Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Sombre Years of France

Philippe Burrin, France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise (New York: The New Press. 1996), trans. Janet Lloyd.

Almost as soon as World War II ended, Charles de Gaulle developed and spread the myth that the vast majority of the French population had quietly fought German domination and eventually liberated France of the own accord.  Only a few traitors really collaborated with Hitler, leaving the rest of France innocent of their crimes.  This approach to explaining the Vichy regime and French collaboration with Germany during the occupation allowed France to recover from the war while maintaining stability, but also ignored anti-Semitism in France and allowed many of the Nazi's water carriers to regain a place in public life.  This narrative survived unchallenged until the early 1970s, when Robert Paxton and Henry Rousso advanced the theory that most of the people in France either actively worked with the Germans, supported Vichy, or merely hunkered down and tried to survive.  This provides two stark alternatives in viewing the fall of France: either it was the result of the political and social tensions inherent in the Third Republic, or the French were a patriotic people who fought Germany using any means and that Vichy was an aberration that was not truly French.

Fitting in with the trend of scholarship examining Vichy France as something other than a strange blip on the radar of French history, Phillipe Burrin analyses the ways that French people learned to live under German dominance.  Rather than relying solely on the loaded term of "collaboration," Burrin argues that in order to survive the French people had to develop methods of "accommodation" with the Germans merely in order to survive.  For him, the vast majority of the French were merely looking for a way to get through the occupation more or less intact.  Despite this, some people went beyond the minimum needed to get by.  These French, who raised their accommodation with the Germans to the level of politics were the collaborators, a class of people whose actions changed the very definition of the word collaboration from working together on a task to betrayal to the invader.

Burrin argues that Vichy bore its defeat so lightly was because they were ready for a change of mentalité in both internal and external policies due to widespread dissatisfaction with the culture and politics of the Third Republic.  The shock of defeat and the already existing tensions led to almost unanimous support for the election of Marshal Pétain.  Rather than outrage or fear, most French felt resigned to life as a defeated power, and merely wanted to survive the war.  Even those few who would actively resist the Germans later in the war numbly accepted defeat during the summer and fall of 1940.  Despite a growing resistance, most French settled for accommodation, or finding a way to live with German occupation.

Like Eugen Weber and Robert Paxton, Burrin finds the origins of French willingness to accommodate the Germans in the social and political tensions of the Third Republic after World War I. Especially during the 1930s, there was little social or cultural cohesion in France.  Combined with pacifism rooted in fear of another war like that of 1914-1918, growing xenophobia and French cultural anti-Semitism, France was psychologically unprepared to resist the Nazis.  In 1940, France did not have the shared ideology or identity needed to resist German demands after the defeat - the wide disparity of goals worked left individuals with room to find their own methods of accommodation with occupation.

Pétain's Vichy grew in this environment in which the French wanted to move away from the tensions of the Third Republic, and advocated a program that included many elements of nineteenth century nationalism that included a strain of authoritarian methods that spoke to French distaste for the parliamentary excesses of the Third Republic.  Burrin contends that despite appeal to these elements, Vichy could only survive in the context of defeat and occupation.  Desperate to remain in power, Pétain and his Vichy allies aspired to unrealistic policies that would preserve France as a German associated power, gain additional benefits for France, and maintain the Empire.  To get these, the abetted the German economic exploitation of France and engaged on an authoritarian program of repression on their own - it was better to kill subversive elements like Communists and to persecute Jews in order to maintain a pretense of sovereignty that to allow the Germans to do so.

While the Vichy regime continued to tie its fortunes to supporting Germany even in 1942, believing that they had more to gain from Germany's continued existence than from an Allied victory, many of the French people began hoping the Allies would win as early as the fall of 1940.  Even after two years of shooting hostages and conscripting the French for labor in Germany had discredited the idea of collaboration, between twenty and thirty percent of French supported forms of collaboration - even the decline in support did not turn into outward resistance because most Vichy and German oppression was aimed at Jews and Communists,  This allowed the French to adopt an attitude of resigned acceptance of these issues.

Still, it is important to note that while the initial French impression of German soldiers was highly favorable - they were clean, polite, and cultured, those impressions soon gave way to a more realistic assessment of the invaders.  Some French began to avoid the Germans, but French celebrities continued to socialize with German officials, and French women bore children for at least 50,000 German fathers.  In 1941 denunciations indicate yet another form of collaboration with the German occupiers.  Businesses also show a high level of accommodation, not just filling orders from Germans, but actively seeking contracts with the German military and political establishments in both occupied and unoccupied France.  10,000 Frenchmen became temporary managers in the 40,000 business taken from Jewish owners, and 200,000 French workers voluntarily went to work in Germany for firms that included I.G. Farben at Auschwitz.  Almost 100,000 French students attempted to learn to speak German during the war years.  Burrin argues that while this does not necessarily signal outright collaboration, it does show a method of accommodating the occupiers by learning to communicate with them on their own terms.

One of the most important elements of Burrin's work is his discussion of why the French did not do more to resist the German occupation.  Resistance was the most likely way to unify the disparate parts of French society - Left, Right, and the Catholic Church could all support resistance.  The Right was anti-German, the left anti-Fascit, and the Church anti-racist.  A leader calling for resistance could unify these three elements, undoing that fractures evident during the 1930s.  Those fractures became the reasons France did not mount effective resistance to he invaders.  Burrin contends that opposition required a sense of brotherhood and faith in allies that held common values that simply did not exist in 1940.  The 1930s had undermined the cohesion of French society, and the aftermath of World War I had undermined had undermined French stability.  The expansion of the suburbs and growth of the proletariat combined with the Great Depression and accompanying devaluation of the Franc made the bourgeoisie feel less secure about their place in France.

Fear of social change also weakened the French ability to resist the occupation.  Radical electoral victories in the 1924 and 1932 elections provoked politicians on the Right , which the Popular Front made worse.  The threat of radical change posed by the Popular Front created additional dissension in France.  The result was that the politics of the 1930s left pockets of resentment among the French that limited their ability to come together to defend the nation.  Beyond mere resentment, French society was further weakened by pacifism born out of the destruction of World War I and a more general economic and social exhaustion.

All of this meant that France entered the war with fragile social cohesion.  The French also had confused views of the relative threats and merits of England and Germany.  They were shocked by the defeat because they had expected a war similar to that of World War I.  Indeed, trench warfare and fixed positions dominated French military plans.  France had equivalent arms and equipment, even tanks, being deficient only in the number of bombers she possessed in comparison to the Germans.  The disparity between France and Germany lay in the quality of their high commands, the flexibility of their tactics, and their social cohesion.  The short war meant that the French were not mentally ready to deal with the occupation, and memories of life in occupied areas during World War I had vanished.  The French were left with no model for behavior as a defeated nation.

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