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July 05, 2006

Collaborate, Resist or ...

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If you had been a Frenchman during the period June 1940 (when France fell to Germany) and June 1944 (the Normandy invasion), what would you have done with respect to the Germans and their Occupation?

For many years following the end of World War 2 the French were cast (much of the time by their intellectual elite) into a cartoonish dichotomy. On the one hand were the noble, fearless members of the Resistance. On the other were evil collaborationists. The rest of the population was shrugged off, perhaps being sadly regarded as morally lacking for failing to be in the Resistance.

During the weeks and months following the Liberation, many collaborationists were publicly humiliated (women fraternizing with German soldiers were stripped naked, had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets) or were tried and, in some cases, executed. Some of this was pure public reaction. But both the Communists and the Gaullists had a large stake in claiming Resistance credibility in the early post-Liberation days as part of their maneuvering for power. So I wonder how much the anti-collaborationist spasm was political theatre.

In reality, the French people formed a continuum.

At the Resistance extreme were those who participated in guerilla warfare, blowing up German equipment or assassinating officers. Others didn't fight, but provided various kinds of support. Albert Camus, for example, edited the underground newspaper Combat while continuing his regular writing. Jean-Paul Sartre, after release from a German PoW camp, spent the war in Paris' literary circles though he did write articles for Combat in amongst his book-writing and teaching activities.

The most extreme collaborationists were members of fascist organizations dedicated to the support of the Occupation. Not far removed were citizens who ratted on Jews. And then there were Frenchwomen who had German lovers. I'm not sure one can call this "collaboration" if nothing was done to materially support the Occupation. Coco Chanel falls into this group. She was spared public humiliation because she "had friends in high places" and moved to Switzerland for several years to lower her profile. As for the prostitutes who entertained German troops, I have to assume their interest was largely monetary.

The extremes probably represented a small part of the population. The bulk of the French mostly hunkered down and coped as best they could.

Robert Gildea wrote a book titled "Marianne in Chains" a few years ago that featured residents of the Loire Valley and their ways of dealing with the Occupation. I bought a copy of the book because I was interested in the subject. But I found it tedious reading and set it aside.

Absent Gildea, I'll just have to resort to speculation based on what I've read elsewhere plus my take on human psychology.

Resistance members who did physical harm to the Occupation tended to be young and idealistic. Many were committed Communists who followed Moscow's dictates; before Russia was invaded, the Occupation was tolerated, and thereafter force was necessary. Others were simply young patriots.

Collaborationists were also idealistic, though largely in a negative kind of idealism. What was hated was the pre-war condition of France. To some it had to do with socialism or perhaps moral decadence. Others, monarchists, hated the Republic. Still others hated Jews.

Those who weren't at these extremes were pragmatists of various stripes, their behavior shaped by empirical conditions and their perception of those conditions.

Consider the empirical conditions at the end of 1940.

France had been defeated. Central/southeastern France was governed by the "Vichy" regime subservient to the Germans. A small part of Provence was occupied by the Italians. Northern France and a strip along the Bay of Biscay were German-occupied. The only power opposing Germany was the British Empire, and it was clear to most observers that the British, by themselves, were militarily incapable of dislodging the Germans from France -- even if that was their desire. Spain, to the southwest, would be of no help because its government was sympathetic to Germany. The United States was neutral, though it had recently re-elected Franklin Roosevelt who was pro-British. And the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939.

What were the prospects for France? The most likely outcome was that the British, unable to prevail against Germany by themselves, would eventually tire of the war and settle for a status quo peace with Hitler. This would not necessarily mean the end of the Occupation, but fewer German troops would be stationed on French soil. And maybe the French would be given more administrative freedom to run their country. In the farther future, expansion of Vichy to the entire country (aside from parts annexed outright by Germany and perhaps Italy) was a possibility. In 30 years time Hitler would be aged or dead and then the Germans might tire of the whole game, leaving France to itself.

In the meanwhile there was the problem of survival. Farmers had to keep farming. Shopkeepers had to keep turning over inventory. Workers needed jobs. Children had to be raised. People needed diversions and entertainment. In short, life had to go on.

To survive, certain levels of accommodation to the Occupation were necessary. Bureaucrats, minor officials and the police had little alternative than to deal with the Germans. Other people, especially those in the countryside away from German garrisons, could lead lives pretty much as they did before the war.

