19 February 2008

The Muddled Liberation of France, 1942–46

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 364-365:
Between the arrival of American troops in North Africa in November 1942 and the return of the last French prisoners and deportees from Germany via the Soviet Union (in 1946 or later), French people experienced many different kinds of liberation. Some Resistance veterans looked back on the liberation as a time of disappointment, a time when France ought to have undergone a social and political revolution but failed to do so. Many saw 'their' liberation as having been usurped by someone else. People who saw themselves as the 'real' Resistance were particularly hostile to the Communists and Gaullists who proved so adept at manipulating memories of Resistance and liberation—though the Communists and Gaullists were both soon marginalized in the political system of the Fourth Republic.

The liberation was not a time of unqualified rejoicing. The arrival of Allied troops in mainland France often marked the beginning of the most violent period of the war for French people. Nazi persecution continued (the last train taking Jews from Paris left on 18 August 1944) but this was now mixed with the less systematic violence of massacres carried out by German troops operating in areas they did not know and with the damage inflicted in some areas by Allied bombardment. In all sorts of ways, the liberation could be a period of horrible suffering....

Perhaps the most curious absence at the liberation was Vichy. Pétainism was not displaced by the first liberation (that of North Africa) because the Americans and their French allies had no particular interest in overthrowing it. De Gaulle and his associates subsequently drove most Pétainists out of the French administration in North Africa, but they did so mainly for reasons of realpolitik rather than principle. Events in the town of Vichy were an odd little sideshow in the summer of 1944. Pétain did not want to be seen to abandon his post voluntarily and the Germans did not want to leave him behind in France. A discreet deal was struck. On 20 August German soldiers broke down the doors of the Marshal's apartment at the Hôtel du Parc. Pétain's entourage protested but his bodyguards did not open fire. A crowd of around two hundred gathered outside in the Rue des États-Unis and sang the 'Marseillaise' as the Vichy government left its capital. Allied troops did not, however, arrive in Vichy, a place of no strategic importance. Once the Germans had gone, the town was liberated by a mixture of maquisards who had come down from the surrounding hills and policemen who were only too happy to find themselves once again on the right side.

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