The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation

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Overview


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.

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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
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.
Library Journal
This book makes an important contribution to a full understanding of World War II France. Taking a social as opposed to a political perspective, it aims to re-create life under German occupation as it was experienced by ordinary French citizens, especially women, Jews, prisoners of war, refugees, and young men drafted to work in Germany. Vinen (history, King's Coll., Univ. of London) relies on archival sources and published, retrospective accounts, especially autobiographies, to show that life for most of the French from 1940 through 1944 was miserable. Misery, he explains, came to include not only material shortages, physical discomfort, and geographical relocations but also fear, social dislocation, and societal breakdown. Debunking the myth of wartime France as the united home of patriotic resistance fighters, he asserts that particular experiences were shaped by class, geography, occupation, and personal circumstance. He is especially sensitive to class, using case studies and brief biographical vignettes to illustrate his themes. For example, those French women most likely to have relations and relationships with German men came from the most underprivileged parts of society: they were young, poor, and not well educated. Vinen amplifies our understanding of this era. Recommended for academic libraries and specialists in the field. Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Robert Wohl
"Even well-informed readers will come away from Vinen's social history with a deeper knowledge of what it was like to live in France during the German occupation. It turns out in his wide-ranging account that it was much bleaker than what we had supposed."—Robert Wohl, author of The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300126013
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/7/2007
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 1,259,150
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Vinen is on the faculty of the Department of History, Kings College, University of London.

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Table of Contents

The unfree French : introduction 1
1 Summer 1940 14
2 Vichy 45
3 Living with the enemy 99
4 Jews, Germans and French 133
5 Frenchwomen and the Germans 157
6 Captivity : French prisoners of war, 1940-1942 183
7 Survival 215
8 Stolen youth : service du travail obligatoire 247
9 The French in Germany, 1943-1945 281
10 Sunset of blood : the liberation 313
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