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Reconciling history

Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime; Michael Curtis; Arcade: 449 pp., $28.95 Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation; Robert Gildea; Metropolitan Books: 492 pp., $32.50

March 21, 2004|Barbara Probst Solomon | Barbara Probst Solomon is El Pais' U.S. cultural correspondent. Her books include her memoir "Arriving Where We Started," on which her documentary "When the War Was Over" is based. She is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Though the Nazis continue to have a disquieting allure on our imagination, the French have never quite recovered from the profound humiliation of the German occupation; it has taken the country decades to open the Pandora's box of the Vichy years. As an American student in Paris during the postwar period, I remember watching Italian films like "Open City," thinking how odd that I saw no French films about the Resistance, nor were there any depicting French soldiers during their short "phony war" against the Germans. Before "Hiroshima Mon Amour" in 1959 (which had no male heroes and was about the meaning of war to civilians), there was only silence.

Twenty years ago, Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, in their "Vichy France and the Jews," set the standard for works on this period, using the records of the Vichy and German governments to build a convincing case for the complicity of the Vichy government in facilitating the Final Solution. Paxton and Marrus chose not to include interviews with either victims or perpetrators, sticking entirely to a meticulous documentation of the process leading to the deportation of the Jews.

In "Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime," one of two recent histories on the German occupation of France, Michael Curtis, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, builds on Marrus and Paxton's work. Curtis sifts through a multitude of primary sources and gives us a book that is as accurate a summary of almost every aspect of the Vichy years as it is possible to imagine.

Robert Gildea's "Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation" is diametrically opposed to Curtis in concerns and methodology. Gildea, a professor at Oxford, argues that historians have been too intent on portraying France as victim, too pro-Resistance; according to Gildea, the current debate is so "Judeo-centric" that the German occupation and Vichy have been reduced to a detail of the Holocaust.

Gildea blends an informal oral history of people's memories with data from local archives, concentrating on provincial France, the Loire region -- Chinon, Angers, Nantes and Tours -- where there wasn't a heavy Jewish or foreign population. When Gildea focuses on what interests him, he has an impressive ability to ferret out the foibles of cohabitation in this sleepy, tradition-bound part of the country.

But the book is uneven. France wasn't England, where you can do a sort of Mrs. Miniver on the local population shouldering through hard times; there are huge problems with relying on people's personal recollections 50 years after the fact. Just for starters, France was a thicket of Petainists, resistance movements, Gaullists, the Vichy government and crooks. There were snaky financial maneuverings and the myriad shifting positions of the French Communist Party.

Add to this the presence of the Third Reich in the occupied and unoccupied zones, the deportation of the Jews and gypsies, the plethora of resistance groups, the brutal dreaded French Milice (the thugs who worked with the SS), the German-backed collaboration press plus the complicated issue of what constituted collaboration. The crucial political and moral issues concerning those years can't be simply rinsed away by minutiae, as Gildea sometimes does.

In his introduction, Gildea disarms the reader with a show of frankness, writing about the rage his talk on this material caused at the Academy of Tours. The academy secretary remarked to him: "While each of the examples rings true, your audience, myself included, failed to find in it the precise reflection of our collective memory of the German Occupation [which was] characterized by cold, hunger, the absence of freedom, and, above all, fear."

Perhaps some of the cause for this rage is Gildea's tendency to be overly solicitous of the Germans. Gildea blames a pair of infamous Nazi massacres on the French Resistance: "126 babies, mutilated, cut to pieces or burned .... [T]he body of a two-month-old baby was found, its head smashed, lying on that of its mother, who had her throat cut and her guts torn out." But Gildea says "[t]he atrocity was unpardonable, but it was the deed of an army in a panic, caught in a race against time by the advancing Allies, harried by maquisards -- an army whose units, out of contact with their superiors, themselves behaved like terrorist bands."

By contrast, Curtis, whose forte is meticulous research, provides the accepted account of one of them, the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre: how the SS Panzer Division of the Reich and a Milice leader, in retaliation for the Resistance's effort to impede their march to Normandy, picked at random Oradour; soldiers locked more than 600 men, women and children in a church, then burned it.

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