28 thoughts on “Book Bleg – German Occupation of France”

  1. @Sgt. Mom and Brian – thanks for the suggestions, I found used copies of both and they are on the way. $12 well spent. I have also printed off a copy of that dissertation and will probably read that this evening.

  2. See “A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941-1945,” by Ernst Junger. Junger is better known for his “Storm of Steel,” about his experiences at the front in WWI, but his account of what it was like to be a German officer in occupied France is also excellent. Junger was a brilliant and sensitive man in an impossible situation. He recounts his reactions as word gradually trickled in about the death camps and Nazi atrocities. He was too intelligent to dismiss these stories as mere propaganda, but he was also a German patriot. He reminds me of Count Harry Kessler, a man of an earlier generation whose diaries are also invaluable source material for anyone interested in German history. Among other things, they make it clear just how close Germany came to going Communist in late 1918 and early 1919.

  3. Is Paris Burning? Is a 1965 book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre telling the story of the Liberation of Paris during the Second World War. An excellent read, although not strictly speaking “about the occupation”.

  4. What I’m going to suggest is two films from director Jean-Pierre Melville.

    The first is Le silence de la mer from 1949. A story of cultured, naively idealistic German officer is billeted in the home of a middle-aged man and his grown niece; their response to his presence—their only form of resistance—is complete silence.

    The second is Army of Shadows from 1969. Army of Shadows follows a small group of Resistance fighters as they move between safe houses, work with the Allied militaries, kill informers, and attempt to evade the capture and execution that they know is their most likely fate. While portraying its characters as heroic, the film presents a bleak, unromantic view of the Resistance.

  5. One of the problems you’re going to run into with all this is the fact that an awful lot of the sources you find out there are going to be inherently biased, mostly because nobody really wants to admit just how popular some aspects of Nazism were with some elements of the French public.

    Yeah, there were Brave Resistance Fighters(TM). But, there were also SS volunteers, and all the nice, helpful French police that assisted in winkling out all the nasty, nasty Jews. There were French people that took in and hid Jews for the duration of the war, and there were French people that glommed onto the really good deals in former Jewish properties that were available to people.

    Take a guess which side of things are well-documented and spoken of, and which are the ones nobody wants to talk about?

    I’ve gone looking for well-balanced accounts of the era, but… Man. It isn’t easy to find much of anything that you read and which doesn’t leave you with more questions than you had, going in. Some of the accounts you find, it seems as though there must have been at least 9 out of 10 Frenchmen who were in the Resistance, and you wonder how the Germans ever managed to keep the place pacified. Which then leads to the obvious conclusion that someone’s been egging the historical pudding.

    I think that this is one historical period where it is damned difficult to find the reality of it all. I’m not entirely certain that the French themselves are particularly comfortable with thinking about it, and I strongly suspect that there’s a hell of a lot of wishful thinking going on in a lot of what I’ve read, while there’s also a hell of a lot that’s just been left out because it’s too damn painful to talk about or even remember. Honesty with these things is rare; nobody wants to admit that Grandmama was boinking the odd German sentry, or that Grampa made a mint off of the confiscated properties of his neighbors, the Jews. Likewise, the fact that Uncle Frederic died somewhere on the Eastern Front with the Charlemagne Division isn’t discussed. Of course, the fact that Cousin Joseph was in the Resistance will be lauded, but nobody is going to talk about the many months he was an inert member of the Communist cells, not doing a damn thing until the COMINTERN directives came down after Barbarossa lit off…

    It’s a mess, and trying to find the reality of things without having been there and gone through it? Good luck. The last time I was really interested in this and reading about it, I eventually gave up on the whole enterprise as being an exercise in walking through a circus funhouse–Everywhere you look, the distortions are there, and you can’t tell which ones are which. Hell, even some of the outside sources are suspect, because the intelligence organizations on our side were just as deceived as the historians later were about what was really going on.

    It’s a fascinating historical period, but I think that it’s one that is almost certain to drive you nuts when you try to figure it out. There is no way that the Resistance could have possibly been as widespread and popular as it is remembered to have been; had that been so, the Germans would have had to treat France about like they treated the rear areas of the Eastern Front, and that would have been quite obvious from all the destruction that didn’t happen. France was considered, on the other hand, to be quite pleasant occupation duty for German troops, and they used the place as an R & R center, rebuilding and reconstituting units wrecked on the Eastern Front. Those facts alone make you suspect the “conventional wisdom” we’ve all been taught in the post-war era, but figuring out the reality from the PR work…? Good ‘effing luck.

