28 February 2008

False Memories of the Occupation

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 373-376:
Just as the constraints of the occupation were often mediated through the social structures of family and community, so they were also mediated through the cultural structures of people's understanding. In some ways, historians who 'demythologize' the period actually move us further away from understanding it because people's perceptions and actions were so heavily influenced by false information. False information affected political views. Historians may know, to take the most obvious example, that Laval did not force Pétain into collaboration with the Germans, but the fact that many people saw Pétain as somehow distinct from his own government goes a long way to explaining why loyalty to the Marshal was sometimes so durable. False information also explains many more small-scale decisions taken by people with regard to their daily lives. Prisoners did not make the most of the chance to escape before being taken to Germany in the summer of 1940 because they believed, wrongly, that they would soon be released. Similarly, many young men agreed to go to Germany when called up for Service du Travail Obligatoire in 1943 because they believed, again wrongly, that sanctions would be taken against their families if they did not do so.

Diaries and memoirs of the occupation are full of beliefs that we know, in retrospect, to be false, but diaries and memoirs are usually written by people who are relatively well informed and educated. Imagine how a thirty-nine-year-old illiterate woman from Chartres, who had taken two German lovers and then volunteered to work in Germany, can have understood her experience. Assuming that, like nine-tenths of women who worked for the Germans, she spoke no German, she can only have communicated with her lovers and employers in simple pidgin French. When her first lover was posted to the Russian front, she can have had no means of staying in touch with him. Did his comrades explain where he had gone? Did she try to get other people to write letters on her behalf? Did she hope to resume contact with one or other of her lovers by going to Germany? She would, presumably, have been unable to read the documents that she signed when she went to Germany, and she can have had few means of staying in touch with anyone she knew in France when she went there. By the time that she returned, she seems to have abandoned all attempt to explain or justify herself. She insisted to her interrogators that she had never denounced anyone, but beyond that her responses were autistically uncommunicative....

The memory of the First World War was a unifying one. A very substantial proportion of the French adult male population had undergone similar experiences and those experiences were increasingly seen as sources of pride. By contrast, there was no single unifying experience of the Second World War. Experience in the Loire, where food was relatively plentiful, was different from that in Marseilles, where food was very scarce. Experience in the Pas-de-Calais, where Germans were present in large numbers from 1940 until 1944, was very different from experience in a hill village in the Auvergne where the Germans barely appeared until the summer of 1944. Experience of liberation in Normandy (the scene of heavy fighting between Allied and German troops) was different from that of the south-west, which was largely liberated by the Maquis and which, consequently, often saw the violent settling of scores between French people.

Memories were divisive as well as divided. This was not simply because of explicit political divisions that pitted collaborators, Pétainists and Resistance fighters against each other. It was also because of more small-scale and local animosities that involved communities and even families....

Memory of day-to-day life under the occupation was influenced by something else. During the thirty years after the Second World War, the years that the French know as the 'trente glorieuses', the French economy grew fast. The division between countryside and city diminished. Distinctions of locality that had mattered so much during the occupation were blurred by transport, television and social mobility. People writing autobiographical accounts of their lives during the occupation, the kind that many men wrote for the benefit of their grandchildren during the 1980s, were aware that they were trying to evoke a world that would seem distant and inexplicable to many of their readers. This was not simply because the prospect of foreign invasion or highly repressive government became remote. The social conditions that had governed many people's lives during the occupation had completely disappeared.

1 comment:

Languagehat said...

That's a great point about false information. Histories should make much more of an effort to explain what people believed at the time. For instance, the fact that a great many people in Russia, including those in the highest circles, believed the tsar and his wife (especially his wife) were secretly on the side of the Germans laid a good deal of the groundwork for the Revolution and may have made it possible. And of course recent history provides good examples too (Iraq/9-11).