ABSTRACT

On 10 May 1940, German forces, having overrun much of Eastern Europe, turned westwards and began their invasion of Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg. The Allies anticipated a long campaign; instead, it was over in seven weeks, within which time France itself had been defeated. On 16 June, Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, tired of political infighting and despondent at the desperate nature of the military situation, resigned and handed over power to the 84-year-old Marshal Petain, who had brought France victory at Verdun in 1916. If Reynaud had hoped that this old man would repeat his earlier triumph, he was to be sorely disappointed. Deeply pessimistic, politically ambitious, naive about true German intentions and anxious to avoid further bloodshed, the marshal soon negotiated an armistice with Germany, signed on 23 June [Doc. 8], the*terms of which divided France into two principal zones. The larger of the two areas, governed by the Germans, sprawled over northern and western France (Map 2). The Unoccupied zone remained in French hands, although its independence was always questionable, and its title la zone libre (‘the free zone’) quickly invited ridicule. Nonetheless, it was there that, in July 1940, Petain set up a new government at the little spa town of Vichy. Entrusted with extensive personal powers, voted by the National Assembly meeting at the town’s casino on 10 July, he oversaw the destruction of the Third Republic, entered into a policy of collaboration with Germany, and launched an ambitious programme of internal reform known as the National Revolution. While this project of renewal had its progressive side, it also possessed a sinister streak, persecuting minorities, including Communists, freemasons and Jews. As repression intensified, French men and women were forced to make a series of agonising ‘choices’. A small minority threw in their lot with the Germans and gravitated to the collaborationist organisations which flourished in Paris and the occupied zone. An even smaller group attempted the difficult journey to London to serve with General de Gaulle, or elected to join the resistance organisations which

were emerging on metropolitan soil. Most waited on events, a phenomenon known as attentisme, retaining a loyalty to Pétain, but not necessarily to his government. However, following the steady intensification of measures against Jews, the loss of successive French colonies to Gaullist forces, the occupation of all of France in November 1942 and the introduction of compulsory work service in Germany, the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), early the following year, it became increasingly difficult to maintain such a position. As civil disorder spread, Vichy refined its instruments of repression, setting up the hated Milice, a paramilitary gang of cut-throats and n’er-do-wells, whose function was to hunt out resisters. At the time of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, the country was nearly at war with itself. In the event, the purges (épuration) that accompanied the Liberation, were not as bloodthirsty as many had feared, permitting France to undertake the massive task of reconstruction, although this job of rebuilding would not assuage the wounds opened up during the war years.