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“Hitler always meant what he said.”
— John Wheeler-Bennett, historian of German history
The French felt so smug and secure behind their stone forts, their glorious army, their language and admired culture that when it all collapsed, pretty much overnight, only the poets and novelists had words for l’exode, the exodus of millions of panicked civilians away from the lightning-fast Nazi army in 1940.
France’s unforeseen, surprising defeat turned the world upside down. “In the space of several days we have lost all certainty,” said poet Paul Valery.
Novelist Leon Werth, another refugee, tried to find sense in the incoherence. “Everything since Paris is inexplicable by laws of reason.”
The poet Camille Bourniquel remarked that “the Middle Ages have been reinvented.” Another writer 74 said, “France had jumped backwards six centuries”.
Although the Nazi defeat of the French happened decades ago it feels awfully familiar. Way down in the boondocks, in France’s south, the citified Leon Werth kept meeting rural people who warmly greeted soldiers of the Nazi New Order. “WE’RE IN A COUNTRY WE DIDN’T KNOW EXISTED… a France that rejoices in the German victory.”
Recently, a buddy, a midwest reporter, writes that on a recent road trip when he and his wife got off the interstate “From one end of Pennsylvania to the other, country roads and village streets were lined with yard signs proclaiming allegiance to Trump. There had to be thousands, with scarcely a Clinton sign between them…. Unmistakable signs that rural and small-town folks have had it with culture wars they didn’t sign up for.”
1940 Parisians didn’t get it either or had forgotten, or unconsciously denied, France’s poisonous strain of anti-Semitism that had fueled the small towners’ welcome to Fritz. The deep conservatism of the French countryside had always been there – even in occasional rebellion – but simply ignored until Paris intellectuals suddenly had to flee for refuge in villages they’d only driven or hiked past before.
Even today French scholars and citizens argue over what happened and why during the Nazi occupation. But at the time it was a crude matter of surviving day to day. Attentisme, “wait and see”, more than active resistance tended to be the motto of an ordinary French citizen.
You had to walk in their shoes.
When I got to postwar France almost all my café friends had been in the Nazi occupation including some deported as slave laborers. Having just arrived from Hollywood (see below) with its blacklists and informers, I was intensely curious how they’d coped under a much more lethal persecutor.
It boiled down to improvising informal networks of solidarity, for food, money, hiding places, with heightened understanding of the endangered Jews who, if caught, were killed. Gays, doubly at risk, had their own special underground.
It was a terrible time. Somehow, in all this, most of my friends kept a weird, civilized, generous, prickly sense of humor.