Darkness Falls On France
Kristin Hannah took on an epic period of great drama and tragedy with The Nightingale: the occupation of France by the Germans during World War II, and the French resistance that sprang up to fight them, despite the official French government’s collaboration with the Nazis.
There have been many, many books written about this period. Emotions among French citizens ran high during this time; not just resentment at the occupation, but anger at the government’s collaboration with the German regime. Of course, a lot of French citizens collaborated too – interesting that, as I researched books about this topic, I couldn’t find a book by a collaborator. People who did collaborate certainly tried to keep it quiet after the war.
Right out of the gate, I need to mention one of my favorite authors of all time, Alan Furst. Furst has made a splendid career out of writing historical novels/thrillers about the period between World War I and World War II. One of my favorites is his 1996 novel, The World at Night. This novel is set in 1940 and 1941, in the early days of the German occupation.
Jean Casson is a French film producer who mostly makes gangster films; he is having a very good time in Paris making movies, romancing beautiful women and living the high life. Until the Germans hit town. One of the pleasures of The World at Night is watching the transformation of Jean, a guy who basically just wants to live and let live, from a hedonist into a committed Resistance man. The Nazis start taking his friends out, one by one – the writers and artists in his crowd are easy targets for officials looking for the politically suspect.
There’s a Nazi official in this book whose story is a cautionary tale of how someone can be turned evil by a bureaucracy – he’s not a bad guy per se, but he’s not going to say no to his superiors. Much of the novel is a battle of wits between Casson and this apparatchik, Colonel Guske. They dance around each other for a good portion of the story, but when Casson helps a Jewish screenwriter friend of his disappear, he has cast his lot, and the suspense jumps off the charts.
One of the reviews I read about The World at Night criticized its “uninspired plotting.” I actually like that about Alan Furst books; they’re not like conventional thrillers; they meander a bit as the plot develops. But what a delectable journey! Furst is hands down one of the best writers I know at writing about love and sex; there is almost always an affair of larger than life passion at the center of a Furst book.
If you like The World at Night, that’s good news, because it’s the only Furst book I can think of with a sequel, Red Gold. In Red Gold the occupation has deepened and life is getting tougher. Casson gets in ever deeper with the French resistance, as he seeks help in getting his Jewish girlfriend out of the country
Alan Furst, as entertaining and sophisticated a writer as he is, never experienced the resistance himself. The same, tragically, cannot be said for Irene Nemirovsky.
Nemirovsky was born Jewish in Russia, but her family fled the revolution. She converted to Roman Catholicism. She has been criticized by some for being very critical in her writings about Jews, but none of that mattered when the Nazis occupied France; she was Jewish by blood, and was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus.
Her daughters survived, and one kept a notebook that contained two novellas, which eventually became known as Suite Francaise. Her daughter didn’t read it for fifty years, but when she finally did, she recognized their power and contacted a publisher. The novellas eventually were published to great acclaim – in 2004. They are remarkable for many reasons, one being that they were written during the occupation and observed events with a true novelists’ eye. To date, Suite Francaise has sold 2.5 million copies.
Life is strange, isn’t it? Her daughter told the BBC in 2006: “For me, the greatest joy is knowing that the book is being read. It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows that the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance, but it is a victory.”
All these novels eventually raise the question: why did so many French citizens collaborate with the Germans during World War II?
I’ve got a book on my nightstand that addresses just that – The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 by Frederick Brown. Brown is a historian of France who has written several books about French history and culture, including a biography of the writer Flaubert that I liked a lot.
This book tells how France, the center of liberte, egalitie and fraternitie, eventually went through something of a right-wing backlash after some hard times in the 19th century. Several writers championed a return to traditional French values, which went hand-in-hand with a virulent form of anti-Semitism. This, of course, came into full bloom during the Dreyfus affair, the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer wrongly accused of treason.
France, like other European countries, suffered a severe economic depression after World War I. That, combined with the massive loss of life among French troops and the wholesale destruction of the French countryside along World War I’s Western front, certainly contributed to the desire of a lot of French citizens to stick their heads in the sand and ignore what was going on during the occupation. After the fact, many people who supported the occupation paid dearly, sometimes with their lives.
If you want the full story of the German occupation, check out France: The Dark Years, 1940-44 by Julian Jackson. This 2001 book is a very complete look at the politics of the French Vichy (collaborationist) government and the day-to-day life of everyday people under the Occupation. It looks at the issue of collaboration in detail. If you were the mayor of an occupied town, were you a collaborationist for keeping things going, for doing your job?
Finally, a thriller called The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure has just such a premise. It’s the story of an architect in occupied Paris during World War II, who is commissioned by a wealthy client to build hiding places for Jews who otherwise would be sent off to concentration camps. Lucien is also designing a factory that will turn out armaments for the German Reich, and he becomes more and more entangled in the deceptions necessary to maintain his secrecy and his safety. He’s worried about the Gestapo, and he’s worried about the Resistance, who keep telling him what will happen to Nazi collaborators after the war. A tight spot to be in.