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Max Hastings

France Under Nazi Occupation

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The triumph on bestseller lists of the novel Suite Française restores one's faith in popular taste. It is very moving to see Irène Némirovsky's near-masterpiece achieve success more than 60 years after its Jewish author perished in Auschwitz. Her tale of occupied France in 1941 is all the more chilling because it is written with such generosity of spirit, not only towards the French, but even the Germans who were to murder her.

Many British people who read narratives of that period find it hard to avoid complacency. The French quit, Britain fought on. Most of their people collaborated with the Nazis; French policemen dispatched Némirovsky to a death camp. It is not a pretty story, which explains why France, almost alone of the combatant nations, has never published an official history of that experience. Even in the 21st century, it would be impossible to achieve a consensus about the truth.

Suite Française has prompted renewed debate about societies' conduct under occupation. Hearing a recent conversation about collaboration, I made myself unpopular by suggesting that, if Britain had succumbed to Nazi rule, our own people would have behaved pretty much as the French did. Anthony Eden is seldom quoted with respect these days. Yet the former foreign secretary made an impressive contribution to Marcel Ophüls' great film on wartime France, Le Chagrin et la Pitié. He said, in impeccable French: "It would be impertinent for any country that has never suffered occupation to pass judgment on one that did." Here was wisdom.

It is extraordinarily difficult to resist tyranny ruthlessly enforced, especially in a densely populated country with little wilderness. In order to eat and provide for one's family, it is necessary to earn money. All commerce and industry must be conducted according to the will of the occupiers. A man who owns a business will find that he has no business, his employees no work, if he does not accept dictation. Members of a family that owns a house are liable to find it burnt about their ears if they commit, or are even deemed to have acquiesced in, acts of resistance. Some people may feel brave enough to accept such consequences for themselves, but would they inflict them on their children?

In the 1930s many prominent British aristocrats, like their French counterparts, developed a morbid terror of the left. This caused them to be less frightened of the Nazis, who did not threaten their material interests, than of communist revolutionaries, who did. It is a bleak truth, highlighted by French experience, that the greater one's possessions, the more painful it is to risk their loss. The French aristocracy collaborated almost wholesale. The names of honourable exceptions are remembered because they were so few.

Their British counterparts would probably have done likewise. Great proprietors believe their highest duty is to transfer inheritances safely to the next generation. Many British grandees fought bravely in the second world war but would, I think, have bowed to the Germans under occupation rather than forfeit the likes of Chatsworth or Blenheim. "We hate the Germans," they would have said, "but we must face the fact that they are masters now."

Most of France's "haves" collaborated not willingly, but in the face of perceived necessity. The bourgeois classes allowed their view to be determined by law-and-order arguments, which possess even greater force in war than in peace. Sabotage provoked murderous reprisals upon the innocent. Surely, people said, it is in the interests of the community that we behave in such a way as to be spared killings and confiscations, when daily existence is harsh enough already.

Resistance, confined to a small minority until 1944, was dominated by what middle-class people would categorise as "the awkward squad": teachers and unionists (many of them leftists), young mavericks, communist activists, journalists, peasants: in short, little people.

All this, I think, would have applied equally in a German-occupied Britain. A harder question to answer is whether British people would have dispatched their own Jews to death, as did the French. There was considerable anti-semitism in prewar Britain; it is sometimes remarked that "the biggest favour Hitler did the British upper classes was to make anti-semitism cease to be respectable". British anti-Jewish sentiment, however, was less virulent than that of the French. It is pleasant to suppose that a fundamental decency might have rendered ordinary people unwilling to denounce their Jewish neighbours, even had a British collaborationist government urged them to do so.

The Gestapo noted with relish that each morning the letter box of its Paris HQ in Avenue Foch was jammed with anonymous letters from citizens accusing each other of black-marketeering or resistance activity. Most British agents captured during the occupation were betrayed by Frenchmen. Would the British have likewise turned on each other?

