The swift and unexpected defeat of the French Army in 1940 shocked the nation. Two million soldiers were taken prisoner, six million civilians fled from the German army’s advance to join convoys of confused and terrified refugees, and only a few managed to escape the country. The vast majority of French people were condemned to years of subjugation under Nazi and Vichy rule. This compelling book investigates the impact of the occupation on the people of France and dispels any lingering notion that somehow, under the collaborating government of Marshal Pétain, life was quite tolerable for most French citizens.
Richard Vinen describes the inescapable fear and the moral quandaries that permeated life in German-controlled France. Focusing on the experiences of the least privileged, he shows how chronic shortages, desperate compromises, fear of displacement, racism, and sadistic violence defined their lives. Virtually all adult males festered in POW camps or were sent to work in the Reich. With numerous enthralling anecdotes and a variety of maps and evocative photographs, The Unfree French makes it possible for the first time to understand how average people in France really lived from 1940 to 1945, why their experiences differed from region to region and among various groups, and why they made the choices they did during the occupation.
This excellent book is principally a history of the French duringthe "dark years" of Vichy and the German occupation, although it also offers shrewd portraits of Vichy officials and of life in the sad spa town of Vichy itself. Vinen seems to have read a huge number of memoirs and reports documenting, and sometimes distorting, what happened to individuals and families. Some of this has been studied before (for instance, the treatment of the Jews and the purges after the liberation). But Vinen adds new depth on matters such as relations between Frenchwomen and Germans and the lives of French prisoners of war. As a survivor of that period (who fled Paris a day before its occupation and lived for four years in Nice and the Languedoc), this reviewer can only confirm one of Vinen's main points: in a period when traditional social and political controls had either broken into pieces or disappeared, the varieties of individual behavior were almost infinite, and for most people the hardships of daily life (especially of finding food and securing personal safety) eclipsed all other collective concerns.