Dr. Chris Millington talks about the French Empire in WW2.
Today’s episode is an interview with Dr Chris Millington. Dr Millington is a reader in modern European history at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. He is the author of five books on 20th century France, notably Fighting for France: Violence in Interwar French Politics and a History of Fascism in France. His sixth book, Massacre à Clichy, is the first to investigate the antifascist Clichy Riot of March 1937 and will be published in French in 2021. He is currently working on terrorism in interwar and wartime France. Today we are discussing his book, France in the Second World War: Collaboration, Resistance, Holocaust, Empire. This helpful book is perfect for a general reader wanting to know about France during World War II, covering all the major topics from the defeat to liberation to its memory. At thirty dollars for paperback it is far cheaper than most textbooks and certainly better written. Please enjoy.
Gary: Thank you very much for being on the program, Dr. Millington. What led you to write a book on France during World War II?
Millington: Well, I think I’m better known, actually, for my work on Inter-war France, but I don’t really see myself as an inter-war historian. I tend to see myself as a historian of 20th century France. And this is a subject that I’ve taught for 10 years now. And I wanted to write something that was relatively succinct as an overview. So it was originally intended with my students in mind. A book that students could easily use now. Of course, there’s lots of books out there on France and the Second World War, a broad overview of the period like by historians such as Julian Jackson and Robert Gildea, which are genuinely classics in the fields, but they’re not necessarily directed at the average student reader whose looking for an introduction to the topic. So what I wanted to do was produce a shorter work than those and also synthesize and integrate work from all the historians into this overview. So work by historians like Hanna Diamond and Miranda Pollard on women and gender and work on the empire to particularly by historians like Eric Jennings. So it was with my students in mind that I wanted to write this and provide them with a short book and an up to date book as well, because the these overviews that I’ve mentioned don’t tend to address things like the French Empire purely because they were written before the flourishing of study into the French Empire. So we can’t really blame them for not addressing it. But I wanted to bring a more up to date historiographical review of the subjects to the students I was teaching. And also I think I thought it would be fun. I enjoy writing and I did this in spare moments that I had while I was doing my current research. So I learned a lot through reading the work of other historians without having to do some of the more tedious archival research myself. So I learned a lot and I enjoyed it.
Gary: While I enjoy writing, just not editing. So I’m glad you at least got a bit of the fun part. And I should note for our listeners that this book that we are talking about is much more accessible to a general reader. Sometimes I will have a book that is extremely specialized for historians, but yours does a good work of covering all the main aspects of World War II and presenting it in such a well-written way that I think everyone can get a grasp of it. So I recommend people not just listen to this interview, but, you know, if you need if you need a good Christmas gift, you know what’s better than World War II. So jumping into that, virtually every part of World War II and France is controversial for different reasons. So how about we start at the beginning, which is why was France defeated by Germany in six weeks? Can you present some of the reasons that people claimed France was defeated? And how did pre-war events play into the narratives?
Millington: Yes, well, I like to tell my students that the allies lost the battle fronts for the simple reason that they put their men in the wrong place. Now, of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but we can’t escape the fact that the battle was lost on the battlefield itself and not as a sum at the time claimed and as you’ve hinted at, because of pre-war crisis. Now, if we look at the balance of forces between the allies and the Germans, and I say the allies, because they want us to remember, it’s not just the French who are defeated, it’s the other Western European nations and Britain as well, the British Empire. So that’s another thing we need to remember about the Battle of France. It’s a clash of empires. It’s not just France, the country losing to Germany. If we look at the balance of forces, the two sides were relatively even now, of course, we have the impression that the Nazi blitzkrieg steamrolled the French into submission because it only took six weeks. This is just one of the myths of the Battle of France, I think requires revision. It was actually an idea propagated after the defeat by the Germans and the allies in order to explain such a surprise outcome. And so the Germans heralded this great blitzkrieg strategy while the allies argued, well, the Germans must have been terribly superior to us because look what happened. But the Nazi victory was essentially, I think, a gamble that paid off. So allied commanders plan to fight the Nazi invasion in the north in Belgium because the French did not want to repeat the experience of the First World War in northeast France. And so this is where they put the bulk of their forces and the best trained and best equipped men. In the south there was the protection of the Maginot Line. So this is a series of forts designed to both to defend France but we shouldn’t forget that the Maginot Line was also intended to support infantry attacks as well. And below that was the Ardennes region that was considered to be unpassable because of its difficult terrain. Now, unfortunately, this is where the Germans struck. And so the situation we have in 1940 is that the invasion south through the Arden sees huge numbers of elite German soldiers facing poor French reservists who were quickly overwhelmed. And once the Germans had broken through the allied lines, they made straight for the Channel to encircle the allied armies. And it quickly transpired that Paris and London had no Plan B.. This caused paralysis in the high command. And there’s an account of General George, who’s the commander of the French land forces, when he hears that the Germans have broken through the line, he collapses into his armchair and burst into tears because he’s so stunned and does not know what to do next. So, I don’t think we can underestimate the shock of the defeat. And it’s for that reason that people at the time looked to the pre-war era. So they walked to the Third Republic because it was thought that a defeat that was so complete and so stunning had to have had a deeper reason or other than just being outfought on the battlefield. So opponents of the Third Republic in 1940 argue, well, the republic did not rearm enough. There was too much political division, politicians put their own interests before those of France. And there was the belief in a general moral decay and decline that seemed to have begun in the 1920s and it had come to its ultimate outcome in the defeat to Nazi Germany. These are reasons that are offered at the time in 1940 to explain the defeat and a really key primary source for looking at this contemporary explanation is Marc Bloch’s, Strange Defeat. Bloch was a very famous historian who wrote this account of the defeat of France. And it’s a real indictment of everyone in French society, social groups, social classes, politicians, civilians. No one escapes Bloch’s anger. Bloch is perfect for illustrating what people at the time thought. And I think that the reasons he gives and the reason that these people gave in 1940 for the defeat, they better explain what came next. They better explain the Vichy regime rather than explaining the military collapse itself.
Gary: So on that note, let’s talk about how Vichy actually came into being. How did this government get set up?
Millington: Well, one thing we should be clear about is that the establishment of an authoritarian regime like Vichy was not a requirement of Nazi Germany. And in fact, if we look at the case of Denmark, for example, there was some semblance of parliamentary democracy was allowed to continue under the occupation. And there are even elections in Denmark during the occupation in which the Danish Nazi Party is trounced. The Nazis tended to want to avoid putting homegrown fascists in charge of the occupied territories purely because they wanted these countries to remain quiet. They didn’t want extreme nationalists running these governments who were, who they hoped to collaborate with. Now, in France, we could argue that the Third Republic perhaps could have continued, but the, certainly with the perhaps the approval of the Nazis. But the defeat had so discredited the Third Republic. And as I’ve explained the behind the reasons for this, that the republic was seen to be a rotten regime not only in 1940, but there was huge anti-parliamentary movement against the republic in the 1930s, both from the left and the right. And in 1940, it was seen as necessary to get rid of the republic. That French resurrection and revival could only come with a new regime. And so what happens is the parliament or actually it’s the National Assembly of the Third Republic. So the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament and the Senate, the upper house of Parliament meet in a National Assembly gathering at Vichy and they vote to end the Third Republic. So they vote democracy out of existence. Now, it’s not a full complement of parliamentarians because the communists are not there. They’ve been outlawed. And there were a number of parliamentarians who fled. But nevertheless, there are still hundreds of French members of parliament and the Senate who vote the republic out of existence and choose to concentrate power in the hands of Marshal Philippe Petain. So Petain was the last prime minister of the Third Republic, and he revises the Constitution to found that the Vichy regime. So effectively, it’s often described as a suicide by the republic putting Vichy in place. But I think the key thing to remember is it was not a requirement. This was a French decision to do this.
Gary: So let’s talk about Vichy itself. I think one of the most fascinating parts of your book is how it wasn’t just one thing. And you talk about how it changes depending on the different ministers involved. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it changed over time?
Millington: Yes, I think, well, before addressing how it changes, I suppose I should say there is one element of continuity to Vichy, and that is Petain, who is head of state, head of the regime. He’s a much loved figure in France. He is kind of seen as the embodiment of French national interest because he is a great hero of the First World War. He’s known as the Victor of Verdun. He turned the war around for the French, it’s thought, and he’s also a grandfatherly figure. So he’s seen as this savior of the nation and someone who could put right what the republic had done wrong. And that’s why lots of people turned to him as a comforting kind of icon or symbol in 1940. And he remains popular throughout the Second World War. So even in the final days of Vichy in summer 1944, he can still draw large crowds to his visits across France. However, the regime below him, so his ministers and the cabinet seems to be in a state of flux throughout the war. There are two things that I think we need to consider when we’re thinking about these different Vichys. Firstly geography and secondly chronology. So firstly, geography, well Vichy France is the convenient shorthand to refer to France through out the whole country, throughout the Second World War. But the country was actually divided into zones. So the north zone on the Atlantic coastline, that was the German occupied part. So there were German agencies and troops there. In the south, that was where the Germans went. This is where Vichy was. So the new French capital. And we also have other zones as well. So there’s an annex zone taken by Germany. There’s an Italian zone occupied by Italy and so when we talk about Vichy, we sometimes we have to ask, well, where are you referring to? Which Vichy? Which part of Vichy do you mean? Because things were different in these zones. The second point I mentioned was, was chronology. So it’s important to distinguish between different phases in the regime. And this follows the developments of the war. So as I said, although Marshall Petain was head of the regime for the whole period, the man in charge of the government. So the prime minister, he was called the deputy prime minister, changed on several occasions. And with these changes in personnel, the priorities of the regime changed. So we can we can talk about there being multiple Vichy’s. So in the first instance, the first main government is under Pierre Laval, who is a former parliamentarian. He’s actually a former prime minister of the Third Republic, but he’s absolutely central to the suicide of the republic in 1940. He loses his job in December 1940 because Petain and Laval don’t really get on with each other. Petain doesn’t like how much of a typical politician Laval is and Laval isn’t very successful at winning the ear of the Germans at this time. So Laval is gotten rid of. And he’s replaced by Admiral Darlan, who really pursues collaboration to the point of military cooperation with Germany and repression as well. So it’s under Darlan that special courts are set up to prosecute resisters for terrorism and the repression really ramps up. Now Darlan himself falls in April 1942 because he hasn’t won the ear of the Germans, and Laval is invited back this time as head of government. And he really holds all the cards at this time. Petain recedes into the background and Laval takes over and appoints his own men. And then we have the final Vichy, which is in 1944, the sharp end of the occupation when more and more fascists are appointed to government. And now some of these changes are dictated by conditions in France. So, as I’ve said, the failure to win the ear of the occupier. Some of them are dictated by other developments in the war. So the whole country is occupied in November 1942 when the allies take North Africa. So, what I hope to communicate in the book is that there are lots of different parts of Vichy in terms of geography and chronology. And when we talk about the issue, we have to be very specific about when and where are we talking about.
Gary: One major purpose of your book is to expand the war beyond just metropolitan France and explore its global dimension. Can you explain how the fall of France and the rise of Vichy affected the various parts of the empire?
Millington: Yes, well, I really wanted to get across the point that the effects of what happened to France in 1940 and beyond were not simply confined to the mainland. There were global ramifications to the defeat and Vichy’s project for what it called the national revolution. So this idea of trying to revive France wholesale after the defeat, this was implemented throughout the world. So I think on the one hand, we have to take this into account because France was an empire of 110 million people. It ruled approximately five percent of the world’s population. And I think also I want to give France due importance in the Second World War too. So to communicate to the reader that, you know, we should care about France because there were global implications what happened to France during the Second World War. Now, there are historians who’ve explored this since 2000. So historians such as and Eric Jennings and Jacques Cantier have explored this in detail. And I wanted to put this scholarship into an updated history of the Second World War. And I also wanted to bring to the fore the fact that what happened in France and what happened at Vichy had an impact on territories thousands of miles away. So, for example, if we think of the fall of France in 1940, we generally confine ourselves to the months of May and June 1940 and the Western Front. But if we take a global approach, we can see that it was actually Japan that was the last country to occupy a French territory in 1940. So Japan moved to occupy part of French Indochina in September 1940, leading the French governor, who was called Jean Decoux, to negotiate an agreement with Tokyo to allow Japanese troops to remain. And in a similar vein, Indochina was still occupied long after the liberation of the French mainland in 1944 because Japan took the whole territory in 1945. And this led to terrible massacres of French soldiers and the awful conditions of incarceration in Japanese prisoner of war camps in Indochina. Now, I think the empire’s also important because we do see there was a global impact or we see the global impact of the Vichy regime because the empire was so prominent in Vichy propaganda. This is quite simple to explain, because the empire was a symbol of French prestige at a time when there was not much French prestige to go around. And it was also a keystone in the project to renew France. And this meant that laws that were passed in Vichy were applied overseas. So, for example, on the island of la Réunion, which is the colony that lay farthest from France, we have 33 civil servants losing their jobs. When the metropolitan regime introduced new laws on naturalization in July 1940. In Madagascar the government resorted to virtual slavery to provide cheap work for a cheap workforce for European bosses. And in colonies and territories that were cut off from France by the war, such as Guadalupe, the regime’s emphasis on what it called the return to the soil. So the emphasis on the noble peasant farmer. This was transmitted in the colonies into a drive for autarchy which was often disastrous and led to near famine in these areas. So I think if we look at the empire, it shows that there were ramifications for indigenous peoples across the globe.
Gary: Well, thank you for that. I think so often we don’t think of France, the world system, and instead think of France, just the nation state. But of course, this was such an important part of France abroad. So now let’s talk about everyone’s favorite part of French World War II resistance. As you explain, there were numerous different kinds of resistance to Vichy, which include the free French forces, many internal resistance groups and numerous divisions within those. Can you explain all the various resistance going on and why they weren’t united?
Millington: Well, it’s a huge question, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible. I think the real starting point is the idea of a French resistance or a French resistance. And the first thing we can say is that it was not totally French. So there was a diverse group of people involved in both the the resistance in France and the free French outside France. So these are non French participants. Some of them are non Europeans and nonwhites. Recently I saw in Ludivine Broch has looked at non-white resistance in France. So there were several thousand non French Europeans and there were also tens of thousands of colonial subjects in the free French outside France. And there were thousands more around the world who supported the free French, both morally and financially. So we have to qualify the Frenchness of this resistance. We also have to allow for the fact that there was no or that we can’t talk of the resistance because it was so diverse and to some extent so disunited. So if we look at this in more detail on the on the most general level, we can say that there were two resistances. There was the external and the internal. So the external resistance was the free French. Perhaps this is the type of resistance best known outside France and it was led by Charles de Gaulle. So the free French were founded specifically on the 18th of June, 1940, de Gaulle made an appeal on the BBC for the French to continue fighting the war. He said the battle has been lost, but the war continues. Now, relatively few people actually heard this broadcast, and this is emblematic of the position of the free French in the early years of the war. They are in a position of relative weakness. So by September 1940, de Gaulle has only attracted about 2000 people from France to his English base in London. And certainly no one of note has joined de Gaulle. And de Gaulle himself is not really a person of note in France. He had entered the last government of the Third Republic or one of the last governments, but people didn’t really know who he was. Nevertheless, in June 1940, Winston Churchill recognizes de Gaulle, as the leader of all the French who oppose the occupation. And in August 1940, Churchill grants financial and military aid to the movement. So there are some positives to the free French at this time. Some they have some aces up their sleeve. They have an air force, they have a navy, and they do win some small victories. But we have to admit that until the midpoint of the war-so November 1942, they struggle to win follower’s. They struggle to recruit. Now for much of the war, their greatest asset is actually in Central Africa. So we all think of de Gaulle as being based in London, talking on the BBC and being great allies with Churchill. But actually, it’s Africa that provides the greatest source of power for the free French in this French equatorial Africa, which declares its loyalty to de Gaulle in August 1940. And that tells us, I think, again about the diversity of the resistance. So the involvement of different nationalities and colonial troops in the free French. On the subject of diversity, we can’t ignore that there were women also in the free French. There were opportunities for women to join and there was an auxiliary feminine core, French women volunteers core. This diversity that I think is generally overlooked in some histories of the resistance. So that’s the extent of resistance of the free French. There is then the internal resistance, those groups operating within the country itself. And there are two types. There are networks. So these are intelligence gathering organizations. They’re relatively small. They have agents who gather information on German military operations, and they are generally set up by people who are friends or who are work colleagues. So one of the most famous is the Musée de l’Homme in Paris based in the Parisian Museum of Anthropology. So that’s the networks. There are then the movements. So the movements they tend to be more about propaganda, about working on public opinion, and they tend to be larger than the networks and like the free French, in the early years of the war, the networks and the movements are few and far between. So there are very few people who are willing to risk their neck for the liberation of France, particularly in 1940-1941, when it looks like Britain is going to be defeated and Germany is going to have this new order in Europe. It doesn’t seem like the sensible thing to do to join a resistance, a resistance group. Now we have to also distinguish between the north and the south. So as I’ve mentioned previously, there are these two zones, and it is much more difficult to resist in the north than in the south because the Germans are there, the German military is there, the German security agencies are there. There are much tighter restrictions on things like printing presses and printing materials. In the south it’s relatively freer to some extent than in the north, but it’s less clear who the enemy is. So you have some early resistance in the South who want to resist the Germans, but they don’t necessarily see Marshall Petain and Vichy as the enemy and they are perhaps suspicious of de Gaulle and what he wants to do and for France after the war. And that’s another key area of division. What does de Gaulle want? And do the political factions that found these movements, who they agree with de Gaulle, do? Do they trust him? Now, de Gaulle does succeed in uniting the resistance in 1943. He does this through a man called Jean Moulin, who is a former government functionary, a prefect in France, who took it upon himself to travel around and gather information on the resistance movements and then travel to London to provide to go with details. And de Gaulle sent him back to France with the mission to unite the movements with the promise of military and financial aid.
And it’s a complex tale, but it does eventually result in the establishment of a National Council for Resistance in May 1943. And they acknowledge de Gaulle as the leader of the resistance inside and outside France. So I think, as you can see, it’s a very complex, it’s a very winding story from the 18th of June 1940, de Gaulle giving this speech that no one really has to go, becoming leader of the resistance. It’s not as easy and straightforward as they think a lot of people see.
Gary: Thank you very much for complicating it for us. But don’t worry, I’m sure that everyone who picks up your book will be able to get a firm grasp on this. So now let’s talk about the most controversial subject, which is French involvement in persecution against Jews and other groups. There are a number of questions that I want to ask you, and you can take them in whatever order you want and devote however much time you want. But I think some of the most important questions which have been asked over the past few generations are how much was the Vichy government and its people involved? What other groups, aside from Jews, were persecuted? Because after all, Jews are generally given the biggest focus during this time. But as your book notes, there was more than just the Jews that were being persecuted. And the final question is, on the one hand, Vichy heavily attacked Jews. Yet you argue that a high proportion survived relative to the rest of Europe. Why do you think that this is the case?
Millington: Well, the Vichy regime, first of all, it’s an anti-Semitic regime, it’s a regime, if it’s defined by anything, it’s defined by its persecution and its repression, not just of Jewish people, as you say, but of all the groups. But it’s essentially an anti-Semitic regime that draws on quite a long history of anti-Semitism in France, going back to the late 19th century with the divisions of the Dreyfus affair. Now, this this historic anti-Semitism from the 19th century combines in the 1930s with new anti-immigrant feelings caused by the economic crisis. And so there’s an explosion of xenophobia in 1930s France, particularly expressed against Jewish refugees coming from Central and Eastern Europe. So there’s this long history of anti-Semitism, which has been explored by Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus wrote the key work on this in the early 1980s. And they showed that Vichy was under no pressure from Germany to implement anti Semitic measures. Its actions, notably its main legislation on the Jews, which were called the Jewish statutes. And they in part, they preempted what Vichy thought the Germans were going to do. So it preempted what it believes to be imminent German interference in French politics, but also, as I said, in part, spoke to indigenous anti-Semitism.
Now, one of the things we should remember, too, is that Vichy is not necessarily interested in a final solution to the Jewish question in the same way as the Nazis. So for the Jews are an annoyance or a nuisance to be gotten rid of. And they’re also useful, though, as a bargaining chip in relations with the occupier. So, Vichy thinks, well, if we can offer up a number of Jews for deportation, maybe this will please the Germans and maybe the Germans will make concessions. What it does allow is for some people, it gives free rein to the West types of anti-Semitism from collaborationist groups like those that bomb synagogues in Paris during the occupation. And it also sees Vichy become evermore entangled in the Nazi timetable for the extermination of the Jews. So in 1942, Vichy is asked to provide a quota of Jews for deportation. And this leads to roundups, the most infamous of which is the Vel d’Hiv round of in July 1942. And we and thousands of Jews are then deported to Auschwitz. Now, one of the things I wanted to bring out about anti-Semitism at Vichy is that these laws were introduced throughout the empire and in terms of its global reach, Vichy’s anti-Semitism, we could say geographically it stretched farther around the globe than Nazi anti-Semitism. So as far away as Madagascar and Indochina, where literally there was a handful of European Jews, these Jews were nevertheless persecuted. So, for example, the Jewish statute of October 1940, which is passed at Vichy, which outlines who is defined as a Jew and all the things that Jews can no longer do or the professions that they can no longer practice. This is implemented in the Empire in March 1941, and the second statute of June 1941 is also introduced in colonial territories. So Jews lose their jobs. They suffer political and professional restrictions, just like their counterparts on the mainland and. And they find themselves excluded, so I think one of the things I wanted to get across is that Vichy exported to this anti-Semitism around the world. Now, as for public support for these measures, we can’t deny that there was a lot of anti-Semitism in French society. The evidence from the 1930s shows that xenophobia and anti-Semitism was high. If we look at the sales figures for anti-Semitic newspapers, they reach the hundreds of thousands, if not close to a million sales figures or circulation figures for these anti-Semitic newspapers. According to Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, the French at the war years were largely indifferent to this anti-Semitism. They were only likely to raise concerns about it when it affected them. So Marrus and Paxton claimed there was an indifferent majority, which is quite a damning indictment of the French. However, as you mentioned in the question, three quarters of Jews survive the war years. So we have this regime in Western Europe, which is very accommodating when it comes to anti-Semitism, very accommodating when it comes to Nazi demands for deportations. Yet we have three quarters of Jews surviving. Now we have to ask why. Well, after the war, apologists for the Vichy regime said that while Vichy it actually protected French Jews, their only option offered up foreigners for deportation. And that was that was true to a large extent. The Vichy saw foreigners as expendable, but they didn’t want to have the public relations disaster on their hands that the deportation of French Jews would have entailed. And what to argue that Jews survived because Vichy protected the French and gave the foreigners, that it’s a morally dubious argument. More recently, historian Jacques Semelin has brought to the fore French stories of rescue and the stories of individuals who offered help to the Jews. And he says that this better explains the survival of the Jews. And now I think that there are better reasons to look for than those. We can’t deny that many people did help Jews and indeed there are many French among the righteous of the nations. And this honor granted by those who committed heroic acts to save Jews during the Second World War. But we can’t make the story of French anti-Semitism a story of the noble French saving the Jews, because we must admit that without the help that Vichy and the French gave the Nazis, they would have been able to deport far fewer than they actually did. So, roughly 80,000 were killed during it during the Second World War. I think that Marrus and Paxton offer better explanations. So, for example, the geography of France made it easier to hide and the country was liberated sooner than other places, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the Holocaust was ramping up and Hitler’s plans were different in the West. So he didn’t want to immediately cleanse the west of the Jewish presence and Jewish influence like he did in the East because he didn’t conceive of the West as the living space. So I think while we can’t deny that many French helped the Jews, the fact that is that without Vichy’s help, the Germans would not have been able to deport as many Jews as they did. And finally, we should stress, too, that Vichy also persecutes other groups. So as I explain in the book, there is discrimination against gypsies, the Roma and Sinti peoples in France. Vichy feels differently about gypsies. It thinks that it can convert gypsies into good French citizens through placing them in camps and through educating them in French values. Likewise, there is discrimination against homosexuals, but it’s not the same as Nazi discrimination. So it does not seem to be as severe and homosexuals are allowed to live relatively freely. There are still gay bars in Paris, for example. However, we should always bear in mind that it was a time of discrimination against this group too. And finally Vichy discriminates against blacks. Perhaps less explicitly than other groups, but this discrimination fits with its broader racialized worldview of a European white race at the top of what we might call the racial tree and on blacks at the bottom.
Gary: Let’s talk about liberation. Since your book takes a global stance, you examine how liberation meant many different things to the French Empire. In some cases, liberation meant repression. Why was that?
Millington: Yes, one of the things the book stresses is the complex ways that the French experience liberation. This is quite well known in terms of the liberation being a process. So we talk about the liberation of France as if it was an event, but it actually took a long time and it happened in different ways throughout the country. But we frequently talk of the liberation of France without thinking about the liberation of its empire. So if we take a global viewpoint, we see that some areas were liberated by force of arms. Others were liberated through the threat of armed action, others were liberated not by the French at all, but by the British, for example, in Madagascar and in places such as French Polynesia and the island of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.There was a referendum used to legitimize the opting of the territory for de Gaulle. Yet rarely in these areas where indigenous peoples consulted. And it could mean that there was actually striking continuity between life before and after the so-called liberation of these territories. So, for example, the African territories that opted to turn their backs on Vichy in August 1940. So French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon, which threw their lot in with de Gaulle in August 1940, they were still ruled as colonial territories. And so Eric Jennings writes that he says that, “if Free France was African, Africa was not free.” So under the governor of Chad, Félix Éboué, there was forced labour of colonial peoples. And this forced labour intensified in much the same way that forced labour intensified under the Vichy regime in French West Africa. So colonial slave drivers in these free French territories exploited men, women and children, as well as prisoners and the sick for the collection of natural resources. And these were natural resources seen as essential to the war effort. So things like rubber in Cameroon. In Gabon, there was physical abuse in gold mines and wages were often withheld when the workers failed to fulfill their quotas. And now only French citizenship could set you free from the injustices of colonial rule. Yet we see that in these lands between August 1940 and March 1943, all requests for citizenship were refused. So overall, I think it’s interesting that we have these Free French lands in French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon, where indigenous peoples built thousands of miles of road, increased production and foodstuffs. Mined lead and zinc, produced leather and mined other precious metals all aimed at the war effort against Vichy and yet all built on what we might call the blood, sweat and tears of colonial peoples.
Gary: I think talking about the blood, sweat and tears of colonial peoples really offers a good Segway into this next question, which is about World War II and the divided place and historical memory. I think you could essentially jump off of each of these. And I’ve gotten a bit of hate mail, depending on which one of these I’ve talked about. But whether we’re talking about the persecution of Jews or the repression of indigenous peoples and the empire, there does seem to be a divided and controversial memory of World War II. That one author whose name I shouldn’t be forgetting, but I am talked about Vichy syndrome and the contested memory. Can you explain how there is a misremembering of the events of World War II in France?