Humility of the kind displayed by Eden is the only sensible course in judging another nation's behaviour under circumstances that we have been spared. Némirovsky's great novel paints a portrait of a society that did not conduct itself with conspicuous courage or honour. I am doubtful, however, that we would have done much better.

http://books.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1760893,00.html

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A couple of years ago I visited the Museum of Resistance in Toulouse. It was the bravest museum I have ever visited. It was no surprise that the museum, although free to enter, was deserted. The curator, who gave us an excellent tour of the museum, pointed out that it was not popular with local people. It was not difficult to see why. The main focus of the museum was on those who resisted. It was made clear that this was only a minority activity. What was really interesting is that most of the resistance leaders were outsiders. Most were refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Others were Jews who had fled from Nazi occupied Europe. The most depressing thing about the story of the resistance concerns the way they were treated after the war. The curator told us that France passed legislation protecting those who collaborated with the enemy. One resistance leader was heavily fined after he published an article pointing out that local dignitaries had been collaborators.

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Would the British have likewise turned on each other?

After reading the excellent Max Hastings' post, I have no doubt in replying to his question: yes.. and the Spaniards, Americans and so on.

When studying the Resistance topic, one realizes what a great cheat "nationalist" history is. I remember my father talking about the Spanish Civil War (he did it almost every day) and putting the blame of the Republican side defeat on "the British". He was a working man who started working in his early childhood and it was a simple and false answer, but he had a clear idea: the policy implemented by the British Conservative government was crucial to understand why Hitler and Mussolini were able to send weapons en masse and troops to Franco, meanwhile the Spanish Republic had to fight with no help from Western democracies. Then the British people fought bravely against Hitler and every civilized human being should be grateful for that fight.

France is a clear case of "reconstructing" its own history. We cannot understand why the German army defeated so easily France in May 1940, if we forget that a lot of French people claimed that "better Hitler than Blum". A visit to Le Vernet concentration camp, near the Pyrenees, is very illustrative. Republican Spaniards and members of the International Brigades were imprisoned by the French government and kept in the camp until... the Gestapo took over.

As John claims, most of the leaders of the "maquis" were Republican Spaniards or Jews who had fled from Hitler. If caught by the Nazis, the first ones had two alternatives: the Mauthaussen camp or Franco's Spain. It was not clear which was worse.

Anyway, after the war the official France was able of making up a "patriotic" history, forgiving the collaborators and partly forgetting the people who had joined the Resistance.

I am sure that most of the nationalists would have done the same: making up its own history.

Here in Spain we have lately some fine examples. I will mention only one: the Spanish Civil War was a war between Spain and the Basque Country...

The fact of that thousands of volunteers from Basque country and Navarre fought for Franco (the "requetés" were fearsome soldiers, specially after attending mass) or that Madrid was the last big city occupied by Franco are details with no importance.

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The triumph on bestseller lists of the novel Suite Française restores one's faith in popular taste. It is very moving to see Irène Némirovsky's near-masterpiece achieve success more than 60 years after its Jewish author perished in Auschwitz. Her tale of occupied France in 1941 is all the more chilling because it is written with such generosity of spirit, not only towards the French, but even the Germans who were to murder her.

With respect, Sir Max, is it accurate to say the Germans murdered Irène Némirovsky?

She died of typhus, according to this reference. Typhus was known to be rife in some of the German concentration camps - hence the considerable effort expended on delousing. Are you suggesting she was infected deliberately?

One could argue that by deporting her from France and sending her to a camp, she was ''effectively' murdered - but on that basis any of the 'enemy aliens' detained by the allies were also ''murdered', if they died while in custody.

I should add that in no way am I seeking to diminish the tragedy of this author's death. But war is replete with tragedies of all kinds. If we've learned nothing else from the bloody 20th century, I believe we should have absorbed that simple lesson.

