Path of Least Resistance: A Shabby Episode for the French, A Volatile One for the British

By Benjamin Schwarz

October 2006 ATLANTIC

60348928revolutionnationale-jpgThe Unfree French, by Richard Vinen (Yale University Press).

At worst murderous and at best tawdry, the history of France under German occupation remains the great stain on that nation, an episode that consistently provokes bitterness, evasion, and recrimination—and occasionally rigorous, even masochistic, self-examination. For the past few decades it’s also been intensely probed by historians, who have recently moved from bureaucratic and political matters (the best study of which is Julian Jackson’s France: The Dark Years) to the mean and messy subject of everyday life. In so doing they’ve confounded those who like their history neat. “Resistance,” they illuminate, could be a valiant act, but it could also be a cloak for thuggishness, or, late in the war (when the trickle of resistance had become a flood), simply a matter of opportunistically switching to the winning side. “Collaboration,” on the other hand, could be despicable, but more often the shading between realism, cunning, cynicism, and treason was exceedingly subtle (especially so given that the Gallic character certainly prizes the first two attributes, and arguably the third). As the French negotiated their thorny path through the Occupation, they were compelled at every turn to make sordid compromises, perforce an unlovely process. The superb, pathbreaking book Marianne in Chains, by the Oxford historian Robert Gildea, published in 2002, remains the most perceptive and nuanced summation of the Occupation, but the author limited his fine-grained social history to three departments in the Loire Valley. Vinen, a University of London scholar, takes a much broader view. Based mainly on his synthesis of both the vast secondary literature and the ever-proliferating memoirs and diaries that have been published since the 1980s, this exceptionally well-written book looks at the lives of ordinary people throughout France during that low, dishonest half decade.

What emerges is that the Allies’ high-minded “Four Freedoms,” de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France,” and Vichy’s sacred formula, Travail, Famille, Patrie,” all failed to occupy the people’s hearts or minds; rather, the subjugated French were obsessed with the struggle, at once petty and vital, to obtain food and warmth. By 1943 the Germans were taking half of all nonagricultural production and an even greater proportion of agricultural production: the near-universal memories of the Occupation are of winter’s inescapable cold and the endless food lines; jours sans (“days without—when butter, meat, or other provisions couldn’t be served or sold) was a catchphrase. So the French scrambled—usually selfishly, sometimes disgracefully, occasionally monstrously, but almost never heroically.

They improvised and cut corners; they cheated the rationing system by conspiring with doctors to get special allowances of milk that had been set aside for the sick; they played the black market, thereby consorting with and supporting violent gangs; they profiteered; they scavenged from Jewish fellow citizens who were deported eastward. In this and other respects—looting compatriots’ homes abandoned before an advancing invader and denouncing old enemies to an occupying force to settle old scores, or, in the case of officials, selling out minorities to protect the wider community—they behaved no better and, alas, no worse than have most others in similarly unpleasant and desperate situations. (Recall an episode obviously beyond Vinen’s purview: authorities on the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles occupied by Nazi Germany, safeguarded the majority by enacting discriminatory measures against the islands’ Jews, going so far as to issue orders for their deportation, which in some cases led the Jews to the death camps. They also directed the Germans to the Jews’ homes. That British officials under duress performed with apparent reluctance a task some, but by no means most, French officials under similar duress performed with relish would probably be of scant consolation to the victims.)

The burdens and horrors of the Occupation weren’t equally shared, and it’s no surprise that the rich, the otherwise well connected, and the wily usually fared best. But Vinen’s account is most astute, and heartbreaking, when examining those whose lives were most constrained by circumstances—specifically poorly educated, unattached women, many of whom had little choice but to “volunteer” to work for the Germans. These were the women—not the glamorous figures guilty of “horizontal collaboration,” such as Coco Chanel and Arletty—who were most likely to be stripped, have their heads shaved, and then be paraded through the streets at the Liberation as scapegoats by self-righteous and no doubt often self-loathing mobs. Vinen’s piercing chronicle not only captures the squalid physical and moral atmosphere of France’s dark years; it also unnervingly reveals the moral ambiguity that’s the stuff of humanity—and its history.

Bad Faith, by Carmen Callil (Knopf).

