A searching inquiry into the behavior of ordinary French people under Vichy and Nazi rule—behavior that defies the easy categories of “collaborator” and “resister.”
The French, writes Gildea (History/Oxford Univ.), “have never faced up to their wartime past in any sustained and systematic way,” and so such categories remain current, even if they have little explanatory power. Overall, he writes, the German occupation was far from brutal for most ordinary French, who made do and, in the main, devoted themselves to the ordinary concerns of putting food on the table rather than directly resisting, or directly aiding, the Nazi overlords. French society became atomized as a consequence; in particular, rural communities deliberately isolated themselves the more authoritarian the Vichy government became, turning to the black market and resisting mostly in economic matters—by, for instance, evading taxes and keeping “resources out of the hands of the Germans unless the Germans were prepared to offer black-market prices.” For most French, Vichy was not quite as authoritarian as it was later made out to be: Gildea argues that it was incoherent, unable to control either the economy or society, and riddled with corruption and special interests. And the formally organized, Communist-dominated resistance was similarly ineffectual; Gildea writes that the Allied bombings of French and German cities were far more effective in weakening the German machine than were the occasional assassinations and acts of sabotage of resistance cells. Most ordinary French people, especially in the countryside, gave the organized resistance little direct support, at least in part because they mistrusted the Communists. Most, too, Gildea suggests, did not blink when their Jewish neighbors were deported—but mainly because the story that the Jews were merely being drafted as laborers was widely accepted, and not because of any particular widespread hatred for them.
Provocative—and timely in these France-bashing days, certain to prompt learned commentary.