was only briefly incarcerated, later resuming his political activities until indicted in 1991.

Less influential collaborators (like Céline) absented themselves during the passionate stage of retribution. Others could defend themselves with testa­ments of individual acts of generosity or a late conversion to resistance. Alternatively they might be defended by political or business connections who wanted to avoid the spotlight themselves. And then there was the need of all interested parties to consider the immediate past in light of the im­mediate future (which was to bring in the Fourth Republic, 1946-58). It all added up to an amazingly complicated situation.

De Gaulle believed that ‘talent is a responsibility’, by virtue of which the activity of intellectuals was scrutinised after the war. The execution of Rob­ert Brassilach (of ‘Je suis partout’) nevertheless created controversy. While a group of notable writers called for ‘the fair punishment of the impostors and traitors’, there were opposing camps on the Brassilach issue. In ‘Le Figaro’ François Mauriac called for forgiveness in the interests of France, while Albert Camus, in ‘Combat’, focused on justice. Gradually it became clear that ‘justice’ was a trickier prospect than it had appeared and many were disillusioned by events.

De Gaulle’s paramount interest was in a united France. He dismissed Vichy as an aberration, talking of a thirty year war which had begun in 1914. Other factions and individuals contributed to a growing and unify­ing myth. In ‘The Republic of Silence’ (1944) Jean-Paul Sartre honoured the power of all Frenchmen, each resisting in his or her own way, if only in not betraying others. The French had formed their republic ‘in shadow and blood’, he wrote.

When members of the Resistance began writing their history they con­tributed to the myth. The post-war French self-image, according to Sudhir Hazareesingh in his recently published How the French Think, was initially the product of two developments: ‘a new synthetic vision of Frenchness, centred around Charles de Gaulle, and the entrenchment of Marxist ideas among the intelligentsia. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s formula, Marxism became the “unsurpassable horizon of the times”.’

Subsequent decades amended the myth to include the views of rehabili­tated collaborationists, anti-Gaullists, and supporters of Pétain (President Mitterand, for example, had served Vichy before joining the Resistance). The focus of the narrative and the severity of the gaze continue to change also, though the passing of the war generation has taken some of the heat out of the debate on l’Occupation.

Yet war is always with us. With the recent terrorist outrages in Paris it has been necessary once again – against the call for internal repression and reprisals – to summon the democratic Republican spirit of Liberté, égalité, fraternité that helped save France in the dark years.


Tony Roberts’s fourth book of poems, Drawndark, appeared in 2014. He is also the author of an essay collection, The Taste in My Mind (2015), and the editor of Poetry in the Blood (2014), all from Shoestring Press. Concerning Roberts’ poetry, Al Alvarez wrote of ‘an authentic adult voice, tender, ironic, relaxed and highly educated’. Reviewing his prose, John Forth found ‘a detailed map of the age … condensed to appear as table talk’.

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