Suite Française has prompted renewed debate about societies' conduct under occupation. Hearing a recent conversation about collaboration, I made myself unpopular by suggesting that, if Britain had succumbed to Nazi rule, our own people would have behaved pretty much as the French did. Anthony Eden is seldom quoted with respect these days. Yet the former foreign secretary made an impressive contribution to Marcel Ophüls' great film on wartime France, Le Chagrin et la Pitié. He said, in impeccable French: "It would be impertinent for any country that has never suffered occupation to pass judgment on one that did." Here was wisdom.

Nazi occupation of Britain is extremely hypothetical. We now know, I understand, there was no such invasion plan.

Less hypothetical is the current Iraq war. If Iraq ever regains its sovereignty and independence, how would the many collaborators with US / British occupation forces then be viewed by their peers?

Would it be held by the then victorious resistance forces, that as Iraq never declared war on its occupiers (unlike France) and as Iraq was pulverized by enemy bombing and tortured by cruel economic sanctions for over a decade preceding the eventual invasion (unlike France), collaboration with occupying forces should be a greater source of opprobrium than French collaboration during World War Two?

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Here are some of the responses to Max Hastings' article:

(1) It seems to me that Max Hastings is really asking the question "Are we French or Palestinians?' The answer rather depends on whether he sees us more like the French in basically acquiescing to occupation or like the Palestinians in resisting the occupation and fighting in whatever way we could against the occupier.

(2) What Max Hastings means is "I would have done the same under Nazi occupation". Did he offer any reistance to Thatcherism?

(3) Mr Hastings you are absolutely correct, I dare say that many of the opposing remarks are from people who were not alive before the last war. There was an enormous amount of anti Semitism amongst the working people before the war because of money lending, landlordism, etc - much the same as in Germany and it would have been easily erupted here if we had been subjected to Nazi rule, plus the fact most of our ruling classes would have welcomed the invaders as at that time we the working people were ripe for political change and they knew it. The war and the new greed of profit from it saved the ruling classes and they know it. I was there at the time and witnessed it all except for the period when I somewhat foolishly volunteered as an infantry soldier and physically defended my country (that is to say the working people of my country). Now we are subject to the occupation of this our precious land by the foreign forces of American fascism, from whence they indiscriminately bomb innocent women and children and our government is corrupted by them. We the true English and our dead comrades view you all with disgust, shame on you.

(4) Hastings, a better military historian than contemporary humane human, overlooks one important point. It was the French POLICE who led away Jews to the Nazi death chambers. It was the same with the Dutch Police. A change of leadership command and suddenly 50,000 citizens are on their way to death-camps. It was citizens in both of those countries who took to hiding Jews. I don't consider it a "us" or a "we" or an "I" would have collaborated with the Nazis. The British Police would have, because the British Police, like all Police, are inherently fascist - they are inadequate little people unable to perform use or function without a the power-structure they grow heady on.

(5) Anyone interested in the history of the resistance should read something about Le Groupe Manouchian (the Manouchian Group) and L'Affaire de l'affiche rouge (the Red Poster Affair), about an important resistance group in the Paris region. For the most part made up of immigrants and Jews, they carried out some spectacular attacks (including blowing up the Nazi bookshop in Boulevard Saint-Michel by placing a bomb in a hollowed-out copy of Das Kapital and leaving it on a shelf.....). They were eventually betrayed and captured. The French authorities mounted a show trial which was radio-broadcast for propaganda purposes--- to demonstrate to the French population that much of the REsistance was in fact the work of immigrants, Jews and Communists. To this end, they published an inflammatory poster describing the accused as "Juif hongrois, communist espagnol" and so on. At the end of the trial, they were all found guilty and shot. The propaganda efforts actually backfired, and Resistance activity increased after the show trial. But the episode does demonstrate that the French authorities in collaboration with the occupiers did believe they could strike a chord with many amongst the populace by propagating the idea that the Resistance was not something run by ordinary, patriotic Frenchmen, rather by Communists, Jews, immigrants, etc. Arthur Koestler's book, The Scum of the Earth, also sheds interesting light on these issues.

