Monday, July 23, 2007

The Unfree French

Over the weekend I rode the TGV to and from Brittany. I have no witty vignettes of fellow passengers to relate. No stories of missed connections or bucolic countryside as it blurred past the train window. Unaware of my surroundings, I travelled to another place during the three-hour ride each way. I journeyed through France in the early 1940s, immersed in reading The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation by Richard Vinen.

The Unfree French is a densely written, engrossing study of everyday life in France from May 1940 until the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. To describe this book as a mere eye-opener is understatement. From the exode, when millions of panicked families fled to the countryside, to the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) when French civilians were sent to Germany to work, the book traces a complex history of the lives of "...human beings [who] struggle to survive by any method." Page after page of intense historical information peppered with astonishing anecdotes.

Think about this: today, virtually any French person over the age of 65 has a memory of Occupied France. These are people you encounter daily. I've long had an unquenchable desire to know more about this era, about the lives of real people whom I've met and how they might have lived. There's no one simplified story to tell. The Unfree French brings it all to life.

Then, on page 110, one of the most amazing tales, albeit not about an everyday individual: Adolf Hitler (bold-face emphasis is mine).

"Paris was ..used as a centre of recreation for German troops who were brought to the city under the 'Jeder einmal nach Paris' (everyone to Paris once) programme, which subjected them to a brief tourist visit that included standard attractions (a ride on a bateau-mouche, climbing the Eiffel Tower). Hitler himself had set the tone of such visits when, on June 23, 1940, he spent two and a half hours in Paris (the only visit of his life). He arrived at Le Bourget Airport at five in the morning, accompanied by Albert Speer and the sculptor Arno Brecker; he hoped that the visit would provide ideas about how German cities might be rebuilt on a grander scale. He began by visiting the Opera at six in the morning before moving on to the Arc de Triomphe. He saw the Place de la Concorde.... The tour finished with a visit to the Sacre Coeur, and Hitler flew out of Le Bourget at half past eight the same morning. Hitler did not speak to a French person during his visit and indeed saw almost no one except a few policemen and a terrified concierge at the Opera who refused to take a tip from Speer."

I'm not sure why I'm so flabbergasted at this story. That, for all the years of Nazi occupation of Paris, Hitler spent less time here than any other tourist known to mankind? Or was it the sheer speed in which his whirlwind visit was able to be accomplished? Or that I naively hadn't known this before? I found the account disturbing.

But The Unfree French is more than stories of Hitler or the Nazis, or of Vichy, Petain or Laval. It is gripping social history of real people of all classes and how they coped or collapsed under the desperate years of the Occupation. Unsettling, enlightening, but fascinating at every page.

Today, anyone walking through the streets of Paris can sense its history -- reaching much further back than the Occupation -- echoing from every stone. But reading The Unfree French helps you understand the more recent history of a current generation. It is a history that still lives, etched in the faces and comportments of its inhabitants.

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