In Germany and the countries it occupied, the Nazis had a knack for dredging up and empowering a host of weaselly charlatans, most of whom weretravail_famille_patrie inveterate anti-Semites and not a few of whom were degenerates, pimps, pornographers, thieves, or bully boys. But for their viciously effective patrons, most of this crew would have languished at the bottom of Europe’s demimonde. But vaulted to positions of power (at least over the weak), they helped wreak terrible damage.

Louis Darquier, who served from 1942 to 1944 as the commissioner for Jewish affairs in France’s collaborating Vichy government, epitomized these effluvia of Nazi rule. A mountebank (he bestowed upon himself a noble title), an improvident sponger constantly on the run from his creditors, a wife-beating womanizer, and a braggart, the gallivanting, monocled Darquier cut a ridiculous figure even among the rabble of 1930s French far-right anti-Semites.

He had, however, some powerful benefactors even then, including the Nazis, who clandestinely helped fund his Jew-baiting propaganda before the war. After their conquest of France, they elevated him, though they found him an irksome blowhard, and eventually succeeded in foisting him onto the Vichy government, even though Marshal Pétain, its ultratraditionalist head of state, despised him. As a functionary Darquier was indolent and ineffective (and one of the very few who managed to put on weight during the war). He hated Jews, but essentially left the tedious work of administering the Final Solution to France’s highly competent civil servants—most infamously René Bousquet, Vichy’s head of the police, who was later shielded from prosecution by his friend François Mitterrand, the French president. Still, Darquier spearheaded the hateful portrayal of Jews in the media and academe; he also looted Jewish property with abandon and sold certificates of Aryanization to the highest bidder. On his watch France’s Jews were forced to wear the Yellow Star, and 12,884 of them—including 4,051 children—were hunted down in the notorious roundup of July 1942 and sent to internment camps, from which most were ultimately dispatched to their deaths at Auschwitz. After the war he escaped to Spain, where he lived unmolested and unrepentant (he famously told an interviewer that at Auschwitz the Germans had gassed only lice) until his death, in 1980.

Callil, one of Britain’s most lauded editors and publishers, came to her subject in a terrible fashion: as a young, unhappy woman, she was treated by a leading Jungian psychiatrist who, in 1970, killed herself while Callil was under her care. That woman, Callil learned a few years later, was Darquier’s daughter, whom Darquier and his alcoholic Australian wife had abandoned as an infant in England in 1930 during one of their low-life sprees, and who at adolescence had become acquainted with her father’s repugnant past. Callil arrestingly weaves the sad story of Anne Darquier’s ultimately failed efforts to reconcile herself to her Larkinesque condition with the history of Darquier’s grungy life, the chaos and political passions of the waning years of the Third Republic, and the sleazy intrigue and backbiting of the Vichy regime.

A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? by Boyd Hilton (Oxford).

105325This, the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England, chronicles what were among the most perilous and certainly the most wrenching sixty-odd years in that nation’s existence: the period from the end of the American War of Independence, in 1783, to the repeal of the Corn Laws, in 1846. England’s struggle with France, which Hilton avers was “possibly the most dangerous war in its history,” lasted a generation, put an astonishing 20 percent of its men of military age in uniform, and spurred a nationwide, authoritarian clampdown on dissent. Industrialization blighted the country’s North and Midlands; prompted the majority of its population to shift from the country to putrid, overcrowded, and unregulated towns and cities, with their dark, satanic mills; and caused a demographic calamity: a generation was literally stunted, and life expectancy in industrializing areas dropped to levels unseen since the Black Death. Pummeled by recurring famine and subject to ferocious economic volatility, Britain faced revolution at home on top of invasion from without, as the most formidable working-class protest movements and the most protracted period of social turmoil in its history engendered among the middle and upper classes what Hilton characterizes as “a constant sensation of fear.” Hence the book’s title, a half-clever allusion to Lady Caroline Lamb’s famously spot-on appraisal of her former lover, the pervy über-cad Lord Byron—“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—meant to contrast with that of the previous volume in the magisterial series, Paul Langford’s brilliant, beautifully written A Polite and Commercial People, which focuses on the consolidation and cultural influence of the middle classes in Georgian England.

