Cushy Numbers

Neal Ascherson

  • French and Germans, Germans and French: A Personal Interpretation of France under Two Occupations, 1914-1918/1940-1944 by Richard Cobb
    University Press of New England, 188 pp, £10.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 87451 225 5
  • Still Life: Scenes from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood by Richard Cobb
    Chatto, 161 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2695 7

‘The fascination exercised by the study of collaborationism on the historian (especially the Anglo-Saxon one) can be attributed partly to unfamiliarity with something outside the national experience, but, perhaps even more, to the sheer range of mutual personal situations involved.’ Even now, that Anglo-Saxon unfamiliarity remains immense. It seems, at least to me, that all the books and – especially – films of recent years about the German occupation of France, and about French behaviour during that period, have still taught the British little. All that has taken place is a retreat from our naive belief in an almost universal support for the Resistance, associated with righteous horror at the ‘handful’ of Collaborators (even though shaving girls’ heads was ‘going a bit far’), to the idea that the Resistance was a Communist fraud backed from London by leftist elements in SOE, operating in a France where Pétain was thoroughly popular even for assisting the Germans in the extermination of the French Jews.

The first book in French I ever read which was not a schoolbook was Guillain de Bénouville’s Le Sacrifice du Matin. With that song of courage and patriotism ringing in my ears, I visited France for the first time, at the age of 15, and rode rusty trains creeping over half-repaired bridges to the home of a small, fascistoid count with a hairline moustache; at once he set me to translating long screeds about the Marxist banditry of the Maquis and the treachery of the Gaullists – which I was instructed to smuggle home among my shirts and hand over to Mr Anthony Eden. A little later, I met the most enchanting and Candidean of my French relations. He had been in trouble as early as 1940 for shouting ‘Vive la Pologne!’ when charging with the bayonet – on the grounds that this was a war declared on behalf of Poland. The sergeant failed to convince him that he was sowing moral confusion in a rank of conscripts shouting ‘Vive la France!’, and the first of his incarcerations took place. After the Armistice, he joined the collaborationist Légion Volontaire Française because he believed Vichy’s promise that two prisoners of war would be released in return for each volunteer, and that the Légion would not be required to fight. Arriving with his draft somewhere in eastern Poland, he discovered his error and set out to walk back to France. He was caught and condemned to death for desertion. Pardoned and released on Hitler’s birthday, he resumed his walk, arriving at his home in southern France in time to be arrested and condemned to death as a collaborator by a Communist people’s court chaired by an elderly peasant woman (who called round some years later in tears to apologise). The Allied armies arrived punctually to prevent his execution: the verdict was reversed, and he emerged from the war with a German-stamped certificate of service in the LVF and a French certificate of loyalty to the Republic. He was in fact a monarchist, although he considered Orleanists and Legitimists equally ridiculous. From this man, merry, optimistic and incapable of bitterness, I learned that the Occupation had not been a matter of black and white moral choices.

If this marvellous book of Cobb’s has a spiritual father, then it is not a Frenchman but a German: Heinrich Böll. And the novel of Böll’s which counted was, very plainly, Der Zug war pünktlich – The train was on time – that unforgettable story of a troop train full of German soldiers returning from leave, making its slow way through towns of living, warm, worrying civilians, past women crying on platforms and children on bicycles watching the train go by, towards darkness and death on the Eastern Front. It is not merely that Cobb’s book is full of train images and Böll references: ‘that ... is what is so terrible, so inadmissible about a railway war, as the fodder of offensive and counter-offensive are shunted this way and that, eastwards and westwards, across vast night landscapes, through sleeping cities, almost touching sleeping houses ... the realisation of a nightmare Mitteleuropa of rumbling wheels spelling out, at every joint of the line, the German word for death.’ Cobb also shares with Böll an understanding that war and occupation intensify the sense of being alive, provoking not only passionate decisions and blind graspings at pleasure but out-breaks of reckless humanity that defy the rules of hatred and ostracism.