    I think the truth is out there, but where the hell it is hiding? No idea. I’d just suggest widening the scope of your reading, and taking in some of the material that comes out of the folks who were avowedly pro-Nazi, and then try to figure out where that leaves things when you try to interpolate it all. You rather get the feeling that nobody is telling you the truth in their accounts of the war, because the pro-Nazi types are hiding things as much as the Resistance ones were, and everyone’s got an interest in forgetting ugly facts and making up ones that aren’t so ugly in replacement.

    I knew one French Jew who was incredibly bitter about what went on, most of his family having wound up being rounded up and put on the trains thanks to their French neighbors, but even he had to acknowledge that one of his nieces was only alive because some of those same neighbors took her in and sheltered her as their own for the duration of the war. Hearing him talk about it, drunk? The word “ambivalent” comes to mind. He’d have gladly murdered most of those neighbors in cold blood, but then he’d remember his niece, the sole other surviving member of his family, and he’d get all maudlin about the wonderful French people that’d saved her life. Five minutes later, he’d be railing about the fact that she’d forgotten even being Jewish, and had converted to Roman Catholic, and… Yeah. He was still a mess, forty years on.

    He was actually a lot of the reason I got fascinated by it all, and wanting to learn more, but… There’s not a hell of a lot of good sourcing in English that I found. Although, maybe that’s begun to change… I think I’m gonna have to follow up on some of these recommendations.

  6. Kirk…the French TV series I recommended, ‘A French Village’, is honest about the collaborators…and also about the attitude of the French Communist Party, which was (until the German invasion of the Soviet Union) that it’s just a war between the London bankers and the Berlin bankers.

  7. I read the book Savage Continent a few years ago, detailing what Europe was “really like” in the immediate aftermath of the war.
    Spoiler: it was not a good place to be. We in America maybe think of England and continued rationing, if we think at all about what that era was like. But in France there was massive reprisals against collaborators–summary executions, public humiliations, etc. One can’t really blame any of these countries for somewhat suppressing these traumas, it’s the only way to possibly move forward. Similar to the way that the post-Civil War US had to figure out a way to reunite as a country, probably.
    (And to have been a German behind the Iron Curtain was a true nightmare–expelled violently from any other country, literally worked to death if you had been a soldier, and having to deal with the fact that essentially every female had been brutalized by the Red Army…)

  8. Kirk: “Some of the accounts you find, it seems as though there must have been at least 9 out of 10 Frenchmen who were in the Resistance, and you wonder how the Germans ever managed to keep the place pacified.”

    Two snippets about France in WWII — both subject to the usual issue of reliability:

    1. The Economist magazine some years ago did an analysis of what would have been the best places to invest in each year over the 20th Century — presented as a tale about the incredibly perceptive Miss Foresight. (“The Foresight Saga” – yes, it’s The Economist). During most of WWII, the best place to invest was the French Stock Market. Great returns! Unlikely to be consistent with roiling French opposition to the occupiers.

    2. There have been reports that most of the German troops defending the beaches at Normandy were not German at all. Supposedly, many of them were anti-Communist Russians and other Eastern Europeans who had joined the German side in the war. This might have been due to lack of German manpower late in the war — but may also suggest that resistance from the native French was not seen by the German High Command as too serious an issue.

  9. I knew one French Jew who was incredibly bitter about what went on, most of his family having wound up being rounded up and put on the trains thanks to their French neighbors,

    I have a friend, a neurosurgeon, who was born in Poland on September 1, 1939. His family was Jewish yet they survived and managed to get to France, where they spent the war. His brother was born in France and is also a neurosurgeon. After the war, the whole family got to the US. He did his military service as the USAF’s only neurosurgeon in Europe. While there, he decided to see where he was born and got a civilian passport to visit Poland. If he had been caught, a USAF LT Colonel, behind the Iron Curtain, he would have been in big trouble but he got away with it. I never talked to him about how they got out but I did meet his parents.