The writ of the Oxford Histories is to concentrate on high politics, and Hilton, a Cambridge historian, deftly analyzes party maneuverings and realignments, the dominant political personalities, and the parliamentary and ministerial developments that put England on the path to political modernity—including the conduct of the wars with France, imperial policy, Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the circuitous evolution of parliamentary democracy, the triumph of free trade, and the origins of social-welfare policy aimed at mitigating the deleterious effects of industrialization. But he does so much more. Ultimately, his book is a triumph of intellectual history, yet Hilton begins with a virtuoso evaluation of British commerce, finance, and industrialization, from which he then dissects changes and continuities in social structure, confirming the arguments of those who see in this era the ascendancy not of manufacturers but of what the historians P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins have called “gentlemanly capitalists.” In the sweeping chronicle that follows—from the cool deliberations in Whitehall, to the Swing riots in Kent, to the sewage-clogged basement tenements of Liverpool, to Regency London’s dandified West End clubland, to Afghanistan’s bloody and icy Jagdalak Pass—he draws on the phenomenally vast and unusually contentious scholarship on the late Georgians and early Victorians written these past few decades (his feline, nearly sixty-page bibliographic essay attests to his energies as a reader and to his unusually sound and frequently tart judgment). He also inventively exploits such sources as scientific treatises, children’s books, and even the needlessly intricate, seven-decades-in-the-making Great Trigonometric Survey of India. (Conceived in 1799, it was, Hilton contends, “an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money but, like NASA today, that was part of its attraction.”)

Throughout he writes with cheeky grace (“it is hard to see the Vindication as a feminist tract, if only because the author obviously despised her own sexThe_Post_Office_in_St_Martin_le_Grand_by_Thomas_Shepherd_(late_1820s) as much as she resented the other”), a rare psychological acuity, and a sharp eye for the telling detail. In explicating the change in the social balance of power from the aristocracy to the haute bourgeoisie, for instance, he points out that it became fashionable for landed sons to take legal qualifications even though they had no intention of practicing law—an example of the old elite adopting the status symbols of the new. Moreover, he’s unafraid to cut through a thicket of academic rigmarole: his no-nonsense analysis of the controversial notion of “separate spheres—the idea that a central, even defining, aspect of middle-class life was its division into a public, outward-looking sphere of the marketplace and politics, inhabited by men, and a private, inward-looking sphere of home and family, to which women were relegated—brings a healthy dose of economic reality to a debate that’s been as gratuitously theoretical as it’s been jargon filled.

But what makes this book a model of the historian’s art is Hilton’s ability to reveal both the complex and subtle relationships among religious, economic, scientific, and political thought, and the impact of those relationships on politics and society. He’s well trained in this approach, having written an outstanding book—The Age of Atonement—on evangelicalism’s influence on social and economic thinking, and here he illuminates the ways in which Britain’s evangelical revival affected nearly every aspect of private attitudes (toward child rearing, for instance) and public life (from party politics to the antislavery crusade to the proliferation of such “improving” organizations as the Friendly Female Society, for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women, of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days). But he substantially broadens his scope to elucidate with both precision and creativity the ways political economy informed and was informed by Christian theology, and the political ramifications and affiliations of competing scientific theories, methods, and approaches (John Stuart Mill, for instance, embraced phrenology as “an attack on ruling-class assumptions about free-will individualism,” even as the science’s “doctrines were used to rationalize emerging industrial society, and to discipline the workforce”). Finally, in what amounts to a trailblazing marriage of intellectual and political history, he explicates the philosophical and scientific bases of political casts of mind and government policy. The book owes its success to Hilton’s intellectual sophistication and, perhaps even more crucially, to his consistent refusal to exercise the condescension of posterity, as he evaluates with rigor and discernment the profoundly alien mentalities and sensibilities of what is maybe the first “modern” society.

Finally, alas, this book’s publication provokes an indictment of American academic historians: the same publisher’s projected eleven-volume series, the Oxford History of the United States, was inaugurated more than forty years ago, but so far only five volumes have been published, and not one of the titles will have been written by the historian to whom it was originally assigned. What’s worse, not only are the Americans unconscionably tardy; their entries conspicuously lack the intellectual refinement, analytical sharpness, and stylistic verve characteristic of the English series. Compared with Hilton’s or Langford’s work—or, say, the volumes by Robert Bartlett, Gerald Harriss, Michael Prestwich, or K. Theodore Hoppen—the books in the American series are, with two exceptions (James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and, most notably, Robert Middlekauff’s Glorious Cause), bloated and intellectually flabby.

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