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.

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