(6) Different countries under German occupation behaved very differently in regard to saving Jews or helping Germans to deport them to their death: the entire spectrum from Denmark and Norway (sheltering their Jewish population), Belgium (extensive network to save them) all the way to France and the Channel Islands (active collaboration of local police in rounding up Jews). Ditto for German allies: Italy did its utmost to save Jews in "its" parts of Yugoslavia and France (sticking its neck much more that the Western allies), Bulgaria saved "its" Jews, as did Hungary under Horthy. Finland offered them shelter. Slovakia handed them over promptly to the Germans, as did Hungary after the Szilasi coup. And Croatia exterminated them in situ. And the allies also behaved differently. The Soviet Union accepted fleeing Jews, the Western allies did not and Britain did its level best to prevent them from fleeing to Palestine: reading some comments above one can understand where this was coming from. All this is a matter of historical record. Of course, these are valid questions: what made different societies behave differently. It has indeed been investigated by historians and philosophers, but perhaps should be asked by general public, not in order to conduct a vendetta against that generation but to prevent another Rwanda or Darfur. Anyway, I join Max Hastings in recommending Irene Nemirovski's book.

(7) Max, a very thoughtful and sensitive piece. Shame some of the comments seem to come from migrant Sun readers. I live in France, whose WWII history is indeed complex. The Gaullist refrain was certainly that everyone was a resistant. But in the '70s, a shoal of books and films - like Louis Malle's excellent 'Lacombe Lucien' - implied that everyone was a collabo. Since then, fact and fiction have produced a far more tangled tale. For example. The Perigord Noir, where I live, took in many urban Jews, particularly those from Alsace (despite having very few resident Jews); a leading Sarlat personality was decorated by Israel for his role in sheltering them. But, at the end of the war, a German regiment stuffed with Alsatiens stormed through the region committing atrocities, including the razing of Oradour a little further north. Even now, there is much anti-Alsatien resentment. Sarlat, the capital of the region, has a war memorial on which - unlike those of most other French provincial towns -the number of WWII resistants and murdered civilians far outnumbers that from WWI. Andre Malraux was the head of the very active local resistance movement; in the '60s, he became de Gaulle's culture minister and financed the restoration of the old town in Sarlat, using it as a model for other successful restorations.

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As John claims, most of the leaders of the "maquis" were Republican Spaniards or Jews who had fled from Hitler.
The biggest national immigrant group in the Toulouse region were actually Italian. A number of Italians featured in the local resistance.

I had a student produce a piece of coursework on how 'French' the resistance was. Julien Bell There were a couple of aspects that fascinated him. One was that a local Gestapo leader was French and one of the local resistant leaders was German. The other was how the Frecnh state in choosing to memorialize the resistant, did so by giving the foreign resistor French names. In the work above, Julien includes a panel from the museum about the resistant Marcel Langer executed for his role in 1943. Mendel Langer was his real name, a veteran of the International Brigades. On the same panel, is the attack on the cinema in which an anti-semitic film was shown the night previously. The people behind the attack were: 'David freiman, Romanian, is killed in the blast; Rosine Bet, 21 year-old Italian, dies the next day of her wounds; Enzo Godeas, Italian, seriously wounded and captured by Vichy forces'.

Nazi occupation of Britain is extremely hypothetical. We now know, I understand, there was no such invasion plan.
It is interesting that those who like to play this counterfactual game, try to draw conclusions from the occupation of the Channel Islands. Again I had a student last year who wrote (on this occasion a brilliant) piece of coursework attacking the popular current position that 'dipicts the Channel Islanders as “[laying] on their backs and [making] moaning noises" as the Germans invaded.' Robin Webb

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Most of the European newspapers wrote about the fate of Irène Némirovsky in the last few weeks.

In Sweden I red about her sad story (a devastating fate!! … I could not let my eyes go off from the photos of her and her family which followed the text) last weekend in one of the morning papers.

