Thursday, 7 July 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 42 - "Ignorance," by Michele Roberts

Throughout the First World War, France had succeeded in defending most of her national territory against the German aggressor. Fundamental to this success was the fortress of Verdun, the garrison of which withstood a prolonged and bloody siege, initially under Colonel Philippe Petain. The story of France during the Second World War could hardly have been more different. By 1939, the German armed forces, equipped with some of the best aircraft (notably the "Stuka" dive-bomber), and some of the best tanks of their day, was able to pursue an entirely new form of warfare - the Blitzkrieg.

France capitulated within months, and Petain, who had retired from the French army with the rank of Marshal, emerged as a political leader willing to do business with the victorious Nazis. France was divided between an Occupied Zone, including Paris, in the north, and a "Free Zone" in the south, centred on Vichy, with Petain as Head of State. Quisling and traitor, or patriotic pragmatist, Petain's reputation remains contested within France today. What is beyond doubt, historically, is that his regime voluntarily rounded up and imprisoned "undesirables," including Spanish Republicans who had escaped across the Pyrenees (many of whom were later handed over as slave-workers to the Nazis); Jews, Romanis, and homosexuals (almost all of whom ended up being transported to the extermination camps of Germany and eastern Europe).

French (Vichy) Police registering Jewish and other detainees at a camp at Pithiviers. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-S69238 (licensed under CCA).
German soldiers in France (near Rouen). Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 101l-494-3383-06A (licensed under CCA).

Blockaded by the Allied navies, and with more than half of France's agricultural production requisitioned to feed the occupying troops, the civilian population suffered terribly. Rations were set at starvation levels - fewer than 1300 calories per day. Those who could afford to supplemented this with purchases on the black market. Many women resorted to prostitution, an occupation that received a boost when, in November 1942, abandoning any pretence of Vichy "independence," German troops extended their occupation into the "Southern Zone."

French civilians in occupied France. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 101l-494-3383-06A (licensed under CCA).
German soldiers with Resistance captives, July 1944. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-J27289 (licensed under CCA).

Michele Roberts's novel, Ignorance, is set between two provincial towns in rural France, Sainte Madeleine and Sainte-Marie-du-Ciel (both of them apparently fictional). The two main protagonists are both young women, educated in the local convent school: Marie-Angele is the daughter of a prosperous local grocer; Jeanne, the daughter of a poor mother, who has converted from Judaism to Catholicism.

A French convent school. Photo: City Archives of Toulouse (image is in the Public Domain).

Growing up in a deeply conservative, Catholic community, in which the Jewish minority had faced persecution even before the outbreak of war: both are ignorant of the political realities that have given rise to it; but also of sexuality; and of the economic rules that apply when law and civil society have broken down. Each must negotiate her way through a new and alien world, in which all moral and religious certainties have broken down: in which nobody knows who is to be trusted. Who is a protector of refugees, a hero of the Resistance; and who is a racketeer, an exploiter of human misery? It is a story that reflects the realities of occupied France (and would almost certainly have reflected the reality of an occupied Britain, if such had ever come to pass): one with few heroes and many victims.

A German-authorised driving permit from occupied France. Photo: Classiccardinal (licensed under CCA).
French ration tickets of the Second World War. Photo: Daniel*D (licensed under GNU).
A food queue at a bakery (this is actually a post-war image, from liberated Paris). Photo: Imperial War Museum, D24161 (image is in the Public Domain).

"Monsieur Fauchon, the cobbler, kept his door propped open winter and summer ... his chin jerked up as I went by. A thin man, with a long face, big dark eyes and a beard, like someone in the Bible. He was a Jew, like my mother had been before she converted and got baptised. Maman had told me the tale of Madame Baudry clasping her hand: I'll be your sponsor! She gripped her too tightly. Maman yelped in pain, which Madame Baudry took for delight."

Jewish women in occupied France (the yellow star badges were required by the German authorities in the north, and by Vichy administrators in the south). Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-N0619-506 (licensed under CCA).

"War fell out of the sky. Planes nosedived, dropping bombs. The local bakery blew up, rose in the air, collapsed. The baker and his wife and their two children vanished under a pyramid of beams and rubble. Hauled out by local men, the bodies were placed in the cobbler's shop along the street. Monsieur Fauchon was away fighting but his wife opened the door and took in the dead family. Maman was distressed: they should have been put in a Christian house. She and I dodged in, with other neighbours, to say a decade of the rosary. Waxy yellow faces; like shells ... The prayers made the corpses seem less frightening."

German JU-88 "Stuka" dive-bomber (image is in the Public Domain).

"Mid-June, in one way, was just like midsummer in other years. In the countryside all round the town the peasants got on with the haymaking, the cuckoo called from the woods. In another way, everything had changed: I had grown up. Maurice and I drove into Ste-Madeleine on business ... I spotted Jeanne in the bar, sitting in the far corner, with a German ... She'd painted her mouth dark red and rouged her cheeks. I pretended not to see her. My stomach burned with brandy but also with scorn. The make-up made her look so common ... Maurice said: my dear Marie-Angele, you don't know girls like that. They're nothing to do with you."

German soldiers swapping clothing with French mistresses or prostitutes (image is in the Public Domain).
Post-war retribution - women accused of collaboration humiliated in the streets. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 146-1971-041-10 (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. From the 7th to the 10th of July only, e-book editions of these, and other Crooked Cat books, are available at the reduced price of 99p/99c.

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