Review of: Philippe Burrin, La France à l’heure allemande: 1940-1944, (Paris: Seuil, 1995), 560 pp.

Reviewed by: Arthur Goldhammer

It is now almost a quarter of a century since Robert Paxton published his classic Vichy France. His view of les années noires has meanwhile become the Gospel of a generation of disciples, if not yet the Vulgate of certain highly placed personages: François Mitterrand, though rarely one to pass up an occasion to demonstrate his formidable culture, has understandably preferred to defend his youthful indiscretions by invoking la mémoire du vécu in preference to the consensus of the historians. That consensus has progressed on many fronts since 1972, and Philippe Burrin here offers us a kind of bilan. But in fact he does far more than that: his original research takes us beyond the now accepted understanding of Vichy policy, which, though greatly fleshed out, remains largely where Paxton left it. What Burrin allows us to see, for the first time in such comprehensive and panoramic detail, is the society beyond the state: how people—letter writers whose correspondence was opened by the censors, industrialists who had to respond to German demands, scholars and artists who had to decide where duty lay, ecclesiastics who had to define what duty was, and a whole Balzacian menagerie of collaborationists, Pétainistes, attentistes, accommodationists, trimmers, opportunists, fanatics, and others—reacted to defeat and what nearly everyone at first judged to be the prospect of a new German Europe. Burrin has produced a new classic, an indispensable one-volume history not of Vichy—that is the novel if subtle and quite telling shift in the book’s focus—but, as the title accurately states, of France on German time.

Not that Burrin neglects the political history of Vichy. On the contrary, his account, though succinct (it occupies the first 178 pages of this 450 page book), is lucid, accurate, complete, and quietly devastating. His judgments are as firm as one could wish and often expressed in formulas all the more vigorous for being understated: "En tirant de la défaite l’occasion d’un changement des institutions, au lieu de donner la priorité à la sauvegarde nationale, Vichy suscitait des dissensions sur le contenu de ce changement, dont l’occupant n’aurait plus qu’à tirer parti. … Les fossoyeurs de la République tirent à retardement la leçon de 1870-1871. Pas de guerre à outrance, mère de toutes les Communes. Pas de francs-tireurs, pères du désordre social. Retour à la paix, retour à l’ordre, retour à la France." There are occasional brilliant portraits, such as this one of Laval: "Le Talleyrand d’Aubervilliers n’est pas un homme de dossiers; il croit à la discussion continue, à l’art de la mise en confiance par des gestes et des gages. Capable de chaleur et de charme, avocat habile qui croit que toutes les causes se plaident, même devant un vainqueur à qui le culte de la force tient lieu de philosophie, Laval a une politique dont il ne démord pas, des méthodes qui lui collent à la peau, une ambition trop saillante pour ne pas inquièter." There are pithy reminders of what we already know: that Pétain’s conception of collaboration was, in his own words, to "arracher des moeurs françaises les causes qui ont provoqué les défaites," and that "si l’Allemand gagne la guerre, il faut que nous ayons réglé notre sort avec lui, avant qu’il n’ait plus besoin de nous." All this is set against the progress of the larger war, all too easily forgotten in some of the more egregious franco-française sniping over this period. As Germany’s fortunes ebb, Vichy founders: "Après s’être inlassablement proposé d’être le bouclier de l’Europe nazie face aux Anglo-Saxons, voilà Vichy bouclier des Allemands sur sol français, et surtout bouclier de ses dirigeants." Anyone cognizant of the ink spilt over the image of le bouclier (Pétain) and l’épée (de Gaulle) can only savor the insistence here on what lay beneath the shield first in 1940-42 and then after 1943.

Burrin’s purpose in recounting this history is not to display his writerly skills, however, but to set the stage for the exploration of civil society that follows. One cannot understand choices without understanding circumstances, whence the very reasonable decision to begin the book with an account of those circumstances. With them in mind we can move on to what is really the heart of Burrin’s study, namely, the spectrum of possibilities that comes with resignation to defeat: "accommodation de nécessité, de moindre mal, qui se paie souvent de compromis, dont il n’est pas toujours aisé de déterminer quand ils deviennent compromission." All the exquisite and excruciating difference is there, in the (untranslatable?) difference between compromis and compromission, which Burrin, eschewing definition, prefers to show us, graphically, vividly, by getting down to cases.

In this short review I cannot examine the rich variety of cases to which the author turns his attention. He begins by trying to assess the shifting winds of public opinion, using as his source archival documents compiled by prefects, the mail censorship, and others with access to those without access to the printing presses on which historians too often rely for gauging public opinion. And the results are illuminating. In 1941, a summary of prefects’ reports observed that "l’opinion, dans son ensemble, répugne à cette politique [de collaboration après Montoire]. … Elle continuera à escompter une victoire anglo-américaine." Yet Burrin reads these reports with a skeptical eye, an eye informed by knowledge of more articulate if not necessarily more enlightened opinion: "Dans ces premiers temps, la collaboration est encore une opinion, qui divise et rebute, mais que l’on tolère et sur laquelle il est permis de diverger. … Mauriac écrit à Ramon Fernandez: ‘Nos divergences politiques, ce n’est rien pour des Français qui boivent aux mêmes sources.’"

The Church, Burrin shows, seems in general to have underestimated the Nazis’ hostility to Catholicism. If it is hardly surprising to find the church hierarchy concerned about the possible threat to order and discipline in any form of armed resistance, it is more astonishing to learn that Cardinal Suhard, shortly before the Allied landing in Normandy, confided to his diary that "il est possible que les Etats-Unis deviennent la plus insupportable puissance impérialiste que le monde ait connu."