The first two parts of the book concern the North-East of France, the only area to have experienced German occupation in both world wars. Cobb evokes the terrible winter of 1917-18, the poor of Lille and Roubaix and Tourcoing sleeping huddled together on their floors after the last piece of furniture has been burned for warmth, listening to the German troop trains passing in the night. Their sufferings were hard, and the patriotism of this old frontier region was steady: they did not deserve to be regarded after the war as les boches du Nord. Cobb is affectionate about this tough, unlovely industrial region. Do the French like to discuss le problème du Nord? For him, the real problem of France has lain in the Midi, in cultural and linguistic grievances blown up out of all proportion among a backward population (Cobb regards the recent interest in an ‘Occitan’ revival as rubbish). Vichy, he maintains, was in many ways the revenge of the South, the imposition of peasant values – or a synthetic version of them – by posturers and thugs who mostly emerged from the Midi themselves. In fact, as Cobb emphasises, the North-East was relatively immune to the influence of Vichy during its second German occupation: the doctrines of Pétain made little headway among a working-class population already familiar with the realities of a German presence and strongly Anglophile by tradition. In Douai, a town with a population of forty thousand, there were only 120 classifiable Collaborators. Two men joined the LVF, one joined the Milice: nearly two thousand cases of ‘acts of terrorism’ were heard by the local appeal court. For the northerners, the 1940 Armistice was a southern decision taken to spare the Midi.

Cobb then turns to Paris. He argues passionately that the Parisians should not be judged with hindsight – except, perhaps, for the Police, without whom German control and domination would have been impossible. Only the astutely-timed police mutiny in August 1944 ensured that scarcely a single commissaire de police was replaced after the Liberation. And, he goes on, even that squalid continuity was no more than a repetition of 1789, 1794, 1814, 1815, 1830, 1848. each time the Paris Police had survived the upheavals more or less intact. Only the Commune of 1871 had consequences for them. As for the population at large, everything in the early years of the Occupation made it easy for them to resume a ‘normal’ existence, almost to pretend that little had changed. The Germans stationed in Paris had every reason to encourage this. By emphasising the vitality and contentment of Paris, they built up their own importance for Berlin – the Gare de l’Est and the train to the snows of Kursk or Leningrad loomed large in the mind of every well-groomed, well-bred German coddling his salon of French intellectuals. It was the cushiest of postings: no wonder the German generals in Paris so loathed the SS that they instantly arrested them after the attempted coup of July 1944. Monsters like Oberg and Knochen, the SS commanders, could ruin everything with their lust for blood.

Cobb stands up eloquently for the Parisian inclination to carry on as usual, even for their inclination to treat individual Germans as human beings. The Germans’ signposts and helmeted sentries, he claims, became part of the Paris streetscape after four years; even their smell, a mingling of leather and after-shave, was soon as familiar as the ozone reek of the Métro or the scent of garlic. Here, however, Professor Cobb’s feet begin to leave the ground: he has a sympathetic but sometimes dismaying tendency to get carried away beyond the merits of an originally sound case. Why, he goes on, do writers like David Pryce-Jones want the Parisians to have behaved like the people of Warsaw?

It is certainly true that, as a result of their rising, the inhabitants of Warsaw managed to get their city largely razed to the ground. If Hitler had had his way, Paris would have been similarly reduced to rubble. The author in question seems to regard it as a sort of moral failing on the part of the Parisians that it wasn’t ... Occupants and occupés at least agreed that life had to go on, an eminently sensible aim.

This is wild stuff. Professor Cobb knows well enough that in Warsaw the situation was such that if the life of the occupants was to go on, that of the occupés would soon cease to do so.

The book is not in any sense an apology for those whom Cobb calls ‘collaborationists’ rather than ‘collaborators’. But his comments on them and the regime they served are generally moral rather than political. ‘Collaborationists were, by definition, by the mere fact of their choice, very nasty people; it was their sheer nastiness that had got them there ... there is at least some satisfaction in the fact that so many of them got what they wanted: death. For the ultimate realisation of fascism or Nazism ... is death.’ He describes with loathing the pro-Nazi journalists, longing for a ‘French civil war’ to finish off their enemies, and swaggering about Paris with pistol belts and facial expressions ‘that represented an unsubtle combination of cretinism and hate’. He is dismissive about the intellectual flirters and teasers: ‘Drieu, Cocteau and Brasillach remained utterly spoilt, rather bored children, who had never grown up and never ceased to attitudinise.’ Their notion of decadence, which made them glance lustfully eastward to the virile Germans, might easily, he adds, have led them to look even further eastwards, to the equally virile Soviets – which, for many of the survivors of that generation, was what eventually came to pass. And the Vichy Government itself? ‘There is no doubt that Pétain exactly hit the national mood when he made a national virtue of a visceral form of cowardice.’ The regime was ‘not only dishonourable’ but ‘inane, obsessive, desperately provincial and exceedingly boring’. Is it, on the other hand, enough to say that the collaborationists were nasty and boring? Correspondingly, what is one to make of an account of collaboration in which resistance is almost exclusively presented as murder committed by inhuman Communist automata who gun down German soldiers simply because they are German, on the ‘que le sang boche coule’ principle, and are compared not only to Fouquier-Tinville, the prosecutor of the Terror, but to the most bloodthirsty killers of the Collaboration? Cobb lavishly applies to the Communist Maquis a hindsight which makes them the precursors of terror in post-war Eastern Europe, while denying us the right to judge other Frenchmen in the light of what was to come. In this respect, he diverges from Heinrich Böll, who may be the most humane and painfully merciful of Catholic novelists but who is also a pitiless judge when it comes to evil. But evil is not a category for Richard Cobb. He recognises naughtiness and nastiness, vanity, callousness, lust for blood, but – like a French Impressionist – utter black is not a colour for him.

Cobb is most moving and persuasive when he speaks of women and fugitives. ‘A deserter cannot last more than a few days without the active complicity of a woman,’ he states. All his gifts of empathy come into play when he is talking of an imaginary young woman in Roubaix in 1917, looking at the sleeping Bavarian body beside her and the ‘Gott mit uns’ belt slung over the chair and brooding on the distance which is growing between them as the war turns against Germany; when he is guessing at all the German deserters flushed out of the warren of the vieux port at Marseille after it was dynamited; even when he simply states the flat figure of eighty thousand Frenchwomen who by mid-1943 were claiming child benefit from the German military authorities. He tries to re-create the terror and loneliness of a German deserter in France: ‘He would have to clothe himself from such threadbare, ill-fitting and varied resources as were available: the shapeless coat and the bleached hat of a scarecrow, or some article of clothing stolen surreptitiously from a washing-line or taken from a river-bank while the swimmer, luxuriating immobile on his back in the silvery water, looked up at the still perfection of a summer sky or at the scurrying clouds driven fast by the west wind.’ Shoes and boots would be the worst problem: people do not readily throw them away. ‘And so the detailed description of the weird, tattered figure in browns and blacks – l’homme des bois – would walk well ahead of him, causing prudent fear, the closing of bolts and the drawing of shutters: a tall man with straw-coloured hair and very blue eyes, a scraggy yellowish beard, talking gibberish and expressing himself in gestures to indicate hunger, thirst, the desperate need to sleep.’ Cobb, whose works of history are always cakes with succulent raisins of fragmentary novel baked into them, can even become a young girl from the Seizième Arrondissement tasting the flavour of treachery: ‘the hint of perversity and adventure, the wonderfully persuasive white dress uniform of a young Luftwaffe pilot, dinner in sumptuous surroundings, the best linens, starched napkins en dindon, fresh flowers on the table, heavy silver tableware, the obsequious deference of the waiters (one’s own contemptible compatriots), the attentiveness and elaborate politeness of the officer in the uniform of the Master Race. This would add a delectable spice to the pleasure, the first step towards collaborationism.’ And all this – so right! – could be combined with flirtations with the Resistance: ‘the excitement of trying out the water at both ends of the pool: secret résistante in the afternoon, brassy collaboratrice by candlelight in the evening’.

