18 January 2008

France, 1940: The Exode

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 29, 38-40 (reviewed here and here):
The dominant French civilian memories of 1940 did not come directly from contact with either French or German troops but from the large-scale flight of civilians away from the advancing German army. Population movement began in France before the German invasion, as civilians were evacuated from threatened areas on the eastern frontier and as factories were moved with their workforces to parts of France that were seen as safe from attack. Private individuals, especially those wealthy enough to afford hotels or lucky enough to have relations in the country, sometimes moved away from cities because they feared air attack, though many of these people had moved back by May 1940....

The exode was not a time of national unity. In the army, officers and other ranks, regulars and reservists blamed each other for the defeat. A generational struggle began during this period as the middle-aged victors of the First World War blamed the young soldiers who had been defeated in the Second. The veterans of the First World War were to become an important part of Marshal P├ętain's support, while young men were to provide the support for both resistance and radical collaborationism....

Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium were Catholic [perhaps Vinen meant devout, as Alsace was confessionally quite mixed] whilst the south-west of France was anti-clerical. Alsatians and Flamands spoke languages that sounded like German, which aroused suspicion in the paranoid climate of 1940. As early as April many claimed that people from Alsace-Lorraine were celebrating Hitler's birthday or that refugee trains from the east of France had been decorated with swastikas. The de facto annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany in July made the status of people even more uncertain (though, in the long run, people from Alsace-Lorraine who chose not to return home came to be seen as French patriots). The Belgian king's surrender made the French suspicious of those of his subjects who had fled to France—though many of those subjects were now violently hostile to their own government.

Looting was widespread. Refugees stole things as they moved through deserted towns. Sections of the French army looted on a grand scale in the abandoned areas of eastern France where they were stationed.... Sometimes looting was recognized as necessary for survival when there were no conventional means of obtaining supplies. In Reims, the municipality summoned a locksmith to open abandoned shops. Sometimes shopkeepers left their properties with the doors open and invited refugees to help themselves. Sometimes the privileged took advantage of their positions: the mayor of the village of Epehy in northern France was found to have hundreds of thousands of francs' worth of 'requisitioned property' in his house. On other occasions crimes were committed by people who had no other means of obtaining food. A large proportion of crimes during this period were committed by housewives and also by adolescents, perhaps those who had lost contact with their families. Courts, both those operated under Vichy and those operated after the liberation, seem to have recognized that crimes committed during the exode often involved otherwise 'respectable' people.

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