Marianne in Chains

by Robert Gildea
ISBN: 0330488651

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A Review of: Marianne in Chains: In Search of the German Occupation of France 1940-45
by Rosemary Sullivan

Almost six decades have passed since the end of World War II, and yet we haven't begun to exhaust our obsession with it. Contemporary novelists, from Michael Ondaatje to Ian McEwan, have felt the need to take on the period and every season brings new war films. The latest is Norman Jewison's The Statement, about a devout Catholic complicit in genocide in occupied France. How do we explain this obsession?
Robert Gildea would say that it takes a long time before all the truths are out. The Second World War was supposed to have been the war of good against evil. Now, that orthodox version is cracking. What historians like him are looking for are the moments of rupture when "the hidden transcript beneath the rehearsed narrative" is suddenly exposed.
Gildea believes that the French have never faced up to their wartime past in any sustained and systematic way. The received story is that the German occupation was cruel and bitter, a time of hunger and fear, and that the French people were either bold Resistance fighters or craven collaborators. But this was a story invented on the 25th of August 1944, when Charles de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Elyses in liberated Paris. His was the voice of the Resistance and because this version of the occupation gave his party legitimacy, it became the orthodox version, almost a religion. It was claimed that while the vast majority of Frenchmen may not have actively supported the Resistance, they approved of it; only the bad French really collaborated. But, says Gildea, "the moral universe of occupied France" was much murkier than this. At least in the early days of the war, Germany saw France as an area where occupation ran smoothly and resistance was minimal.
How do we find out what really happened in France under German occupation? All the French records of the period are still available in national, departmental, municipal, diocesan, labor, and private archives, while the German military archives, most notably on hostage taking and military administration, are also available. (Why is it one can always count on fascists to keep scrupulous records?) Scouring the documents, particularly of legal trials, Gildea tells a human story: less a story of heroism and villainy than of survival.
It's still shocking to realize how quickly the German offensive of May-June 1940 succeeded in defeating the French army. In just a matter of weeks 200,000 French soldiers were dead and another 1.5 million were being deported to POW camps in Germany. When the French government resigned en masse, the new collaborationist regime, headed by the octogenarian war hero Marshal Ptain, sued for peace. Under the terms of the armistice, the northern two-thirds of France was placed under German military rule, while the so-called free zone in the south was governed by the new regime based in the spa town of Vichy. Traumatized by the defeat, the majority of the population was initially grateful when Ptain sued for peace and ended the killing, even though the terms of the armistice turned France into a war machine working in support of the fascist German economy.
Gildea begins the story of the war by focusing initially on one town: the historic and picturesque Chinon in the Loire Valley in the occupied zone. On Wednesday 19, June 1940, as the German forces approached the town, frantic negotiations took place between the mayor and the French military commander in the vicinity. The commander wanted to blow up the bridge over the Loire to ensure a safe retreat for the French forces, but the mayor was afraid that any defense of the town would provoke artillery bombardment and Stuka attacks. The mayor won out. While the population hid in their cellars, Mayor Henri Mattraits waited alone on the quay to greet the German troops entering the town. Behind the town's beautiful faade, Gildea finds that the occupation in Chinon was a time "of faction and intrigue, rivalry and treachery" between those who became involved in the German "web of power, profit, and pleasure," and those who fought to maintain the integrity of the local community. Gildea soon expands his focus to include the entire Loire region. As he scours the documents and interviews survivors, many of the stories he discovers are riveting.
Initial relations between the French and their occupiers seem to have been almost cordial, mostly because the Germans understood that the tacit consent of the French people was indispensable to a successful occupation. Gildea suggests that this coexistence was facilitated by the attitude of German soldiers posted to France: "Many came as sexual and gastronomic tourists as much as soldiers."