But what prices, in the end, they often paid! The German deserter will probably die inexpertly riddled by the Sten of some village maquisard who joined the Resistance the day before yesterday. The young girl could find herself grey with the spittle of a crowd, her head shaved bald, or – so much depends on pure chance – a decorated heroine famous for having touched pitch without being defiled. The posturing publicists with their pistol belts, after their reckless trip into narcissism, often faced the firing squad with – as Cobb records – debonair courage: Brasillach in a chic red scarf, the broadcaster Paquis in his best suit, freshly ironed, others with a Gauloise on the lower lip. I think of a woman I know, pretty and patriotic in those days, who was betrayed to the Germans for connections to French Intelligence in the underground: she and the Abwehr lieutenant who questioned her fell in love and he gave her a job to save her skin, and now she is dying in a foreign land, classed as a wanted collaboratrice. It might have been different; as Cobb compassionately says, it was often just luck – where you were when, especially at the end – which decided whether you drew ‘the winning number or the tarot card of death’.

Throughout the book, Cobb strays off into fascinating detail, the kind of ‘useless information’ only gleaned, as a rule, by reading old newspapers. The problem of whether to speak to official dogs and horses in French or German – some horses responding to German, some police hounds biting soldiers who knew no French. The history of the beret, a hat mortally wounded by Vichy’s odd passion for this headgear. The tale of the Paris rats, emerging onto the streets at night as food grew shorter. The register of Berlitz language courses, with the enormous leap in German lessons in 1941. Oddest of all, the inventory of Darlan’s possessions in his flat at Vichy, including 11 suits, 27 white shirts, 500 litres of wine in barrels, one round tray with the Marshal’s portrait, 630 cakes of soap and only 12 pairs of socks. And 25 ties, and 55 pipes, and one plaster bust of himself. But why so few socks for so many pipes and suits? The Occupation retains its secrets.

Across the Channel, meanwhile, the flags and slogans of the Alliance gave their blessing to relationships and mutual discoveries which were not so very different. Scottish farm girls found that having their hand kissed by Polish Catholic soldiers at a village dance made the grey streets of Forfar into, if not the Rue de Rivoli, at least a pre-war Nowy Swiat. East End bad boys and US Army storemen from Illinois found new games to play with petrol and parachute silk. Small boys taught at school that black men were childlike natives accepted chewing gum from Negro sergeants, and Free French officers occupied beds left lonely by married gentlemen absent in the Western Desert. Here, too, the wise deserter – Czech or Texan – made his way to a woman.

And in the Tunbridge Wells that Richard Cobb celebrates in Still Life, the determination to carry on ‘normally’ was as strong as in Paris. A military headquarters gave some faint evidence that these were unusual times. One could see ‘strings of obese, red-faced figures, in running-shorts and vests, in scattered groups of dejected twos and threes, puffing along Claremont Road’: Monty was giving his staff officers the usual hard time. But in the tall Victorian mansions of the Limbury-Buse family, behind the dripping trees and shrubs, they read no newspapers, possessed no wireless, were scarecely aware that a war was in progress. Old Mr Limbury-Buse had studied law, but – considered ‘delicate’ in health – had never actually done a stroke of work in his life. His son served in the First World War, toyed briefly with the film industry, and then came home to the same tranquil life of inaction as his father. They got up very late, and each day pursued exactly the same routine. The son would walk along past the Hospital and the Common, shop slightly at Romary’s biscuit shop, play a few rubbers of bridge at the club, have tea and then a single sherry, then home by the same route. His father, leaving the house later, followed a different track to the same club, where he would arrive in time for tea. ‘He and Geoff sat at different tables, never played together, and never spoke to one another while at the club.’ He would then take the same way home, arriving half an hour after his son. They all went to bed at nine. Both men were utterly without ambition, timeless, kindly, content. Decades came and went. Richard Cobb, who often visited the Limbury-Buse house, came to rely upon them as a geological component of the Tunbridge Wells of his childhood, which he wanted never to change. He admits that he may not have seen in that household what he did not wish to see: ‘Geoff and his father may have been rather stupid, as well as very idle. Their isolation may have been due to an almost total vacuity. I may have credited thoughts to people who never spent any time thinking.’ But the peace and security which he needed and which he sensed there were real enough. ‘The Limbury-Buses were not an object of study, a problem of long-living history, they were a restorative and a reminder of how to get one’s priorities right.’

