Monday, March 19, 2012

Richard Vinen - The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation

I was prompted to read The Unfree French after I had read another work on the same topic, Marianne in Chains by Robert Gildea. As a result, this review is in part a reflection on the simularities and differences between the two books. I urge people to read that review in addition to this on.

I wrote that I found Robert Gildea's book unsatisfying. In part this was the omissions that I felt he had made, but it was also a question of style. I did not feel that he got to the heart of the question. What was life like for French people during the German Occupation?

Richard Vinen's book is much clearer in answering this. He concludes, rather simply, that "life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable." This is a simplification but it is illuminating. He points out that in recent years much discussion has been had about how hard life was for particular sections of French society - those Prisoners of War, or the Jews sent to concentration camps, and this implies by omission, that life was better for other groups. In reality, Vinen argues that life was hard for almost everyone.

One of the great strengths of this book, is that Vinen understands that while life was hard, not everyone suffered equally. Class plays a difference, both in terms of the experience during the war and the aftermath. So for instance, he spends time discussing the Black Market and how, for those with money, or access to other goods for trade, food could be obtained. For the majority of the population, hunger was common. Vinen continues though, by pointing out there were other differences. Some parts of the country had more food than others and rural populations often, for obvious reasons, had more food than the cities and towns. This inevitably led to conflict and lasting anger - after the liberation, those who had been seen to benefit from the Black Market were often singled out and punished.

Vinen points out that this punishment was meted out in different ways to different people. Those women who had their heads shaved for collaboration (usually meaning they had had relations with German soldiers) were more likely to be punished in this way if they were poor or working class. Better off women could either escape, or use influence to get away with this. Again there is another difference, and it is a great strength of Vinen's book that he spots this. Women were often punished for relations with German soldiers. But not one French man, who had sexual relations with a German women while they were in German was punished by their compatiorats after the war.

Some 2.5 million Frenchmen were in German during the war, either as prisoners or workers. This menas that 1 in 5 Frenchmen spent time in Germany during the war. The experiences of these men was a major part of the French war time experience and Vinen, like Gildea, spends a lot of time documenting this. But the experience was not just for those abroad. Back home, what was happening to the French POW was a major issue for ordinary people, as well as the Vichy regime. The failure of Petain to return more POWs before the end of the war was one of the major factors in people increasingly turning against him.

Unlike Gildea, Vinen seems to see the Occupation as a process of change. So he talks frequently about the way that attitudes were transformed through the war years. Initially he points out, the lives of French POWs was a major issue, but as the war progressed and suffering became more universal, the tended to be seen more as victims than as martyrs. Indeed, Vinen points out how the POWs were increasingly seen as demasculated by the experience. Their imprisonment a metaphor, perhaps, for what was happening to France.

If there are weaknesses with The Unfree French it is the lack of struggle. This is not to say that he ignores the resistance. He discusses this far more, though differently to Gildea. Gildea is at pains to understand the development of the more traditional view of the Resistance, whereas Vinen tries to understand what resistance meant. For Vinen, the French resistance was something that grew significantly out of the experience of both the Occupation and Vichy. For Gildea it was something that happened, but did not have the mass character that many implied. Resistance for Gildea was out of self motivation, for Vinen it is much more a response to the experience of war.

Unfortunately I am not sure that either author hits the nail on the head. There clearly was large scale resistance - Paris fell to the Allies in the midst of a city wide general strike and barricades on the streets. While those resisting were disorganised, ill-equiped and inexperienced, their numbers did grow throughout the war. Oddly Vinen fails to mention strikes or trade unions. In fact the only reference to strikes I read, was a comment about East European workers in Germany striking against conditions. This is, I think, because Vinen sees resistance almost purely in terms of military action, whereas Gildea, for all his faults understood that it was much more of a day to day process. Standing up to the Germans did not always mean shooting them.

The great strength of The Unfree French is that the author captures much better the essence of life during the war years. In this sense, his style is much closer to that of Angus Calder's The People's War a book about life for British people during the Second World War. The anecdotes are illuminating, but don't drown a wider analysis. Given the choice between the two, this is a better introduction to the period than Gildea's book. Unfortunately while I enjoyed reading it, I still felt that it was missing something.

But because Vinen seems to capture the changes that took place during the war and doesn't limit himself to a narrow geographical area, it is a much better book and it is worth a look if you are interested in the history of France and World War II.

Related Reviews

Gildea - Marianne in Chains
Calder - The People's War


Emma said...

thanks for your great review. feel free to link it to my French meme. here is the latest post to do so:

Juzt me said...

Hi! Good observation, but for your inquiry that Vinen did not focus on political movements and other important features of the time, I think he does imply that rather clearly at the beginning. His book focuses more on the social history of France at that period and the experience of French people. "The Unfree French" most emphasize Frenchmen who did not join any particular movement, who lived in France, and also who were deported. I understand that through the mention of Vichy government, he makes many of us fall off the track, but I think what he's trying to say is the impact of government policy on people's lives (with all the emphasis on public opinion).