Millngton: Yes, I think you’re referring to Henri Rousseau, who came up with the idea of the Vichy syndrome, so he said that this was a pathological preoccupation with Vichy in France. And he wrote he wrote a book called The Vichy Syndrome and a second book with Eric Konan, which he which was called A Past that Does Not Pass. (so just check the authors spelling of name) Vichy is of this ever present factor in French culture and politics. In fact, historian Richard Golsan has said it’s like the body in the basement. And in the book, I call it a zombie stalking French political and cultural life. And there are several it’s recognized that there are several phases to the memory of the war since 1945, largely based on the work that Rousseau has done. So he argues that there was initially a decade of unfinished mourning, followed by what he calls repressions, which coincides with a period of what’s known as the resistance myth. So from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the dominant narrative of the war years was that the French had resisted in their majority and those who had not resisted had supported the resistance. It’s sometimes called the de Gaulle resistance myth because de Gaulle is so central to it. And when he becomes president of the Republic in 1958, it’s all unassailable that it’s a very comforting image of French conduct during the Second World War. Now, this is followed in the early 70s by a period of, I suppose, self flagellation and recognition that French conduct was not as noble as was once thought. It’s largely prompted by the book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order by Robert Paxton, who was one of the first historians to argue that actually French collaboration was an indigenous decision. The French didn’t have to do it because it drew on authoritarian impulses and anti-Semitic impulses present within France. It was not imposed by the Nazis. And then this is followed in the 1980s by the emergence of Jewish memory. So, again, thanks to the work of Paxton and Marrus, France’s participation in the Holocaust is revealed. So these are generally thought to be the ways in which memory is developed and changed the broad phases of the memory. But the one of the problems I was thinking about before writing the book was whenever I teach this topic, I could never find anything that could tell students what the the most recent phase of memory was. And so that’s what I tried to do and in the book to look at the work that’s been done in the last 20 years. And can we say that there is a new phase in history. And I said it was a period of diversification and also revisionism. So by diversification, I mean, there’s a focus on previously under appreciated aspects of the war experience, such as the role of women and gender and empire, to in particular. But there’s also a change of methods for investigating this history. So the more historians are using oral histories of the history of everyday life to get the historical detail of the period. But I also mentioned in the book video games. So this is a one way in which new media is communicating history to new audiences. So games like Call of Duty, which have mission setting in France where you can play as a resistor, these are millions of copies. But previously, in the past, historians only really take novels, popular literature and cinema as a way in which history is communicated to audiences beyond academia. But my point is, surely we must take video games into account now to. I also say it’s a period of revisionism as well, because that might be too strong a term. But there are certain authors who have begun to attack established histories in the field and such as important works by Marrus and Paxton on anti-Semitism. And these authors set off Marrus and Paxton as an official history to be challenged. So, for example, Alain Michel has written a book on Vichy’s role in The Final Solution, saying it was an ambiguous. Because the regime had he says, acted out once his executioner, but also a savior, and Jacques Semelin who’s I’ve mentioned before, has written about the 75 percent who survived. And he claims that Marrus and Paxton, he says they totally conceals this and he reframe the history of France and the Jews and as a history of non deportation of the Jews, which underscored once again what he calls a social connection in France between Jews and non Jews that counteracted the genocidal project of Vichy and the Nazis. There is this revisionism now. These historians have been rebuked by Paxton, Marrus and, for example, Renee Posnanski, for presenting too positive an image. And it has actually prompted Marrus and Paxton to rerelease an edition of Vichy, France and the Jews, their 1981 work with an updated riposte to this new history. So while I think it’s welcome that there is diversification of the history of Vichy in the past 20 years, I find this revisionism of works such as Marrus in and quite surprising.
Gary: Now, let us and by talking about you, how do you want to change the conversation about World War II and France?
Millington: The book is aimed at a student audience and beyond that, a general reader, so I guess my mission when teaching students, and particularly those in the UK is high school education centers are generally British and American history and Nazi Germany and who have no language skills. What I want to do is to make them aware of France’s place and importance in history. I’d like to get students thinking more carefully about the French and hopefully nature an interest in France and its people. But as for changing the conversation about Vichy, I think there’s two points. Really? Why, says we? And it might seem quite an obvious point, but we can’t address the history of the occupation now without considering questions of gender, race and empire. And we can’t do history anymore without considering the political, the social and the cultural aspects of a topic. And I hope that the book provides a basis for researchers to go off and do this in several directions. And the second thing, it’s not necessarily changing the conversation, but I’d like to stress that there is still mileage in the more well-established aspects of the war, like collaboration, resistance on the Holocaust. I feel these have become less fashionable in recent years, but we can still approach them from new angles. For example, the imperial angle. And I still think they are central topics that we must consider when we’re thinking about France in the Second World War.
Gary: I want to thank you very much for being on our show, Dr Millington. The book is France in the Second World War: Collaboration, Resistance, Holocaust, Empire. It has been a delight.