Vichy France

There were lots of things that I learned about France when I was writing Silent Night. Some were facts that I did not know before that gave a different slant on the ‘history’ that I had absorbed before. One particularly made me look at things very differently.

In 1940, at Dunkirk, as everyone knows, the BEF was evacuated almost in its entirety. The equipment was lost, but the army saved. What is less well known is that nearly 120,000 French troops were evacuated at the same time. What is even less well known is that, within two weeks over 100,000 of those troops were back in France. The remainder, only a fraction of those evacuated, joined the Free French in London under de Gaulle – who incidentally had a death sentence on his head from the same legal government in France that had commanded their army to come home – effectively to surrender to the Germans. Of those troops in London many, if not most, were colonial troops from West Africa.

The truth, so brilliantly suppressed by de Gaulle whose genius was to give the French a post-war myth under which they could unite, was that France was utterly beaten and the vast majority of its citizens not only wanted peace but were solidly behind Petain as the man who could salvage a deal with Hitler and get the French Army back from its prisoner-of-war cages in Germany. Until Hitler invaded Russia and the communists joined in, resistance was tiny.

There seemed to me to be gulf between the British and French attitude to Hitler and Germany at that time. The French seem to have accepted defeat as a calamity – but not in existential terms as the British seem to have done. It is impossible to imagine the French equivalent of the speech by Churchill preferring dying ‘choking on my own blood’ to accepting defeat and German hegemony. Why should this be?

In his account of the Versailles Treaty negotiations John Maynard Keynes gives us a wonderful portrait of its main protagonists – Wilson, Lloyd-George and Clemenceau. He describes a high minded president coming to bestow the wisdom and virtue of the new world upon the old and the two wolves on the other side of the table – cynical, veterans of innumerable political battles and masters of their craft in all its blood and venom. Wilson didn’t stand a chance. What was particularly illuminating was Keynes’s insight into the motivations of Clemenceau, a veteran of the 1870. To him the state of enmity between France and Germany was the natural state of things – ebbing and flowing through history. He knew men that had been with Napoleon when he crushed the Prussians at Jena and seen the Prussians enter Paris in 1814. He himself had witnessed the siege of Paris in 1870. Now the tide had turned and the victors were the French. His duty, as he saw it, was to weaken Germany so that France would be safe as long as possible – until the next time.

Was his attitude, as seen by Keynes, that of the majority of French in 1940? Did they see the debacle as just another chapter in Franco-German enmity that needed to be accepted and endured until the tide turned once again and the Germans could be defeated as they had been in 1918? Is this why they saw 1940 not as the end of civilization but yet another cycle of history? The whole attitude of Vichy was pragmatic. It failed primarily because Petain could not deliver the prisoners of war back home nor protect its citizens from forced deportation to Germany. But its popularity in 1940 makes sense if you see events through the eyes of Clemenceau.

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