The Unfree French, by Richard Vinen

Ordeals and deals of a land in chains

The Second World War bequeathed rival sites of memory for modern France, potent legends of occupation and liberation, with Pétain and de Gaulle as respective icons. But it also offers ambiguous messages about life under German occupation, and who precisely did the liberating.

Light on these sensitive issues first came from film-makers rather than historians, notably in Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and Pity (1971). But the historical industry on the occupation is now thriving. French scholars, mostly of the left, have used their work in campaigning against anti-Semitic "negationism". British historians have also contributed massively. To Julian Jackson, Robert Gildea or Rod Kedward must be added Richard Vinen's absorbing study. While others focus on the ideology of Pétainism, Vinen provides a social analysis of communal experiences and personal relations.

A disarming introduction tells us that he has only limited primary research. But this is still a fascinating study of the trauma of a nation: a treatment of the torment and turmoil of different communities, from the panic-stricken exodus after the military collapse of June 1940 down to the varied, sometimes anti-American, responses to the Allied liberators in 1944. North Africa and even distant Quebec are not ignored. There is balanced treatment of the Vichy regime - partial opportunities for women side by side with vicious anti-Semitic legislation.

But Vinen highlights local experiences - the moral conventions of the black market alongside the cult of the countryside; bourgeois gentiles bravely opting to wear the yellow star; local doctors or officials working for and against occupiers. Wartime France was a fragmentary human mosaic, though always with a broad background of persecution, terror or genocide.

The French came into contact with their German occupiers in different contexts. Work was the most common, perhaps leading to well-paid defence employment, or insouciant acceptance of the needs of one's profession (as with entertainers like Maurice Chevalier or Charles Trenet). Travel was another force for interchange, mostly to satisfy the German war machine. This could range from relocation from prison camps, to forced service in the Reich by 650,000 young men - often encouraged in French families, but bitterly controversial when the conscripts returned. There were also 76,000 Jews, variously defined, deported, and almost all butchered.

Alongside working and travelling with the enemy went sleeping with the enemy. French women frequently offered themselves to German troops; perhaps 200,000 children were so fathered. Women did so through coercion, to feed children, to keep alive, for consolation, entertainment - or even love. French men could be equally culpable, but it was always on poor women that popular fury descended. Vinen has a fascinating account of the public torments of women who had their heads shaved in 1944-5 after being accused, sometimes wrongly, of sex with the Boches.

This book, for all the brutality it chronicles, is an unheroic account. It emphasises the responses of the French to their occupiers rather than efforts to overthrow them. They are victims rather than activists. The "myth" of Resistance makes a low-key appearance. Communists in the Maquis are hardly mentioned; the argument over their rivalry with the Gaullists is not raised. Another omission is the Catholic Church, central to the tensions of la France profonde, a vital prop of the Vichy regime but able to maintain its interests intact.

Still, as a social history of wartime, this is a valuable work. It strips away the stereotypes and lays bare the painful choices for a nation defiantly singing the Marseillaise to cover its defeat.

Kenneth O Morgan's life of Michael Foot is due from HarperPress next year

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