Magazine article The Spectator

Dark Undercurrents on the Loire

Magazine article The Spectator

Dark Undercurrents on the Loire

Article excerpt

Dark undercurrents on the Loire Douglas Johnson MARIANNE IN CHAINS: IN SEARCH OF THE GERMAN OCCUPATION, 1940-1945 by Robert Gildea Macmillan, L20, pp. 524, ISBN 0333 782305

Robert Gildea is a considerable authority on the recent history of France and for this book he has turned to an inescapable part of that history: the wartime years of defeat, German occupation, resistance and liberation. It is usually thought of as a painful experience and its historical treatment has been exceptionally discordant. Because of this Dr Gildea decided to spend a year in a part of France that had been occupied by the Germans, speak to people who remembered what had happened and consult local records. In this way he hoped to discover the essential truths concerning these dark years.

He chose the Loire valley as the place for his explorations, that is to say the departments that have as their chefs-lieux the towns of Nantes, Angers and Tours. This is a region which contains an interesting amalgam of rural, maritime and urban life, as well as beautiful and historic towns like Chinon (which is served by the river Vienne, a tributary of the Loire).

We begin in 1997 when Gildea presented to the Academy of Tours some of his impressions of how people in the Loire valley viewed the German occupation. Apparently his talk aroused much disagreement. When he returned to Tours the following summer, continuing his research, he had lunch with some of those who organised the meeting. Much was said, and there were many assertions. The German occupation was extremely severe; the German occupation aroused no problems for those who went about their own business; there were officers in the French army who regarded the Third Republic as contemptible and who, in prisoner-of-war camps, drank with their German guards to celebrate its downfall; French people queued in order to see an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film; there were symbolic acts of resistance such as painting a dog's tail in the national colours of red, white and blue. Gildea comments, in some wonderment, that 50 years after the event the German occupation (which he writes with a capital 0) was the subject of heated debate in a private house, over lunch.

His surprise is strange. There are private houses where today, over lunch, there are animated discussions and disagreements over the French war in Algeria. Some 40 years after the events the use of torture, the mistreatment of those Algerians who enlisted in the French army (the harkis), the abandonment of Algerie franfaise and what has happened to Algeria since independence, are all matters of disagreement; even more so if a courteous but inquisitive British academic is present with his recording machine. There are houses too where he could encounter animated discussions about Dreyfus, his imprisonment and his eventual rehabilitation 100 years after the 'affaire'. It is a characteristic of French history that there are certain issues of continued controversy, which may contain disputes about facts that concern historians, but which involve moral issues of right and wrong and which therefore arouse widespread interest.

In addition to interviewing people, and noticing that it was when his recording machine was switched off that some of them made particularly interesting remarks, Gildea has also used local records and has had access to letters and accounts written by certain inhabitants. Thus he learns from the documents kept by the family of Odette Goxe that she returned to Angers from her refuge on the island of Noirmoutiers at the end of June 1940. Together with her mother she was looking for her father, who had been called to the army. She discovered that he was a prisoner in a camp near Le Mans. She went there only to find that the Germans had banned all visits because women had rioted outside the camp. Back in Angers a day or so later, she witnessed another column of prisoners being marched to the camp at Le Mans, and she recalled how people rushed to give them sugar, bread, wine and other very acceptable items. …

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