Burrin’s study of French industry is exemplary. Industrialists as a group have come in for harsh criticism, the assumption being that their political conservatism made them eager supporters of Vichy while their greed made them eager solicitors of German contracts. The reality seems to have been far more nuanced. Some businessmen went out of their way to seek German business, others went out of their way to avoid it. Most, being businessmen, took care of business. But were they any more blameworthy than the scholars? Burrin discusses the quite fascinating case of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who in 1935 won the Nobel Prize in physics with his wife Irene, the daughter of Marie Curie. Joliot-Curie was anything but pro-Vichy: before the war he had been a socialist and a member of the Comité de Vigilance des Intellectuels Antifascistes and of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme. When the war broke out he was working on a military grant to build a cyclotron in his laboratory at the Collège de France. The laboratory’s supply of uranium and heavy water was sent out of the country ahead of the advancing Germans. Joliot, despite invitations from abroad, chose to remain in France. The Germans, eager to use the French cyclotron in their own nuclear research program, approached Joliot to resume work on the project. If he refused, they would simply take over the premises (though it was by no means clear how much use the lab without its personnel would have been to them). Joliot sought instructions from the French government. That he had misgivings about the project is evident from certain details of the negotiations with the Germans: they were asked, for example, to promise that his participation would be kept secret and not exploited for propaganda purposes. Vichy at first refused on the grounds that nuclear research was a "private preserve." But at Joliot’s urging the government reconsidered. Burrin concludes: "Pour garder la disposition de son laboratoire, Joliot a choisi et pressé Vichy de choisir la voie de l’acceptation." The Nazis, he notes, chose in early 1942 to give priority to the development of the V2 over nuclear weapons, because they believed the war would be short. The Americans, who believed it would be long, emphasized nuclear research. "Si les Allemands avaient pris le même chemin, le travail effectué au laboratoire de Joliot serait apparu rétrospectivement comme un petit maillon dans l’entreprise nazie de fabrication de la bombe atomique." The mere thought makes one wonder if all the attention devoted in recent years to sideshows such as the Touvier Affair has had an effect quite the opposite of that intended: to educate the French public about the Occupation. Violence fascinates, but the serious choices, the choices that could have affected the outcome of the war, were made at quite another level.

Historians will be interested, for their own narrow professional reasons, in Burrin’s discussion of the case of Lucien Febvre. Natalie Davis has used the Febvre-Bloch correspondence to describe Febvre’s to say the least high-handed attitude toward his fellow founder of the Annales. Since the two owned the journal jointly and Bloch was Jewish, the Germans were prepared to forbid publication. Rather than begin a new journal, Febvre, reluctant to forfeit the Annales’ hard-won prestige, tried to persuade his friend to relinquish ownership voluntarily. Bloch at first refused, then gave in. But Davis missed the second act of this drama, which Burrin reports: after the war, in order to obtain paper then in short supply, Febvre applied to then minister of information Jacques Soustelle, a member of his own editorial committee. "Je suis certain," Febvre wrote, "qu’il me suffira de présenter ce double voeu à Jacques Soustelle pour que le ministre de l’Information fasse donner aux Annales—qui seules de toutes les revues historiques françaises ont maintenu pendant quatre ans, publiquement, l’esprit ‘d’avant,’ avec la collaboration, jusqu’au bout, de Marc Bloch lui-même—et l’autorisation et le papier dont elles ont besoin." Bloch of course had been captured, tortured, and shot by the Germans in 1944.

Burrin’s book, masterful as it is, does not cover everything. His account of the collaboration is more a taxonomy of collaborators than an exploration of their links to prewar ideologies and parties or to postwar tendencies in French political and cultural life. The "Jewish Question" stands to one side of his inquiries, perhaps because its complexity would threaten to sink an already long book. This does not prevent him from being categorical about Vichy’s guilt before the bar of history: "Eux qui se placent dans la perspective d’une Europe nazie, pourquoi feraient-ils les difficiles sur un sujet [cooperation in rounding up Jews] qui leur paraît mineur, et où le désaccord porte sur un plus ou un moins, non sur des principes? Quand viendra la demande de déportation, ils ne seront pas dans l’état d’esprit qui leur ferait dire non." But firmness does not exhaust the issue. He has very little to say about the Resistance, not surprising given the relative lack of monographs on the subject. Still, since he is so good a colorist, so skilled at evoking the subtle shadings between compromis and compromission, one wishes he had looked, for instance, at intellectuals who chose rupture over continuity: besides Bloch himself, whose portrait might have made a diptych with Febvre’s, one thinks of Georges Canguilhem or Jean Cavaillès. And Joliot might have been set against Paul Langevin, whose arrest and its role in the Joliot saga Burrin recounts but whose own story is omitted. There is perhaps an insidious historian’s bias at work here: if the historian can explain choices in the light of circumstances, he is perhaps inclined to favor those who allowed themselves to be most fully swayed by what they perceived the circumstances to be—those most obedient, in other words, to their sense of reality. But the lesson of the Occupation, ultimately, is that the sense of reality and the sense of morality may be unalterably opposed. Those who most fully grasped the magnitude of France’s defeat in June of 1940 were those who went most seriously astray. Those whose sense of reality was slightly deficient, who ignored reality in favor of what Ernst Bloch called das Prinzip Hoffnung, deserve not only our respect but another kind of history, yet to be invented. But that wish need not detract from Philippe Burrin’s accomplishment, which is to have written a book to carry on the noble tradition that Paxton began.

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