The chéf of the Resistance in Vergt, Acquitaine, France (left) talks to a member of the FFI in 1944. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum
The Nazis have occupied France. It’s easy to condemn the collaborators. But be honest: what would you really do?
A puncture can change your life. In Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien (1974), the young peasant Lucien is rejected by his former schoolteacher who runs the local resistance organisation he wishes to join and then, returning home by bicycle, gets a flat tire. Seeking help in a nearby farmhouse, he finds himself among a band of carousing militiamen, collaborators sworn to eradicate La Résistance. He denounces the teacher, becomes a local boss of the militia, and is finally shot by resistance fighters.
This much-quoted moment of chance is the starting point for the book Aurais-je été resistant ou bourreau? (2013) by literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard, which translates as ‘Would I have been a resister or a collaborator?’ As historians, and indeed as citizens, we assume that we would have made the right decision during the Second World War, given what we know about its horrors. The myth developed by General Charles de Gaulle in 1944 – that the French overwhelmingly behaved patriotically, rallied behind his leadership, and liberated the country themselves – persuades us that we would most likely have resisted Nazi Germany. A myth, however, is designed to unify a people and legitimate its rulers, not to tell the truth. As a young lecturer at Oxford 35 years ago, I remember looking round my college’s governing body, composed overwhelmingly of conservative middle-aged men, and wondering what they would have done if Britain had been occupied by the Germans. I concluded that most of them would have collaborated.
Today, after the shocks of Brexit and the Trump election, and with Marine Le Pen still lurking in the wings, I now begin to understand how the French must have felt in 1940. They underwent a double collective trauma. First, their country, which had emerged triumphant in 1918 after four years in the trenches, succumbed in six weeks to a German Blitzkrieg. The government fell, to be replaced by another led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun in 1916, which immediately sued for an armistice. The northern half of the country was occupied by German forces, 1.5 million Frenchmen were taken to POW camps in Germany, the army was reduced to a peace-keeping Armistice Army of 100,000 – what the Allies had allowed Germany after 1918 – and a huge reparations bill was imposed. Second, dazed and demoralised politicians reconvened in the spa town of Vichy in the so-called Free Zone and handed full powers to Pétain to make a new, stronger constitution. Parliament was dismissed, the Republic that had stood since 1870 was abolished, and executive, legislative and judicial powers were vested in Pétain as head of state. A National Revolution was launched to regenerate France in preparation for the time it might recover its independence. Freemasons, communists and Jews, alleged to have dominated the Third Republic and stabbed France in the back, were pilloried as the ‘anti-France’, purged and persecuted. The ‘decadence’ said to have sapped France’s strength was dealt with by sending young people to the so-called ‘Chantiers de la jeunesse française’ (CJF), or glorified boy-scout camps. Married women were removed from public-sector jobs and sent back to the kitchen and bedroom; the author Benoîte Groult, then a 20-year-old writing in her diary, remarked: ‘of the sexes, we are the Jews’.
In such a situation of shock and bewilderment, it was not obvious what the French should do. Overwhelmingly, they were patriotic, but where did patriotism lie? Most took the view that France had been undermined and betrayed by forces that were not properly French. These should be excluded to restore France’s health and vigour, and the nation’s fortunes should be entrusted to a real military hero, Marshal Pétain. The Marshal met Hitler in October 1940 and shook hands with him, announcing that he was embarking on a strategy of collaboration. This was not necessarily all bad. Its purpose was to bring POWs home sooner, to make it easier to cross the demarcation line between the occupied and non-occupied zones and to reduce some of the financial and economic burdens inflicted by Germany, although in practice the Germans made few concessions. Many people thought that Pétain, while working ostensibly with the Germans, was playing a double game – in secret contact with the British in order to eventually bring France back into the war against Germany…