April 26, 2012

Book: France – The Dark Years 1940- 1944 by Julian Jackson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:46 am

The subject matter is immensely interesting. Many people allege that France, during the German Occupation, aided and abetted the deportation of Jews over and above what was justifiable under the circumstances. In addition, there is a lot of curiosity about the Vichy regime that administered France under German control: Was it a puppet regime? Was it sympathetic to the German cause of Aryanization? What was the French reaction to the almost complete and instant collapse of the French army under German assault?

The book covers extensive ground but has some major flaws: read on!

The book prepares the ground for the Second World War events by starting from the pre-Second-World-War times, when the political confusion instability existed, and the rise of the Popular Front. It is interesting to discover that anti Semitic feelings ran high even then, and prominent Catholics like Henriot who were in the Popular Front were in the forefront of spreading ethnic hatred against the Jews. The book traces the rise and fall of the brief National Unity Government under Blum followed by the first popular government of the day by Daladier.

When the French army was routed, the Northern part of the France, including Paris was under the direct control of Germans, and there are indications that German’s intended to absorb that portion of the country. The Southern truncated piece was called the Unoccupied Zone by the French and Marshal Petain took over as the ruler, and signed the Armistice with the Germans.

It is horrifying to read that Jews were rounded up enthusiastically and sent to Germens, who sent most of them straight to Auschwitz. Initially only `foreign‘ Jews were sent. French nationals were not sent, but later the difference was discarded. Writers joined the movement of praising the Germans and condemning the Jews through their club, NRF.

The deputy of Petain was so much of a fascist and anti-Semitic that he was dismissed by Petain but was forced to reinstate him a few years later. The book chillingly describes how the Jews were systematically discriminated against, first barring them from most professions, then rounded up and sent. Children and women were not spared.

The book also tells of the treatment given to women and the outlook at that time: women had no votes; their role in society was to be the mother and produce more Frenchmen. The parallel story of the Communists and their part in the resistance is well told. Discussions on whether the Communists were initially neutral despite German atrocities and whether they started resisting only when Hitler invaded Russia, are made in detail.

De Gaulle’s rise and his acrimonious relationships with both Churchill and Roosevelt are described, tracing the events from the earliest times. After reading this, I realized why De Gaulle was so against England and went to the extent of blocking UK’s entry into EEC.

The Liberation and the atrocities committed in the name of summary executions and wild justice are fascinating to read; another interesting portion is the shocking treatment given to women who had relations with Germans, especially compared to the total absence of any reaction if a French man had a relationship with a German woman.

A huge surprise is to realize how many years the French struggled with the memories, first ignoring inconvenient facts, and when that did not work, dragging it out and debating it to the end. Francois Mitterand’s alleged  skeletons in the cupboard, his Vichy past, and his Vichy sympathies and attempts to influence the recording of the history of the times and even the court cases against some of the more egregious elements in it are shocking.

But in the main, overshadowing all these nice details, the book suffers from one major flaw: poor narration. It reads like a college textbook and often is an endless procession of names of the people who played minor parts or endless examination of what happened in particular localities with statistics on the number of people affected. It may help to highlight the general condition, if used sparingly but if you fill the whole book with such details, it gets boring. To get interesting nuggets, you have to sift the vast majority of the material in this book just shy of 650 pages, like the old gold hunters sifting through the river sands to find gold. It almost put me to sleep many times, and sorely tested my resolve to read on further.

The sections on Jews, De Gaulle and the post liberation frenzy are the most interesting and are parts of the book that retain your interest.

The sections that describe completely racial views of some of the old leaders well into 1980’s are shocking; so is the constitution of Jean-Marie Le Penn’s Front National organization and how it ties into the Vichy and German sympathizers.

In summary, good subject matter, badly told. Read it if you have infinite patience!

I will give it a 4/10, mostly due to the interesting bits in there.

— Krishna


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