ALLEN LANE £25 (447pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk