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Intelligent and readable,
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This review is from: Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944: The Ordeal of France, 1940-44 (Paperback)
I spend a lot of time in France, and with that comes a deep interest in - and uneasiness with - the German occupation of France in World War II. This is still an exquisitely sensitive subject in France.
As far as I know, this book is the only one in English aimed at the general reader. In any case it is a real find.
Ian Ousby writes about people and human experience as much as events. He spares us the turgid pages of maps and military minutiae that so often make WWII history books a chore, and instead tackles some challenging questions head-on: what was it like for the French? And for the Germans? How did the French face the dilemma that any government aiming to defy the Nazis must be a government in exile, whereas an administration choosing to stay in France with its suffering people must be both a compromise and a perilous dalliance with the invader?
Ousby deals impressively with these issues and leads us further into the strange terrain of Occupation, illuminating for instance the vital role of language and symbols. He explains the subtleties of the words and phrases (some still in use) that the French coined to deal with their new existence, and he reveals a paradox: only through silence could most Frenchmen defy the occupier; but beneath the silence there must be communication - an underground current of words, slogans, tracts and literature. A new generation of writers and thinkers grew out of this twilight world, among them Camus and Sartre, and it's easy to forget that the weapon of choice for the vast majority of résistants was the pamphlet rather than the bomb.
As for the symbol, the powerful part that it played had been lost on me, whether the swastika that desecrated the Eiffel Tower, the star that the Vichy regime forced its French Jews to wear, or indeed the V-sign. (According to Ousby, the V-sign was a German symbol appropriated by Churchill and turned against the Nazis. But doesn't legend have it that it originated as the defiant gesture of the English archers at Agincourt who taunted their French foe for threatening to amputate the digits used to draw a bowstring?)
The great strength of this book is that it is unflinching. While Ousby shows sensitivity and empathy, he tells it how it was. Evil was done. Cowards and bullies had their day. Betrayal was rife, and recrimination gripped France not just for the years of Occupation, but for decades thereafter.
This is not entirely an ugly story, though. Ousby charts first the retreat underground and overseas of the champions of French decency and courage, but then the eventual triumph of this great nation over an intolerable ordeal. This was a victory - if tarnished - over subjugation and brutality; a drawing of the poison of betrayal; and the birth of a new society whose pains of labour still resonate across Europe.