  10. @Gavin,

    Exactly. Both your examples are precisely the things you home in on, when you realize that there are several “dogs that didn’t bark” with regards to France and the Occupation. Hell, even the Danes managed better results, especially with regards to their Jews.

    Thing is, when it comes to the Nazis? There were a lot more people who were fully on-board with what they were doing, especially with regards to the Jews and the Slavs, than anyone is really willing to admit. Or, talk about–You ought to get some of the Swiss into their cups, and talking about the post-WWII banking practices they had going. Especially if they think you might be a fellow-traveler, because of the company you’re forced to keep. No way of telling if those stories are true, but the fact that some are telling them is… Telling.

    Anti-semitism is a disease of the mind, period. Once you’ve let the virus in and it has taken root, the victim quits thinking and starts falling prey to the most ridiculous ideas–First, Rothschild’s Weather Machine, then Flat Earth, followed by dementia. Rates of progression vary, but the victims always progress to eventual unthinking raving lunacy in all other matters.

  11. yes I believe general shalikashvili’s father (who was georgian) was one of those on the beaches, the question of the motivation of those willing to comply with occupation authorities, and the limits of same, the vichy the ustachi the oun were more virulently anti jewish then the nazis themselves, they earned the wrath of the people in that regard, now this initial motivation arose out of the social and economic crisis of the depression, as described in sacred places,

  12. “Most of the German troops defending the beaches at Normandy were not German at all,” is not really supportable. There were numerous Osttruppen and the like in the German ranks, but “most” of them non-German? No.

    I’m not a huge Max Hastings fan, but his “Das Reich” about the 2ndSS and Oradour-sur-Glane is pretty good about the postwar trials. All sides wanted to spin, and one aspect that was spun to virtual invisibility was that a lot of those SS were Alsatian–“sons of France.”
    IIRC; it’s been a long time.

    Some veterans who were POWs of the Germans that I have known spoke highly of them, others loathed them. I read two books by US Army infantry battalion surgeons in WWII, one in Italy and one in France. One said the Germans he treated were stoical and cooperative, the other that they were whiners and jerks. How many more examples would provide a true picture?

    I grew up at the tail end of Jim Crow, and am named for my mother’s mother’s father, who rode with Forrest. Leave aside my father’s German family, it has been interesting to see the culture shift since the ’60s, and with it the memories–both what is remembered and how it is remembered.

    Everyone under the turd reich truly operated in night and fog. Actions are hard enough to pin down, attitudes and motivations even harder.

    There’s no way to score a historical episode or grade a whole people–as there is no way to indict a nation. The last thing history offers is clear answers to difficult questions, which is why it is argument without end.

  13. I agree there is a lot of slop with the recounting of this part of history and have that in mind as I do some of this reading.

  14. If I’m in a dark enough mood, I can imagine being in the engineering meeting where they started to plan for the crematoria. I can make a list of all the details I’d need to start. What I can’t imagine is not knowing what it was about.

    There were many thousands of Germans that never went on trial that knew exactly and in detail what was happening in the camps and had a hand in it, even if they never came within sight or smell of one. There were many more that knew directly. Most were never asked, but if they had been, they would have said they were following orders and would have quickly been on the inside looking out, if they refused. They were correct. I doubt that the nebulous prospect of some future punishment would have overridden the immediate reality of quick retribution. So we all settled for making examples of a few that made themselves notorious.

    The French authorities have a far easier time, they were merely filling requisitions for laborers, much as they did for wheat or mutton from a higher authority that wouldn’t take no for an answer. They knew how easily they could find themselves in the cattle cars going east. Again, a few became notorious for enthusiastic cooperation while the many could shelter behind reluctant acquiescence whether real or feigned.

    At least we remember those that risked and often lost all to obstruct the Nazi plan when there were very many that had a very good reason to forget.

  15. Agreed that the movie Army of Shadows is very good.

    I have not read any of the books by Robert O. Paxton, but he is always cited. He was controversial because he asserted that widespread heroic resistance was a postwar myth.

    Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (1972)
    Vichy France and the Jews (1981)

    The standard earlier book is apparently Robert Aron, The Vichy Regime 1940-44 (1956).

    Dirt cheap copies of the foregoing available on bookbinder.com .

