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September 23, 1997


by Kay Kimbrough

Philippe Burrin, trans. Janet Lloyd
The New Press, New York, 1996.

Burrin analyzes the many adaptations utilized by the French during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944. The French government saw the period of occupation as an opportunity to change France's institutions and to stay in power as an administration. The French did not trust England to act in the best interest of France; thus, they did not want to depend on England and end the war in their debt. When the armistices between Germany and France were announced, Churchill retaliated by attacking the French fleet in Algeria, sinking ships and killing nearly 1300 French troops. The government's distrust of England was validated by Churchill's decision to use the attack to make his opposition to Germany unmistakably clear. DeGaulle's efforts to rally resistance from his exile in England were essentially destroyed with the French Fleet.

These anti-British sentiments were shared by the government and the French population in June of 1940, but a few months later public attitudes had been dramatically altered by the increasing repression of the Germans: "The occupiers squeezed the country like a lemon and could only resort to propaganda to attempt to persuade the French that it was all for their own good." Although the French were not persuaded, the sweeping military successes of the German armies made "active resistance" futile.

Burrin estimates that approximately 80 per cent of the population rejected collaboration with the Germans, an estimate that matches that of the Germans. Of the 20 percent who accepted collaboration, more lived in the free zone than in the occupied zone. Those who accepted collaboration did so for different reasons. One group saw collaboration as a chance to strengthen France from within through reform and from without by aid from the Germans. Some of this group were anti-communist, anti-British, or anti-democracy.

A second group accepted collaboration as a practical method of dealing with the inevitable domination of Europe by Germany, a domination that they viewed as probably permanent. The Vichy government took this general view of collaboration.

The third view was also a practical one: They did not believe they could win against Germany, they knew what the war could cost France in many ways, and they wanted above all to preserve France, physically and culturally.

In a chapter on the Church's thinking during the occupation, Burrin concludes that the Church encouraged collaboration by condemning any resistance, which was viewed by the Church as a dangerous sign of "personal judgment and independence." The Church in France saw any rebellion against the Germans as a threat to authority and hierarchy and a forerunner of anarchy.

Burrin does not see a great difference between the activities of the business leaders during the occupation and those of the Church, but the business leaders were judged more harshly after the war. Some went to prison, and all who profited during the occupation were despised. Workers who had been exploited were eager for nationalization of business and industry after the war.

Burrin points out that most French industrialists were eager to do business with the occupiers, but there were those who agreed with the Michelin executive, who announced, "I have made my choice: it is to sacrifice the present to save the future." Marcel Boussac, on the other hand, provides an example of an industrialist who prospered through collaboration and who escaped the purges of the liberation to become even richer through his textile mills and his racehorses. Burrin notes that Boussac's racehorses ate better than many French people during the occupation.

The story of banking in France from 1940 to 1944 is similar to that of other businesses. Some bankers saw the changes in the winds of war before the liberation and began courting the resistance leaders. In general, it was business as usual, with the profit motive dominating policies.

In the publishing world, the matter of collaboration was simple: to publish or not to publish was the question. Those who did publish did so with the possibility of being censored. Camus published LE MYTHE DE SISYPHE at Gallimard in 1942, but he did so by cutting an essay on Kafka. Camus had not yet joined the resistance at this time; he was still distancing himself for politics after his break from the Communist party.

The intellectuals and academics of France behaved as did the population in general. Some collaborated with enthusiasm, being in sympathy with Nazi philosophy. The notable exception was among French historians. One collaborator, Michel Lheritier, found no available historians when he tried to create a Franco-German colloquium in 1942 in Weisbaden. The silence of historians makes a good argument for the study of history.

Burrin asserts in his conclusion that collaboration by the French was a national disgrace, one that created a division in French society that hurt the national self-image created by the victory of World War I. Burrin concludes that collaboration had lasting effects on France, in spite of the heroism of some of the French. He does offer some reasons that explain but do not excuse the French reaction to occupation. The first is that the Germans were not as brutal in France as they were in Eastern Europe, giving the French hope that did not exist in Poland, where there was nothing left to lose. The second is that the French did not fear victory by the Anglo-Saxons, while the Eastern Europeans feared "rescue" by the Soviets. Again, they had little to lose by resistance. France was a divided country in 1940, lacking patriotic unity that would have promoted widespread resistance.

This detailed and objective study tells us what happened in France during the four years of occupation, but no amount of research can answer the question the French must have asked themselves before the armistice: what would have been the consequence of continuing to fight the war in France?

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