For many French people in 1940, the arrival of the German army meant “the collapse of civilization.” Seven decades later, the specifics of that collapse are largely forgotten; this book is a remedy.
When the Wehrmacht crossed the Maginot Line in May 1940, most Parisians, remembering the Marne a generation before, assumed that the theoretically superior French army would turn the invaders back. “The confidence in victory that the media and the government had projected until the very last minute,” writes Diamond (French History/Univ. of Bath), “meant that when they finally realized that the Germans were likely to reach Paris, people had a very long way to fall.” Some four million persons in the Paris region abandoned the city and its suburbs, choking every road out of the capital and blocking necessary military traffic. The situation was much the same throughout what would be called Occupied France, leaving the population of Vichy burdened with millions of refugees. The Germans, writes Diamond, urged these people to return: Not only did their absence make the German occupiers look bad, but the missing French also constituted a needed labor force in the grand plan to integrate France’s economy into that of the Reich. Diamond recounts the terror and confusion of the first days of this mass migration, considers contemporary social movements and conventions (for instance, many refugees refused to flee to the colonies in North Africa, she writes, because these were considered places for those “who had committed some kind of indiscretion”), and looks at the complexities involved in the German campaign to organize repatriation, which was ultimately successful. Interestingly, Diamond also assesses the lessons of that mass flight, which the British government studied closely as an example of what not to do when their turn came.
“How can we remember what we do not know?” asks one French scholar. Diamond’s book ably addresses these long-ago events, which merit remembrance.