By Ioan Voicu
What do readers from all continents know about France during the first half of the 20th century?
All of them know that France suffered severe losses in people and wealth in WWI (1914-18) when it was invaded by Germany. By the Treaty of Versailles, 1919, France exacted return of Alsace and Lorraine, provinces seized by Germany in 1871 after it defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. During WWII (1939-45), Germany invaded France again in May 1940 and signed a shameful armistice with a marionette government based in Vichy. After the Allies liberated France in 1944, Gen. Charles de Gaulle became head of the provisional government, serving until 1946. De Gaulle again became premier in 1958, during a crisis over Algeria, and obtained vote approval for a new constitution, ushering in the Fifth Republic. He then became president.This is what readers learn by consulting the World Almanach and Book of Facts issued every year.
Richard Werly, the distinguished author of the book France against itself, Grasset, 2022, 234 p., conveys us a persuasive invitation to learn much more.
The structure of the book is very complex.
After an introduction which is much more than a parenthesis, the readers will go to the first part to visit Vichy and to deal with the trap of “I hate therefore I am”, and also with the obsession with disappearance, passing through the labyrinth of permissions, to finally arrive at the untenable “system” with the “France of emptiness” and anger.
The second part of the book starts with the life of the simple people with the hell of defiance and with the presentation of the archipelago and its gateways and continues with the ordinary factory of heroism, and by all means with the immutable accommodation.
Finally , the interesting Epilogue ends the book with a question about France: Multiple, divided… and then?
What is this book about? We give the floor to the author to answer this question: “This book is the story of my investigation as I traveled through nearly two hundred French towns, yesterday cut off by the ax of this line infamous, inherited from one of the most terrible defeats of national history”.
The author is very clear in his general approach in the sections mentioned above.He writes: “I was looking for a place to talk about this character trait which, along the 1,200 kilometers of the demarcation line, will have been inseparable from each stage, each stop, each conversation: heroism. The line was, between 1940 and 1942, before the epic of the Resistance was transported to the maquis, a daily factory of heroes of all sizes, all formats, all levels of education. A factory of heroic French people, sometimes without knowing it, or without wanting it, moved by a spontaneous solidarity, often dictated by the circumstances of the day or rather of the night. »
In the opinion of Richard Werly, “The chaos of conflict has generated a vast space of solidarity”.We are going to follow in these pages only the path and the manifestations of solidarity in the occupied France, respecting the originality of terminology of this work .
First of all, the author wishes to inform the readers that “The occupied country, first partially then totally, was a mosaic of behaviors, initiatives, resistance, solidarity or abject gestures”….He writes: ” I can’t help but see in this solidarity once cultivated and now evaporated one of the major problems of France today. At first I thought I found in the solidarity that was manifested on this line of demarcation the proof that another France can always arise.
The book refers several times to the general de Gaulle in a national narrative revisited to close as soon as possible the lid on the ignominies of the four years of occupation; the deprivations, the resourcefulness, the prowess and solidarity at work during the war, either side of this demarcation line.
It is essential to keep in mind that “the grandparents and great-grandparents were decorated after the war for having shown “extraordinary solidarity” when nothing predestined them to do so”.
One of the fundamental conclusions of the author is the following:”In solidarity as in horror, France has shown itself to be multiple, impossible to reduce to a single collective behavior for all. The earthquake of the war had, to use a popular expression, transformed it into an archipelago that everyone tried to span as best they could, going from an island of solidarity to an island of collaboration, then to an island of resistance. False identities were the rule. Fake papers proliferated. Some questions should no longer be asked. A single look, a single expression, a single suspicion could mean life-threatening. This is also what I remember from my two crumpled black and white images”.
This book has the great merit of recalling a sad chapter of France’s history on the basis of serious research on the field, thus increasing the credibility of the narration and is addressed in priority to the younger generation in France, but at the same time to all readers in Europe who are interested and wish to be familiar with important events which should never be forgotten.
*Dr. Ioan Voicu was Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok (2000-2019).