In Order of Rank

Jeremy Harding

  • Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 by Hanna Diamond
    Oxford, 255 pp, £16.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 280618 5
  • Journal 1942-44 by Hélène Berr
    Tallandier, 301 pp, €20.00, January 2008, ISBN 978 2 84734 500 1

About half a million anxious people left Paris in September 1939 after the declaration of war. Then a workaday calm reclaimed the city, as French propaganda continued playing in the key of imminent victory: the government, headed by the right-leaning Radical Edouard Daladier, convinced most of France that the Allies would be more than a match for the Wehrmacht. No doubt there were still Parisians who imagined they’d have to pack their bags and head out eventually – which they did, when the Phoney War ended in May 1940. In the meantime foreboding was blunted by a fatal propensity to look on the bright sight.

Illusions died or lingered on in different ways for different people. A couple of years earlier, in a letter to Jacques-Laurent Bost, Simone de Beauvoir had pronounced it ‘less and less likely’ that Hitler could want a war. Now she took the news that the summer examinations of 1940 had been cancelled to be ‘definitive and without hope’. St Exupéry’s friend Léon Werth was heartened by ‘a jet of water from a hosepipe’ at the margins of the Champs Elysées, where he was strolling on the eve of defeat. ‘If the situation was serious,’ he reasoned, ‘they wouldn’t bother to water the grass.’

Yet a series of shocks made it harder for Parisians to hide from their anxieties. One was the influx of refugees from Holland and Belgium in the second week of May. They were mustered at various points in the city and then resettled wherever circumstance, official edict and the efficiency of the French railways contrived to take them – the government of the day included a director of refugee services and, after four years of not-so-national socialism, the trains continued to run on time. There were perhaps two million incomers, and of those it’s uncertain how many went to or through Paris. Large numbers who did were sent off to relative safety from the railway stations before the permanent way was overwhelmed the following month. For others ‘dispersal’ was more informal. They were welcomed at the outset, but as the German front advanced, the suspicion that all the Dutch and Belgians in the country were spies quickly gained ground. In the meantime they were joined by many thousands of displaced French heading down into central and southern France.

This rush of fugitives – French, Dutch, Belgian – through a country under attack seemed at first to flatten out the contours of national origin and class, but not on closer inspection. The writer Roland Dorgelès described how in Cahors, a town ‘choked with the volume of people within its walls’, ‘the more privileged were sleeping in their cars’ while most huddled in doorways or curled up on pavements. Pierre Mendès-France, who’d been elected mayor of Louviers five years earlier, remembered the growing numbers of French passing through the Rouen area in imperturbable order of rank.

In the first days we saw the sumptuous and fast American cars go by, driven by uniformed chauffeurs. Their passengers were elegant women clutching their jewellery boxes, their husbands studying maps of the region … Then came the less fancy older cars … whose drivers were members of the middle classes and they were generally accompanied by their families and often needed our help. One or two days later the most incredible bangers passed through … then came the cyclists, mostly young people … Last came the heavy carts belonging to the peasants of the Nord department. They advanced at walking pace loaded up with the sick, children, the elderly, agricultural machinery and furniture … Several of these carts followed one another … they were generally villages undertaking a collective move, with the mayor, the priest, the elderly schoolmaster and the local policeman. It was a colossal uprooting, the avalanche of one entire region onto another.

In Paris, the mood swung decisively on 3 June, with the bombardment of the outlying airports and the west of the city itself. Nearly two hundred civilians were killed; panicked residents were arriving from the suburbs even as the exodus from Paris proper began to build. Then a week later, most of the government abandoned the capital: a deathblow to the stoical insouciance of people who’d remained. The administration on the run was now headed by Paul Reynaud, a maverick conservative whose Churchillian instincts were never likely to prevail. Reynaud declared Paris an open city, but it was of no consequence for the many who’d already left and those who were scrambling out at the last minute.

Hanna Diamond opens with a portrait of the capital shrouded in the fog of unwaged war and goes on to tell the story of what happened on the roads of France in the course of the summer. Her book is disparate, fitful, but in the end a convincing piece of history drawing heavily on contemporary accounts in a handful of published memoirs. Witnesses include Beauvoir, Werth, Georges Sadoul, the historian of cinema, and Georges Adrey, a trade unionist whose memoir of the ordeal was subtitled ‘Notes and Impressions of a Parisian Metalworker during the Exodus’. To these Diamond adds the memories of an interviewee who was 16 when she fled from her village near Paris in 1940 and an unpublished diary kept by a secretary at the Ministry of the Interior. Fleeing Hitler also looks beyond the refugee columns at the arguments raging within the French cabinet as the disaster unfolded, and later at the national story devised by Vichy, which would portray the ‘exodus’ as a journey through suffering to patriotic enlightenment.

The models many French fell back on, throughout the Phoney War and beyond, were not all misleading, though plenty of people sought solace in memories of August 1914, when the Germans looked likely to take Paris, and of the strategic Franco-British success on the Marne a month later. On 13 May, after a lull in the censorship and news of the German breakthrough in the Ardennes, a sanguine paterfamilias announced to his family over breakfast: ‘It doesn’t matter. We will win the war at Clermont Ferrand.’ One imagines the stout fingers holding the newspaper and the skin thickening on a jug of boiled milk.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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