And the Resistance? To many "pragmatists" it was a case of: Those fools attacking Germans reaped nothing but retaliation, getting property destroyed and people executed -- and for what? Better to tolerate the Germans until they too got tired of the Occupation.

Later, when the USSR and the USA entered the war and it became clear that Germany would eventually lose, some sort of resistance had more logical merit. Even so, the downside fact of retaliation led many Frenchmen to keep clear of resistance efforts. And the destruction caused by Allied bombing didn't improve the attitudes of many Frenchmen.

What would I have done had I been a Frenchman in the early 1940s? I don't know.

I suppose it would depend on how old I was. If I were over 30, I imagine that I'd simply try to cope. If I were in my late teens or in my 20s -- I'm not sure. It would depend on my politics and level of idealism. But there is no certainty that I would have joined the Resistance.

What about you?



posted by Donald at July 5, 2006


It's good to be reminded that circumstances at the time always appear much more complicated than they do to us in retrospect. I sometimes have to pinch myself to remember that, though we take it for granted now that the Allies would win WWII, because of course they did, for a number of years there was nothing certain about it. No one really knew if they'd pull through, and/or who'd come out on top. Scary! Scary too to think about whether I'd personally manage to summon up any well-judged heroism in the midst of awful conditions. How lovely it is to live in a country where heroism (except of the daily sort) isn't required!

Hey, speculative personal history must be in the air: Tyler Cowen wonders if he'd been around at the time if he'd have supported the American Revolution. FWIW, ancestors of mine were Tories, and left the States to live in Canada. They made their way back only a hundred years or so later.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2006 5:02 PM

It's almost impossible to imagine ourselves in the position of ordinary French citizens in 1940-44 — we know how the story came out, they didn't — but it's a worthwhile exercise in moral philosophy.

I guess I would have asked myself these questions:

1. Will I be expected to collaborate in a way that will significantly support the German war effort, or can I limit my interaction with the occupiers to routine business or obeying regulations such as traffic laws and blackout orders?

2. Who will win the war? Will the occupation continue regardless of any resistance?

3. Will acts of resistance provoke savage reprisals against innocent French people? Maybe I've heard of the entire town of Lidice in Czechoslovakia being destroyed and its male inhabitants lined up and shot after Czech partisans assassinated Nazi Reinhard (The Hangman) Heydrich.

4. How brave am I? If I'm caught, will I give up the others in my resistance cell when I'm looking at torture or a firing squad?

5. How bad are the Germans? Remember, I don't have the advantage of historical hindsight. The French showed no talent for governing themselves between the wars. Maybe the Germans won't be significantly worse. If Britain is conquered or makes peace, maybe the occupying army will consist of old soldiers and young recruits, not the zealous Nazis like SS units.

Based on individuals' answers to questions like these, many might have reasonably decided to avoid the battle if possible. I can't look down on all those who had no use for the resistance. But I'd still condemn the French who actively collaborated for the sake of privilege, advancement, or extra profit.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 5, 2006 5:12 PM

The French occupation was easygoing. The Ukrainians, who had much less to lose (ie they lost soviet rule) did not form partisan groups until the Germans antagonized them. Their insurrection was effective.

Posted by: onetwothree on July 5, 2006 6:36 PM

I find it helpful in these time travelling exercises to forget about specifics and think about more fundamental personal characteristics. The main one that seems to work is, do you normally support or work against the status quo? Doesn't matter what that status quo is.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 5, 2006 6:49 PM

It's somewhat embarassing to admit, but I probably would have tried to get along with my normal life as much as possible. The occupation wasn't so bad (except for Jews, of course) that there was a moral imperative to resist. Not to mention the fact, as noted previously, that until 1944 there was little reason to believe that the resistance would have been anything but futile.

Posted by: Peter on July 5, 2006 9:31 PM

In "The Second World War", John Keegan claimed the Resistance was much overblown. The Germans easily kept it in check by an age old anti-insurrection strategy: any act of sabotage would be met with the execution of all the men in the town, tending to discourage such acts elsewhere.

