The Unfree French


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Life Under the Occupation

Richard Vinen

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The swift and unexpected defeat of the French Army in 1940 shocked the nation. Two million soldiers were taken prisoner, six million civilians fled from the German army’s advance to join convoys of confused and terrified refugees, and only a few managed to escape the country. The vast majority of French people were condemned to years of subjugation under Nazi and Vichy rule. This compelling book investigates the impact of the occupation on the people of France and dispels any lingering notion that somehow, under the collaborating government of Marshal Pétain, life was quite tolerable for most French citizens.

Richard Vinen describes the inescapable fear and the moral quandaries that permeated life in German-controlled France. Focusing on the experiences of the least privileged, he shows how chronic shortages, desperate compromises, fear of displacement, racism, and sadistic violence defined their lives. Virtually all adult males festered in POW camps or were sent to work in the Reich. With numerous enthralling anecdotes and a variety of maps and evocative photographs, The Unfree French makes it possible for the first time to understand how average people in France really lived from 1940 to 1945, why their experiences differed from region to region and among various groups, and why they made the choices they did during the occupation.

Richard Vinen is on the faculty of the Department of History, Kings College, University of London.

"Even well-informed readers will come away from Vinen's social history with a deeper knowledge of what it was like to live in France during the German occupation. It turns out in his wide-ranging account that it was much bleaker than what we had supposed."—Robert Wohl, author of The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950.



"In an absorbing new book, Richard Vinen . . . focuses on the harsh times endured by ordinary French people, whether refugees on the road, captured soldiers, the huge numbers of men drafted to work in Germany or the women left behind scrabbling to feed their families [in wartime France]. . . . [An] eminently balanced book."—The Economist

"This book makes an important contribution to a full understanding of World War II France. Taking a social as opposed to a political perspective, it aims to re-create life under German occupation as it was experienced by ordinary French citizens, especially women, Jews, prisoners of war, refugees, and young men drafted to work in Germany. . . . Vinen amplifies our understanding of this era. Recommended for academic libraries and specialists in the field."—Library Journal

“Exceptionally well-written. . . . Vinen’s piercing chronicle not only captures the squalid physical and moral atmosphere of France’s dark years; it also unnervingly reveals the moral ambiguity that’s the stuff of humanity—and history.”—Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

“Vinen’s social history . . . offers an alternate perspective to the political and military histories that dominate the subject of occupied France.”—Booklist

"Vinen provides much interesting information. . . . Vinen shows very well, in the rich detail of his different cases, the great variety of ways in which constraints could be evaded or turned to a person’s benefit."—Robert O. Paxton, New York Review of Books

"Vinen has a keen eye for incidents whose sheer absurdity shows just how chaotic and unpredictable things were. . . . Vinen is particularly good at evoking the privations and hardships that served as the backdrop to nearly all French lives between 1940 and 1944."—David A. Bell, The Nation

"Vinen employs great ingenuity, energy and empathy in resurrecting these obscure lives. . . . He brilliantly blurs conventional categories like resistance, collaboration, denunciation and the black market."—Robert Zaretsky, H-France Review

"Vinen provides a masterly synthesis of the scholarship on occupied France during the past 20 years. His focus is on daily life, and he pays special attention to the 'unfree' who were 'governed by circumstances beyond their control.'"—New York Times Book Review (Paperback Row)

"Vinen has provided a riveting series of snapshots of various aspects of French life under the occupation. . . . His book offers a masterful synthesis of the secondary literature."—Diane N. Labrosse, H-German

"Vinen is not only a good historiographer by also a great storyteller."—Jocelyne Le Ber, Rocky Mountain Review

"It is impossible in a review this brief to do justice to the rich diversity of this book. . . . Readers will gain a deeper appreciation and sympathy for this period in French history after completing this excellent book."—Christopher Guthrie, The Historian

"Vinen's very readable work draws on recent scholarship and on diaries, memoirs, and a diversity of archives too. . . . An important account of the experiences of those who . . . were condemened during the war, and were condemned again in the postwar French effort to establish an honorable national identity, but were rarely heard from themselves or interpreted as historically constrained actors."—Donald Reid, Journal of Modern History

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2007 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300126013
Publication Date: December 18, 2007
496 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
30 illus.

Sales Restrictions: For sale in the U.S. and its dependencies and the Philippines only