    I have seen good things said about Henri Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (1994), which is about the conflicted historical memory in France of the occupation period and the Vichy regime.

    Charles Williams’ life of Petain seems to be the current favorite.

    Collaborationism in France During the Second World War (1980) by Bertram M. Gordon may be worth looking at.

    France and the Second World War: Resistance, Occupation and Liberation (2000) by Peter Davies, looks like an overview.

    Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944 (2003) may be better. Jackson’s life of De Gaulle was well regarded.

    Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France (2009) by Agnes Humbert looks good.

    We can be overly cynical. Some people did resist. And some collaborated. Most tried to stay out of the way. In short, heroism was rare, as always.

  16. 2. There have been reports that most of the German troops defending the beaches at Normandy were not German at all. Supposedly, many of them were anti-Communist Russians and other Eastern Europeans who had joined the German side in the war.

    There was a Korean who had been conscripted first into the Imperial Japanese Army, then the Soviet Red Army, and finally the German Wehrmacht before being captured by the US Army at Normandy.

  17. Not precisely on topic but this is a collection of stories collected from German soldiers manning the West Wall (Normandy) just before D-Day: “D Day through German Eyes” by Holger Eckhertz for the German Army publication like our “Stars and Stripes”.

    A spoke version is available on YouTube:
    Book 1, and:
    Book 2

    These were Germans, but they were mostly disqualified from front line service because of wounds or age. By 1944, the Eastern Front had bled the German army white.

  18. @MCS,

    Ferwhatitsworth… There’s a good deal of commentary about the majority of the stuff in those two books. I’d exercise caution with citing either one, just like I exercise caution with Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier. I’ve no way of ascertaining the “truthiness” of those works, sooooo… I take it in, more as “colorful background” reading than actual historical fact.

    There may be some “meat” there, but… Man, I just don’t know. It’s like the ohsoconvenient guy who supposedly was at the “resistance nest” on Omaha, and who slaughtered thousands with his trusty MG42. Then, got captured… And, lived to tell the tale. Sole survivor, donchaknow?

    There’s a lot of German POV stuff coming out, these days, but like with Hitler’s Diary…? Ya really, really don’t know the provenance.

  19. Just to amplify Kirk’s warning a bit: CUM GRANO SALIS. Read as much as you can, and over time you’ll develop a nose for the hinky story. Hitler’s Diaries were endorsed by one sad old fool as authentic, but other historians unraveled them in short order. (The fool was Trevor-Roper, about whom AJP Taylor commented, “[Trevor-Roper’s] academic reputation would surely suffer a blow, if he had one.” Ouch.)

    On the issue of German troops in Normandy, the tale of the Koreans is an old one, and AFAIK is true. It’s a big world, and the Germans recruited many helpers of various degrees of commitment along the way. But actual foreigners in any numbers, including ethnic Germans, served mostly in the SS–IIRC by German law (whaddayaknow?) non-Germans could not join the regular forces.

    By mid-1944 the German ground forces as a whole were a hodgepodge of very high quality formations mixed with a lot of average ones and a number of crappy ones. By that time standardization was mostly a myth–they were anything but standard in organization and equipment, most of them, and they jiggled and juggled TO&E until the end, with predictable effects on training and supply requirements.

    Some of the German formations in Normandy were Luftwaffe “Field Divisions” that were of little to no combat value, unlike the crack paratroopers (also Luftwaffe).

    “Stomach” and “Ear” battalions of men with medical issues were formed and deployed.

    All that said, the Heer (and SS) panzer, panzergrenadier, para, and some of the infantry divisions were formidable.

  20. It’s been a while since I listened to the books but I don’t remember anything I found questionable. They seem to document a pretty rickety organization composed of either very young or otherwise poorly trained troops with a scattering of veterans, many of which were partially incapacitated by wounds.

    It didn’t seem any more suspect than any second hand memoir of people that are all now dead. Obviously, I’m not in any position to verify it and just judging by it’s internal consistency.

    I note that there is at least one other book with the same title but by a different author. Here’s a review:

    There’s no doubt that there were a good many first line German troops and units assigned to the area but that they weren’t the ones manning the bunkers. Even a soldier that can hardly walk is formidable manning a pillbox as long as the ammo holds out. Our own D-Day casualtys show that they weren’t push overs.

Comments are closed.