Posted by: ziel on July 5, 2006 11:28 PM

Tough to answer this question without some Bogart movie playing in the back of my head. Donald, where you mentioned the age cut-off, I would have probably stuck with the parent/single cutoff. If I had a family to support, I probably would have taken the "This will pass too" attitude. If I was single, young, and stupid and especially if I were living in a metropolitan area where occupation was more pronounced, I'd probably have bent an ear to hear what the Resistance was about,

If I knew about the situation where my fellow citizens were turning in their neighbours who were Jewish, Slavic, or Gypsy, I hope I would've had the moral backbone to do something, especially if these neighbours were also friends. From relatives who had gone through the war in Europe, I've heard a broad scope of stories of dealing with occupation. Some were admirable; others were shameful. As a kid hearing these stories, I applied my Baltimore Catechism white/black Catholic reasoning and unashamedly castigated those relatives who did not take the right moral path during those times. As an older and greyer (in outlook and in hair color) person and parent, I'm ashamed of my callousness and youthful narrow voiced opinions. I hope that I would have done the right thing, but I know that my decision would not have been immediate nor would it not have been loaded with the calamity of options, self-preservation, and family survival.

Posted by: DarkoV on July 6, 2006 8:25 AM

There is this: Casablanca was written and filmed in 1942, before the full horror of Nazi occupation was known in the West. Yet it asks this very question, and supplies an answer at the end of the film, when Resistance hero Victor Laszlo turns to Rick Blaine and says, "Welcome to the fight." The entire film revolves around the moral question posed by Donald. And its supplies a powerful conclusion: evil must be fought regardless of the consequences. That is why it is the greatest film ever.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 6, 2006 9:46 AM

People interested in this issue would probably like "Army of Shadows", a movie about the Resistance directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
It came out in 1968 but was only released here (in NYC) this year. It's a melodrama, noir & wild & wonderful, especially Simone Signoret.

Posted by: Susan on July 6, 2006 10:17 AM

I've always felt uncomfortable with the, what would you have done, question. I suspect, that with rare exceptions, most of us would have hunkered down and tried to weather the thing out.

In terms of resistance movements in WW2, the historic fact is that in France and Poland (the two countries with the most significant movements) the partisans waited until the liberating armies were on the horizon, as it were, before staging their uprisings. This makes perfect sense as to do so earlier would be suicidal. In the case of the Poles it was suicidal anyway, as Stalin halted the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw and let the Germans do his liquidating for him before moving in to "liberate" the city.

Posted by: ricpic on July 6, 2006 10:55 AM

Follow the historical precedent. What do most people always do during an occupation or when they are faced with living under an extremely oppressive government (Nazis, Soviet Communists, etc.)?

Most conform.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 6, 2006 5:19 PM

The most effective resistance was in Yugoslavia, but how good a thing that was I don't know. Milosevic said at one point, "If there's anything we Serbs are good at, it's fighting", but the conclusions he drew were pretty ugly.

Jan Myrdal (Gunnar's son) claims that Sweden during the war was a pro-Axis neutral, and also Switzerland. Without Sweden's steel Germany would have been in bad shape. Though the Swedes couldn't have successfully resisted, if they'd unsuccessfully resisted like Norway they would have gained some respect.

Posted by: John Emerson on July 6, 2006 7:33 PM

I would have been involved in the Resistance. I would be very determined, even ruthless - but also prudent. My policy would be to do the greatest possible amount of damage to the Germans without provoking reprisals; accumulate force for open warfare at some future date; and try to corrupt and subvert the German occupiers wherever possible. For instance, try to 'get something' on the local Gestapo chief, blackmail him into protecting our organization - and to make him look good, set up a dummy Resistance org with expendable members for him to catch periodically.

Pure accomodation would be a losing strategy in the long term. It's a mistake to think that only "SS fanatics" committed abuses of the occupied peoples. The basis of the German economy in 1939-44 was slave labor and looting; the ethos of Nazi Germany, including the German army, was "Might Makes Right".

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 7, 2006 12:40 AM

According to this: chart France suffered fewer military and civilian casualties in WWII than Britain or the USA or Italy and far fewer than Germany, the USSR, China or Japan. Yugoslavia, another Nazi-occupied country, suffered more casualties than France out of a population one-third of France's. So a pragmatist could argue that occupation was a blessing for France, especially considering her losses in WWI and that the strategy the French adopted did reduce their total losses.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 7, 2006 11:09 AM

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