The difficult question for the French was always how much fraternization with the German occupiers was acceptable and how much went beyond the pale. Certainly there were numerous economic collaborators, as they were called. When it assumed power, the Ptain government replaced the slogan of the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" with the new "Work, Family, and Fatherland" and claimed that lack of discipline and atheism had led to the downfall of France. But it didn't take long before the wartime regime was rank with corruption. Gildea documents some of the fortunes made through influence peddling and the black market.
Sexual or "horizontal collaboration," as it was called, was also a murky area. Prostitution was acceptable as a business transaction, but intimacy with the enemy was not. You could have a drink with a German in a bar, but you couldn't invite him home. But the German occupiers saw it otherwise. Gildea claims that the Germans took the view "that defeated Frenchmen had forfeited their right to Frenchwomen"-it's been calculated that Germans fathered between 50,000 and 70,000 children from 1940 to 1944. After Liberation, women who were known to have fraternized with Germans had their heads shaved; some women were even tried and sentenced to prison.
Gildea makes it clear that the French authorities feared Communism much more than Fascism and sometimes found common interest with their German occupiers. From this perspective, denunciation was viewed as a patriotic act. Neighbour betrayed neighbour. The common enemy was the outsider, and under this category were lumped Communists, Jews and Gypsies. The French record of anti-Semitism during the occupation is bleak. When the Germans ordered the first census of Jews in occupied France in October 1940, the municipal governments actively cooperated. Indeed, the French went one better. Their definition of who was a Jew was stricter than the Germans' since it included those who did not practice the Jewish religion. The population at large acceded to the systematic marginalization and ruthless exclusion of Jews from French society. While the deportation of French labour to Germany was fiercely resisted, when the deportation of Jews began in the summer of 1942 there was little protest. It wasn't until in 1995 that the government of Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged that the deportation of Jews was a "collective offence" for which the French must take responsibility.
If the French began the war more fearful of the consequences of resisting than of surrendering, in the course of the four-year occupation, attitudes changed. By November 1942, when the Germans occupied the free zone, the whip hand had passed from military authorities, who could be reasoned with, to the Gestapo, who were interested only in repression. As the Germans grew more brutal, pro-Allied and Gaullist sentiments grew stronger. Vichy was seen less as a shield to protect the French than as a collaborationist regime that turned occupied France into a police state.
However, contrary to legend, the attitude to the Resistance fighters (or Maquis as they were called) remained mixed. While the militants believed that only violent resistance would teach the Germans a lesson, most feared the savage reprisals. The murder of the German field commander in Nantes by a Maquisard, Gilbert Brustlein, in 1941 led to the execution of forty-eight French hostages. (When Brustlein returned to Nantes in 1991, he was bitterly attacked by the families of the hostages who had been executed in reprisal for his act). Many felt that the Maquisards were undisciplined and sometimes even common brigands, who provoked retaliation and did little to aid the Allies.
As the Germans withdrew before the Allied advance, there were atrocities. In the town of Maill, a massacre left 126 dead, the bodies of those murdered mutilated, cut to pieces or burned. "The body of a two-month old baby was found, its head smashed, lying on that of its mother, who had had her throat cut and guts torn out. A pregnant woman had been bayoneted in the bed where she lay." The German commander of the area, Colonel Stenger, promised an immediate inquiry and a court martial, but the lieutenant whose unit was guilty of the crime had disappeared from the scene. In 1952, in Bordeaux, a French military court sentenced him to death in absentia.
Liberation brought the inevitable settling of accounts between denouncers and their victims or the victims' families. But, surprisingly, the transition to post-war France left much of Vichy France intact. Only a few "collaborators" were tried or imprisoned and only a few ill-gotten fortunes confiscated. As Gildea puts it, "Even before the POWs got home to a devastated France, the gospel of the Resistance and Liberation was already overlaying the complexities of the Occupation."
Reading Marianne in Chains, one is left with a sense that war is a human enterprise. As Margaret Atwood once put it: "Wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win." In the end, of course, nobody wins. Even years after the wounds have seemingly healed, the violence and paradoxical banality of war leave their cicatrices on the human imagination. There's no going back from the knowledge gained about the depths to which the human psyche can sink.

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