June 03, 2004

French History: The Occupation

This series is by no means a comprehensive history of France, but may put WWII in some context.

Brief Introduction.
Culture Before WWII.
Politics Before WWII, Part One.
Politics Before WWII, Part Two.

As we prepare to commemorate D-Day, I wanted to take a look at France from a different point of view. Obviously, being American, most of what I learned in history classes was very America-centric. World War II began with Pearl Harbor, took a detour to Normandy, and ended in Hiroshima. Right? My personal interest in history has led me to research times and places of interest to me. I’ve learned more about history after college than I did in college—and that was my major. Armed with the remnants of my college French, I’ve managed to make my way through a French book or two.

There is a popular misconception that France hasn’t “owned up” to its past, but the Occupation is the most-studied period of French history. True, in the period following the war, the Occupation was romanticized; history from 1945 until 1965 focused on the Resistance. Well, of course it did—the Resistance leaders were in charge of France after the war. After this period of historical slant, there was a backlash. Movies and books that were extremely critical of the French collaboration with Germany were popular in the 1970s.

As with most any period or event in history, there are different sides to the story. The Vichy government persecuted Jews, Freemasons, and Communists. But French Jews were more likely to survive the Holocaust than Jews in other occupied countries. The Vichy government collaborated with Germany. But France had a long history of diplomatic cooperation with Germany. The Vichy government was installed after the Republic was displaced by Germany. But the Republic was already faltering before Hitler’s armies marched into Paris, and the Vichy government had roots extending back for decades. The French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys. But their military was in bad shape after World War I and their economy wasn’t much better…and they’re not the only ones who signed the Munich Agreement in 1938.

One thing that struck me as I was talking to people about this series of posts was the belief that Germany showed up and rolled straight through to Paris and occupied all of France. In truth, the French—with help from British forces—fought the Germans for six weeks before they were simply overwhelmed. The British troops left their equipment behind and quickly evacuated, along with some French leaders who would form the Free French under Charles de Gaulle in London. Germany occupied the northern portion of France, including Paris, in order to put pressure on Great Britain. They allowed an “independent” French government to exist in southern France (headquartered in Vichy).

One thing that is important to point out is the separation between French government and the general public. During the Occupation, 650,000 French civilians were forced to work in German factories. About 60,000 non-Jewish French people were deported to the concentration camps. About 30,000 French civilians were killed as hostages or for being members of the Resistance. About 75,000 French Jews died in Auschwitz. The French public was almost universally hostile towards the Germans throughout the occupation, and their disenchantment with the Vichy government was swift.

Within its own agenda, the Vichy government had its own anti-Semitic program and even imposed some policies beyond what the Germans dictated. The general population, however, was mostly indifferent to the Jews rather than blatantly anti-Semitic. After the war most French Jews just wanted to fit back into French society. They blamed the Germans rather than the French.

(This is a general overview of Occupied France. I will go into more detail with my next posts for those who are interested.)

Next: Dunkirk.

Posted by Jennifer at June 3, 2004 01:30 PM


I moved to France about a month and a half ago, and I have discovered (not to my surprise at all) that the views of the average French citizen are MUCH more complex than is depicted in the media or in the (overly) celebrated "new media" of weblogs.

Thanks for posting your history. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Posted by: Jack at June 3, 2004 02:11 PM

Thanks Jennifer - excellent post. I think for most of the world the history of WW2 has been simplified to fit onto movie theater screens. Yes, great deeds were done to defeat Germany, but much of the true history has been skewed by the entertainment industry (with the full cooperation of the public buying tickets). It's good to revisit history and continue to state what really happened so it isn't forgotten!

Posted by: Teresa at June 3, 2004 10:33 PM

Excellent post. Like anything else, history is a story with many interpretations, and the reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Posted by: Ted at June 4, 2004 06:42 AM