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France During World War II: Occupation and Resistance

Full Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, March 20, 2021 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2111
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Resisters are instructed about weapons

It took just six weeks in the spring of 1940 for Germany to invade and defeat France.  The world was stunned. How had the most admired army in Europe been so quickly brought to the heel? The intuitive reaction of many was to flee by the millions toward southern France. But the defeated French government’s response was a one-sided armistice that would result in a psychological legacy that would haunt the nation for decades.

Signed by Adolph Hitler and the revered leader of France, Marshal Philippe Petain, the armistice divided the country geographically into two large sectors, one occupied by Germany and one ostensibly designated as free, governed by a new regime in the town of Vichy. But there was also a third France, sited in England and led by an indomitable brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle.

In an absorbing and enlightening program, Ronald C. Rosbottom, a scholar of French and European history, examines why knowing more about the impact of both occupation and resistance during WWII helps us understand aspects of France’s present political and diplomatic environment.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  How the Occupation Worked

The Occupation was not a well-oiled machine. But despite the German Occupation Authority’s internal divisions and changing policies, one factor was constant: The Reich needed the wealth of France to continue its war against England and, a year later, against the USSR. Gold, cattle, architectural products, locomotives, horses, armaments—nothing was excepted. As increasing demands were made on the civilian population and as the Russian war dragged on, the French reluctantly came to realize that the Occupation would not be a passing event.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Occupation’s Evolution

Changes soon became obvious in French households, mostly run by women, for nearly two million men were in POW camps all over Europe. Essentials such as medicine and fuel for heat became increasingly scarce. The unpredictable availability of foodstuffs created a growing black market. Families roaming the countryside for nourishment were commonplace. Hitler had sought a subdued France, but by mid-1942, nervous Occupiers became increasingly erratic in their imposition of order, and personal safety became as important a concern as were the needs of daily life.

12:15–1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15–2:30 p.mThe Nature of Resistance

The term resistance was rarely used during the war; rather the French whispered about “clandestine” or “secret” activities. Rosbottom surveys the active roles of the Catholic and Jewish boy scouts, adolescent refugees, the French Communist Party, and Protestant churches, all of whom gathered information, took up arms, and kept Jewish children one step away from their hunters. He also addresses a question that has bedeviled historians for almost 75 years: How successful was French resistance in helping the Allies defeat the Germans?

2:45–4 p.m.  Young Resisters and the Occupation’s Legacy

One of the most devastating German demands imposed on the French was the draft of young people as part of the large work force to support the Reich’s economy. Many of the targeted draftees took to the forests or mountains to elude recruitment as forced laborers. Their participation in anti-German and anti-Vichy activities was crucial in keeping alive the idea of a free France.

Rosbottom also examines how, after the war, de Gaulle promulgated the myth that most French men and women, except for a few corrupt collaborators, had stood firmly against the Germans, and how the legacy of this myth continues to haunt the French. He concludes with a discussion of how national memories can be shaded to obscure embarrassing events in history.

Rosbottom is Winifred Arms Emeritus Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Amherst College. His book Sudden Courage: French Youth Confront the Germans, 19401945 (HarperCollins/Custom House) is available for sale.

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