Books: Under the Swastika

OCCUPATION: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 by Ian Ousby, John Murray pounds 25
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During the war, the story goes, two German soldiers went to visit Picasso in his studio. One of them stopped short, amazed, in front of Guernica. "Did you do this?" he asked. "No," said Picasso. "You did."

Apart from the joke, there is something puzzling about such tales, real or apocryphal, of the Nazi Occupation of France. We know, of course, about the black atrocities that took place, the murders and deportations (prosecutions continue even now), but day-to-day life in a France ruled by General Otto von Stulpnagel, and then by his cousin, General Karl von Stulpnagel, always seems slightly hallucinatory. Even the writings of the most acute observers - Gide, Gertrude Stein, Sartre, de Beauvoir - are often oddly uninformative, as though the writers themselves were baffled by the sense of normalcy experienced under the Occupation.

In this brilliantly written book, the first history - social and cultural as well as political and military - of the Occupation to be published in English for the general reader, Ian Ousby sets out to supply the deficiency. If he doesn't succeed on all counts, it is not his fault: there was something peculiar about the Occupation of France. The Germans could not summon up their usual feelings of racial and cultural contempt for their victims.

"I'm getting ready to flatten Leningrad and Moscow without losing any peace of mind," Hitler remarked in 1941. "But it would have pained me greatly if I'd had to destroy Paris." He could never, in fact, decide what to do with the French. "Can we absorb them with advantage?" he asked. "Do they by blood belong to our race?"

And if the Germans were confused, so were the French. Their most notable early reaction to the presence of the conquerors was simple relief. "Ils sont corrects!" was on everyone's lips. "They behave themselves." The Germans had already with amusement witnessed French soldiers dancing for joy when the surrender was announced. A wave of anglophobia swept the country; Alexandre Dumas was widely quoted: "Impious England, executioner of all that France held divine, murdered grace with Mary, Queen of Scots, inspiration with Joan of Arc, genius with Napoleon." Meanwhile, in the Unoccupied Zone, the French authorities busily prepared for the day that France could take its place in Hitler's New Order. (For a time, Jews attempted to escape to the Occupied Zone. Life under the Germans was easier than under Vichy.)

It was not until the civil conflicts erupted in France that events leap into sharp focus. When the French talk about the mentalite terrible of the spring and summer of 1944, they are usually thinking, Ousby writes, not of the fighting against Germans but of the war between the French and the French. In Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm argues that Hitler's war was the climax not of a power struggle between nation-states but of an international ideological civil war between the descendants of the 18th-century Enlightenment, on one hand, and its opponents on the other.

This is not the whole truth (it scarcely fits the facts in Poland) but it is nowhere more true than in France, of all nations the most self-conscious inheritor of the Enlightenment. When Petain took power in 1940, he attempted to sweep away 150 years of republican furniture, implicitly comparing himself to Louis XIV. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite was replaced by Travail, Famille, Patrie as the state motto. The ugliest fighting in France was between the Maquis, who had taken to the woods, and the Vichy Milice, whose oath of allegiance ran: "I swear to fight against democracy, against Gaullist insurrection and against Jewish leprosy ..."

Against this background, the odd haziness of the German presence in France perhaps becomes more explicable. In the battle for "the idea of France", the Germans were merely catalysts, outsiders, in a sense irrelevant. In 1944, Sartre told a story of a Wehrmacht trooper who hid in a cellar while Paris was liberated. Forced by hunger to emerge, he found that, still wearing his uniform, he could steal a bike and cycle down the Champs Elysees without anybody stopping him. "Passers-by had got so used to the sight," writes Sartre, "that they did not see him."

But it was not just habituation that made him invisible. In photographs of the evacuation of the Warsaw ghetto, German soldiers have the heavy, inky look of doombringers, fateful and inescapable. In France, however, it was different. Even today, photos of the Swastika floating above the Eiffel Tower or of German soldiers marching down the Champs Elysees look "not just unreal, but almost deliberately surreal," as Ousby says, "like a Dada prank" - and not unlike those mock-ups of the Waffen-SS marching over Westminster Bridge. As far as France herself was concerned ("I see no other nation on earth that can assume her role," wrote Gide grandly in 1940) the Germans, although they brought with them cold and hunger and dark mornings (their first official act was to set French clocks to German time) could never be seen by the French as more than clumsy intruders.