French History : life in occupied France (1940-1944) (#6)
 A novel explains what it really meant  

 What it is like to live in an occupied country

 

After three books about France and the French, Harriet Welty Rochefort has written an historical novel (to be published soon) which takes place during the German Occupation of France (1940-1944).

Harriet's latest book, a love story, recounts the life of an ordinary woman in an extraordinary time, the German occupation of Paris and South-West France during World War II.

Date of publication to be announced. Keep posted and read Harriet's blog.

a It is hard for today's Americans to imagine what it was like to live in France between 1940 and 1944.
  • A humiliated country : the most powerful army of Europe, the victor of WW1 (at the price of 1,4 million killed) defeated and surrendering after only six weeks of battle, almost two million men taken prisonner in Germany. Read : why did France lose the war?
  • A ransomed country : every day, France had to pay 400 million Francs (the equivalent of today $150 m) and the exchange rate Franc/Mark was fixed at a level which made everything produced by the country very cheap for German buyers.
  • A starved country : the dominant memory of all the people who lived through these four years is sheer hunger : in 1943, the daily official allocation was 1,150 calories per adult person per day (read more) i.e. less than half a normal diet. See a rationing card.
  • A shameful government collaborating with the occupier, including for the most unacceptable decisions (like of course the deportation of Jews). More about the Vichy government.
  • A divided country : some people actively supported the collaborationist Vichy regime (see : milice) ; others refused it (see : resistance) ; the majority did not take a stand and tried to survive.
A glossary   A timeline
To understand this period, you have to know what certain words mean. Among them :  

A few milestones for a very complicated and dramatic period...

 

  • Epuration (Cleansing) is the name of the whole process (1944-1947) of trials and sanctions against those who had collaborated with the Germans between 1940 and 1944 ; the Communist Party was very active in it particularly in the first months of the liberation of the country (1).
  • Front Populaire (Popular Front) was a Left-Wing government elected in 1936 which achieved very important social programs but could not stop the Nazi threat in Europe and left the country profoundly divided ; it was as much regretted by its supporters of the Left as it was hated by its opponents of the Right.
  • General Charles de Gaulle(1890-1971), when colonel, had warned the government against its purely defensive strategy and had gained the esteem of Churchill who helped him to create the Free French Government in London ; the Gaullist government in exile became the legal government of  France after the liberation of the country.
  • Gestapo (for Geheime Staatspolizei) was the Nazi secret police, more feared by occupied Europeans than the German army services.
  • Milice was the army of 10,000 to 25,000 French collaborators, created by the Vichy government in 1943 to fight the Resistance, along with German troops; it was feared and merciless and a very high proportion of its members were killed or sentenced to death after the war.
  • Pacte Germano-Soviétique (the German-Soviet Pact) was a cynical pact between Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union which made it possible for Hitler to conquer most of Europe except the UK without fearing an attack by Russia.
  • The French Parti Communiste (PC) was the most powerful in Europe; it was completely destabilized by the Pacte Germano-Sovietique and competed for leadership with the Gaullist government after Germany attacked Russia.
  • Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856-1951) was the most glorious general of the French army in WW1 and the idol of veterans ; a respected conservative personality, he was constitutionnally elected head of the government in June 1940 when the war seemed to be lost ; after the armistice, he created a new regime (called Vichy regime), with the apparence of sovereignty (2) but in fact totally under the control of the German authorities.
  • Résistance is the name of the numerous movements who provided intelligence to the allies, fought German occupiers and destroyed the infrastructures they might need ; some of them reported to the Free French Gaullist government, others to the clandestine Communist party, others to the British secret services.
  • Tickets de Rationnement (rationing tickets) is the name of the allocated tickets needed to buy anything.
  • Vichy is a small touristic town in the center of France, chosen by the collaborationist regime because it had many hotels which could house the new authorities.

(1) Historians estimate that around 10,000 people, guilty or not, were killed without a fair trial in the second half of 1944 (illegal epuration).

(2) The USA were neutral in the war and there was an American ambassador in Vichy until Spring 1942.

