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A secret diary of life in Vichy France
Léon Werth (translated & edited by David Ball)
OUP Academic, 2018
Philosophy is central to the national curriculum of France in a way that is anathema to the English. Perhaps in consequence, the French will pontificate and philosophise at the drop of a chapeau. There is a lot of both in this volume. What creates its backbone is the fact that Werth is Jewish, and therefore his liberty for certain, and his life in all likelihood, are under constant threat. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he survived the war, but chronicles the arrest, torture, and death of those around him.
As it is centuries since Great Britain was successfully invaded (with the notable exception of the Channel Islands in WW2), one is conscious that one should not be too judgemental about the behaviour of the French in WW2. The starting point is that the nation already appeared divided before the outbreak of war: there was a significant swell of support for communism, and by the same token, many broadly espoused fascist notions. Once the Nazi jackboot arrived, differences were magnified. Perhaps the most important virtue of Deposition, apart from chronicling the continuous but random acts of savagery by the invaders, is to show how fissures open in a society under such pressure. Werth is particularly good at highlighting the moral dilemmas facing France’s clerics.
What are the lessons of Werth’s book? That British radio was a valuable (yet dangerous) resource for the French, and much more widely listened to than I had presumed. That French opinion on de Gaulle was, and remained, divided. That the Nazis raped the French economy, and destroyed its social fabric with wholesale export of manual labour to Germany. The sustained evil and nastiness of the Nazi regime, at both petty and national levels. The behaviour of Pétain, Laval, et al, which defies belief.
Werth was a close friend of Antoine de St Exupéry, so fans of that writer (of whom I am one) will enjoy these passages.
Quibbles? It is in American English, which, in the context of discussion of Europe and European issues, as in my previous review, grates on a British reader. The random thoughts, particularly in the opening chapters, can appear rather too random and inconsequential. The book leaves too many open questions, such as: what finances did Werth live on? (He must have had had private means on some scale). Why was he not betrayed?
Those aside, this is a valuable testimony of one of France’s darkest passages.