But let us turn back a to the theme of RESISTANCE …..

Tony Jude in his excellent book ”POSTWAR” , “A History of Europe since 1945” tells the readers following facts about Resistance in France ;

“The Nazi administered France with just 1 500 of their own people. So confident were they of reliability of the French police and militias that they assigned (in addition to their administrative staff) a mere 6 000 German civil and military police to ensure the compliance of a nation of 35 millions.” (page 39)

Few lines bellow keen readers can compare the sentences above with a sentence:

“Contrast Yugoslavia, which required the unflagging attention of entire German military divisions just to contain the armed partisans.”

Well so was it at that time …… there was the resistance and THE RESISTANCE!

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Tony Jude in his excellent book ”POSTWAR” , “A History of Europe since 1945” tells the readers following facts about Resistance in France ;

“The Nazi administered France with just 1 500 of their own people. So confident were they of reliability of the French police and militias that they assigned (in addition to their administrative staff) a mere 6 000 German civil and military police to ensure the compliance of a nation of 35 millions.” (page 39)

Few lines bellow keen readers can compare the sentences above with a sentence:

“Contrast Yugoslavia, which required the unflagging attention of entire German military divisions just to contain the armed partisans.”

Well so was it at that time …… there was the resistance and THE RESISTANCE!

It is true that most countries in the east resisted more than those in the west (with the exception of the UK). However, we had the benefit of being an island. I suspect in the east it had less to do with feelings towards fascism than the hatred felt for them by the Nazis. Giving the way that they were treated after surrender, it made perfect sense for them to resist. France collobrated because too many people shared the views of the Nazis (especially their views on Jews and the left). The same was true of the UK. It is the reason why so many government documents from 1939 and 1940 are still classified. It is also the reason why Hess was never allowed to tell his story after the war.

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Is anyone familiar with a book entitled 'Secret Sources - The Story Behind Some Famous Scoops' - ? Published - 1943

Authors - Wythe Williams and William Van Narvig

Publisher - Alliance Books/Ziff-Davis

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-

With respect, Sir Max, is it accurate to say the Germans murdered Irène Némirovsky?

She died of typhus, according to this reference. Typhus was known to be rife in some of the German concentration camps

Sid Walker seems to play words.

In the nazi propaganda, deportes and Jews died naturally.

Do you, in "a normal society", live in the nazi way of treating those they wanted to kill ?

in this page (in French), see Robert Antelme 's la soupe, or Raphael Esrail 's account

http://clioweb.free.fr/camps/deportes.htm#t%E9moignages

-

A couple of years ago I visited the Museum of Resistance in Toulouse. It was the bravest museum I have ever visited. It was no surprise that the museum, although free to enter, was deserted. The curator, who gave us an excellent tour of the museum, pointed out that it was not popular with local people

I understand John's remarks. Serge Ravanel has written how the resistants were left aside by de Gaulle visiting Toulouse in 1944. But I should add that a huge work have been done by historians on the history of Resistance, both in France and in Europe. And now, we benefit from a hindsight view: in the 1960s, every French was supposed to have fought the nazis ; in 1970s, every French has "collaborated". All this is far more complex, depending on the date, the region, the social context, the political choice...

Daniel

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I understand John's remarks. Serge Ravanel has written how the resistants were left aside by de Gaulle visiting Toulouse in 1944. But I should add that a huge work have been done by historians on the history of Resistance, both in France and in Europe. And now, we benefit from a hindsight view: in the 1960s, every French was supposed to have fought the nazis ; in 1970s, every French has "collaborated". All this is far more complex, depending on the date, the region, the social context, the political choice...

This is a very interesting point Daniel. How is it taught in French schools today? Does it take the 1960s or the 1970s view? Or is it a more balanced view?

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The curriculum says,

"1 - Bilan et mémoires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale

Après avoir étudié les conséquences du conflit dans l'immédiat après-guerre - sans se limiter aux pertes humaines et aux destructions matérielles -, on présente l'émergence de différentes mémoires de la période de la guerre au sein de la société française".