But they should indeed be an object of study. The British, and especially the English, middle class developed towards the end of the 19th century a power which even the most refined of contemplative religions have never matched – the power to spend a lifetime doing absolutely nothing, while remaining kindly, civil, relaxed and serene. This ability, exercised during the first half of this century while the inheritances amassed by more restless forebears slowly dwindled, is now, I think, extinct. My own grandfather, a talented young doctor, rose from his breakfast table after reading the letter informing him that he had come into an adequate competence, unscrewed the brass plate on his door and placed it silently in the dustbin. The rest of his life was spent fishing in well-chosen but not glamorous lochs and rivers or going for walks. He died in his late nineties exactly at the moment when his inheritance, by contemporary standards very large, ran out. I never knew a more good-natured, shrewd or patient man.

Professor Cobb spent his childhood in Tunbridge Wells, a famous temple of this sort of bourgeois monasticism. Most of the people he remembers seem to have been elderly – were somehow always elderly in the thirty or forty years he knew them. Outside events made little impact; a weird Scotsman with ‘shell-shock’ prowled on the Common, the Prince of Wales once drove through in a green car to mild applause, many volunteered to keep the country running during the General Strike but no doubt few were chosen. As the Cobbs did not possess a radio, Richard and his mother were taken very much by surprise on that ‘dreadful day in September 1939’ when ‘Mrs Martin (she had a wireless in Cromwell Road) came up saying: “The Germans are at them Poles, Ma’am.” I felt as if I had swallowed a huge lump of ice.’

But soon it would be tea-time. The vulgar behaviour of the world never managed to spoil tea in Tunbridge Wells, unless a bomb or doodlebug (they dared to violate the town on several occasions) invited itself to share the ‘cucumber sandwiches, cream buns, chocolate cake and cake with jam filling’ at the Limbury-Buses, or, at Mr Evans’s, to put its steel snout into the feast prepared by his Scottish housekeeper: ‘a pair of huge silver teapots, with little silver taps, as well as long, graceful spouts, each on a tall stand, and under which burned a bluish flame. The rest of the table was strewn with tiered edifices like miniature pagodas, also in silver, and supporting, from a series of branches, plates of thinly-cut sandwiches, muffins, crumpets, scones, a chocolate cake, a seed cake, an iced cake and a yellow cake with a cream and jam filling. “China or Indian?” asked Mr Evans ...’ The Cobb genius for evocative detail runs riot in this book, like the rhododendrons in the gardens of abandoned mansions in Tunbridge Wells. Darlan’s wardrobe is nothing compared to the contents of Mrs Cobb’s dressing-table drawers, or the shop of R. Septimus Gardner, Taxidermist, in Grove Hill Road, or the inventory of treasures laid out on those tea-tables. In the end, a feeling of suffocation, almost of panic, may afflict the reader. It is understandable enough to feel affectionate about the place in which one grew up, and to appreciate its resistance to change – but how about the proposition that Tunbridge Wells was smug and boring, that in the end it is not a virtue to close the garden gate on a world which has nobody to draw its curtains at dusk and no yellow cakes with cream and jam filling?