Historical Notes: A poisoned memory of occupied France

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WHEN HE looked back on the Second World War, what struck Jean- Paul Sartre most was the gulf separating the British and the French experience: the past "which fills London with pride was, for Paris, marked with shame and despair".

Fifty years on, any British account of the Occupation still has to begin by accepting that the ordeal of being occupied is so alien as to be almost unimaginable. It is not for us to make easy judgements. The French themselves have long since abandoned the consolations and evasions they embraced immediately after the event. Since the indictments of Rene Bousquet, Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon, few people can believe in the old myth of a nation of resistants.

The speed and completeness of the German victory in June 1940 left the French in deep shock. If France could fall so easily, surely Britain would be next? Realism counselled that France come to terms with the New European Order imposed by the Nazis. In this spirit people turned to Petain's Vichy government, reassured by the Marshal's record in the First World War but nourished also by the self-abasing impulse of the defeated to criticise not the victors but themselves. Communists, Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists fell victim to a regime that marched in step with German witch-hunting and sometimes even went ahead of it. Vichy landed up doing the Germans' dirty work for them.

Even so, resistance was slow in coming - strikingly so, if we compare France's record with what happened in Greece or Yugoslavia . It was 14 months before the first German soldier was killed by resistants. For the French to turn against their occupiers, they needed long disillusionment and new hope. The food shortage combined with increasing German brutality to create disillusionment. Hope came first from Britain's continued survival and then, more emphatically, from the setbacks met by the previously unstoppable Wehrmacht in its invasion of Russia.

After resistance had ceased being an "absurd refusal" and become a matter of backing the likely winners, it remained small-scale and disorganised. It was usually inefficient, always badly equipped and all too often divided by hostilities from pre-war politics. It never looked like the powerful underground army of which some exiles round de Gaulle in London and Algeria had dreamed. De Gaulle himself assigned it a small, and largely symbolic, role; he wanted it to play a long game, waiting prudently until the Allied landings came. The death of resistants on the Plateau de Glieres and Mont Mouchet, and the killing of bystanders in reprisal, demonstrated the terrible price which rashness continued to pay, not just while the Allies were preparing for D-Day but even after they had secured their beachheads in Normandy.

However weak it may have been against the occupiers, the resistance showed a deadly determination in hunting down their servants and the servants of Vichy, particularly the hated milice, or "French Gestapo" that had attracted thugs like Touvier. The settling of accounts brought France close to civil war. To avert it, she needed not truth but the chance of reconciliation offered by de Gaulle's healing myth that the whole of France had combined to oppose the Germans. At the time, the fiction infuriated resistants who knew full well they had always been a minority and for much of the time an unpopular minority.

Today it is clear that selfishness, bigotry, cowardice and even private malice featured as prominently in the record of the Occupation as courage or idealism. They left a "poisoned memory" that still lingers. But - to return to Sartre's antithesis between Britain's pride and France's shame and despair - this does not mean we should feel superior. In such an ordeal, who can claim they would have done better?

Ian Ousby is the author of `Occupation: the ordeal of France, 1940-1944' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)