(only for students who have choosen economy or litterature as a main subject)

see (in French) : http://clioweb.free.fr/dossiers/39-45/hm2gm2.htm

Daniel

Edited by D Letouzey

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on présente l'émergence de différentes mémoires de la période de la guerre au sein de la société française".
how different 'histories'/memories of WWII developed amongst the French after 1945 (?)

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With respect, Sir Max, is it accurate to say the Germans murdered Irène Némirovsky?

She died of typhus, according to this reference. Typhus was known to be rife in some of the German concentration camps - hence the considerable effort expended on delousing. Are you suggesting she was infected deliberately?

One could argue that by deporting her from France and sending her to a camp, she was ''effectively' murdered - but on that basis any of the 'enemy aliens' detained by the allies were also ''murdered', if they died while in custody.

I should add that in no way am I seeking to diminish the tragedy of this author's death. But war is replete with tragedies of all kinds. If we've learned nothing else from the bloody 20th century, I believe we should have absorbed that simple lesson.

[…]

Nazi occupation of Britain is extremely hypothetical. We now know, I understand, there was no such invasion plan.

Less hypothetical is the current Iraq war. If Iraq ever regains its sovereignty and independence, how would the many collaborators with US / British occupation forces then be viewed by their peers?

Would it be held by the then victorious resistance forces, that as Iraq never declared war on its occupiers (unlike France) and as Iraq was pulverized by enemy bombing and tortured by cruel economic sanctions for over a decade preceding the eventual invasion (unlike France), collaboration with occupying forces should be a greater source of opprobrium than French collaboration during World War Two?

Sid Walker seems to play words.

In the nazi propaganda, deportes and Jews died naturally.

Do you, in "a normal society", live in the nazi way of treating those they wanted to kill ?

in this page (in French), see Robert Antelme 's la soupe, or Raphael Esrail 's account

http://clioweb.free.fr/camps/deportes.htm#t%E9moignages

Sid Walker is indeed playing with words, I don't think any reasonable person would disagree that if someone died in a death camp due the subhuman conditions there, that those who sent the victim to the camp and responsible for running are guilty that particular victim's murder but also guilty of murder of all those who died in such camps independent of the nominal cause of death.

Under the law of most countries a person responsible for subjecting a victim to condition which brings about a persons death due to "depraved indifference" even if they didn't have the specific intent to kill is guilty of negligent homicide. Under US law (and that of many other countries) this lesser charge of murder would only apply when there was no intention to harm the victim. In this situation (where there was intention to harm the victim) or any other situation in which a victim dies during the commission of another felony during which death is 'foreseeable event'.

In order to not hijack this thread I will respond further to Walker's (expletive deleted by author) comments on the thread where he euphemistically referred to the Nazi's murder of 10 – 12 million victims (including 5 – 6 million Jews) as the Jews "preferred historical narrative" [ http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.ph...c=7460&st=0 ]. I suggest that Walker or anybody else who wants to comment on this do so there. I started that thread to deal with his theory that "Jewish (and specifically Zionist) conspiratorial networks are increasingly winning out over - or swallowing up - their competitors."

Just before I go I'll point out that:

-alleging that the gas chambers were indeed 'delousing showers,'

-claiming that deaths in the concentration camps were due to disease rather murder,

-calling concentration camp deaths 'the tragic consequences of war',

-comparing the conditions in concentration camps to those of Allied detention camps and

-suggesting that Hitler was forced into WWII ["Iraq never declared war on its occupiers (unlike France)"]

are all common tactics of Holocaust 'revisionists'.

I never heard it alleged before even by "revisionist" "historians" that the Germans didn't intend to invade Britain once the USSR had been defeated.

And not that I'm a fan of Bush or the invasion of Iraq but his apparent belief that America and Britain's occupation is a greater crime that was the Nazi's occupation of France is perhaps indicative of his overall biases.

Len

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