 

 
  • April 1936 : the elections give a majority to the Left (Front Populaire) ; a wave of strikes exacerbates social tensions.
  • Aug.23, 1939 : Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign a totally unexpected pact of non-aggression and cooperation which places all Communist parties in an impossible situation ; the French Communist Party (PC) is outlawed, its members do not join or found any resistance movement  (until 1941) and its leader flees to Moscow.
  • Sept.3, 1939 : according to their commitment to Poland, France and UK declare war on Germany after the invasion of Poland by German armies ; no significant military events for more than 8 months : it is la drôle de guerre (the phony war).
  • May10, 1940 : the German armies invade (neutral) Belgium, Luxembourg and the North of France circumventing the fortified frontier (the Maginot line).
  • June 18, 1940 : having escaped to London under the protection of Winston Churchill, General de Gaulle launches his message to continue the war in France or overseas while the French government of Maréchal Pétain contacts the Germans for an armistice ; the country is divided into four zones : Center and South (1) (under the “sovereignty” of Vichy), South-West to North East including Paris (occupied by German army), North (adjoined to occupied Belgium), East (annexed by Germany).
  • End 1940 : Pétain sets up a new regime, very conservative and cooperating with Germany ; laws excluding Communists, Jews and Free-Masons from public offices and business ownership ; a system of rationing is organized and each person receives a monthly allocation of tickets for all consumer goods (food, clothes, coal, etc).
  • June 22, 1941 : Germany invades the Soviet Union ; the French Communist Party enters into resistance and is no longer paralyzed by the 1939 Pact.
  • Dec.11, 1941 : shortly after Pearl Harbor, Germany declares war on the USA ; the war is not effective until Nov.1942 with the invasion of French North Africa by US troops.
  • Feb.1943 : German troops are defeated at Stalingrad ; allied armies (including a French army) after defeating the German armies of Rommel in North Africa invade Sicily and liberate Italy while the Fascist regime of Mussolini crumbles ; it becomes clear to everyone that the Allies will invade Europe, probably landing in France ; the Resistance is split into rival organizations.
  • Spring 1944 : the Resistance is very active and it significantly slows the movements of the German army, still ignorant of the place of the landing ; numerous ambushes of German troops lead to massacres by retaliation (2).
  • June 6, 1944 : D-Day
  • August 1944 : the French Government is back, under Général de Gaulle, and the Vichy Government takes refuge in Germany
  • May 8, 1945 : end of the war in Europe.

(1) Until November 1942 when it was occupied by the German army.

(2) On June 10, 1944, the SS Division Das Reich circled the village of Oradour-sur-Glane (35 miles from Sorignac where Harriet's novel takes place) and killed its entire population of 620 inhabitants (men shot in barns, women and children burned alive in the church).

A short bibliography ...   ... and filmography

Two (recent) excellent books :

  • Ronald ROSBOTTOM, When Paris Went Dark : the City of Light under German Occupation 1940-1944, Little, Brown & Co, 2014
  • Ronald ROSBOTTOM,Sudden Courage. Youth in France Confront the Germans 1940-1945, Harper & Collins /Morrow /Custom House (about young people who resisted : to be published Aug.2019)

...a short selection of books in English...

  • Robert PAXTON, Vichy France. Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944, Columbia University Press, New York, 2001
  • Michael MARRUS & Robert PAXTON, Vichy and the Jews, Stanford Un,iv.Press, 1995
  • Richard VINEN, The Unfree French. Life under the Occupation, Penguin, 2007
  • Robert GILDEA, Marianne in Chains. Daily life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation, Picador, 2002

... and in French.

  • The series of books by Henri Amouroux : "La vie des Français sous l'Occupation" (10 big volumes, but easy to read !)
  • A remarkable novel : Au Bon Beurre, by Jean Dutourd (1952), translated in English (The Best Butter), about a cynical war profiteer

And see French films taking place in those days.

 

 

Best French films :

  • Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949), (from a wonderful book by Vercors)
  • Le chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, 1971, Nominated Oscars 1972),
  • Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974), (the very context of Harriet's novel, in the same region)
  • Monsieur Klein (Mr Klein, Joseph Losey, 1976)
  • Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
An example of a rationing card (people had to use them until 1947). This one is for the ration of coal.

 

See related pages : History 1.01 (#1), Franco-US relations (#2),etc

To table of contents

To top of the page

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!