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.

Though ill-conceived evacuation plans for Paris were made public, the administration and the military felt from the start that ordering everyone out of the city would be tantamount to conceding defeat. It was with some reluctance that the government had decamped at the last moment. General Weygand, recalled from Syria to head the armed forces, was afraid of a Communist takeover in Paris. No doubt the Hitler-Stalin Pact had conjured this spectre – the French Party had quickly approved the pact and then been outlawed – but there were older echoes of the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of Paris in 1871. Weygand and others must have seen the possibility of a second Commune, thriving as the first one had on a political vacuum in the capital. ‘Fear of Communism,’ Diamond reckons, ‘was never far from the minds of ministers’ as they prepared to leave. The destination as before was Bordeaux.

People found a more recent and frightening omen in the bombing of Guernica and Madrid. The destruction of Republican cities had been thoroughly reported in France and imagined with a shudder in Paris. The term ‘fifth column’ was another cheerless novelty that crossed the Pyrenees. Diamond adds that nuns were often regarded as fifth columnists; suspicions of this kind were not new, though animosity against the brides of Christ may have been revived by ideas migrating up from Spain. There was also the Great War archetype, less troubling for Parisians than for people in the northern provinces: a horror of the ruthless Boche leaving a trail of havoc in his path. Though the German presence had been confined to ten departments, painful memories had since become diffuse. Diamond’s elderly interviewee recalls the mayor of her village telling her family: ‘Listen – if it’s going to be like it was in 1914, they’ll rape the women and cut the young girls’ hands off. This is what happened during the war in the north. You must leave.’ The previous mayor, he told them, had bought ‘a very large farm’ in the Indre. ‘I’m going there and I’m sure he’ll have room for you all.’

The flight from the capital in June was massive even by postwar standards in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Diamond says that several million citizens took off from the city. The spectacle of the columns heading south along the roads bore comparison with nothing in living memory or recent history. ‘An entire people of stragglers at the outposts of a civilisation for whom the Middle Ages have been reinvented’; a country tumbling ‘backwards six centuries, finding itself at the gates of a medieval famine’. Whatever their political differences, nearly all Diamond’s observers seemed to be seeing the same thing. By the time the Germans entered Paris, she says, ‘just one fifth of the normal population remained.’ Most of them were too old or infirm to make the journey.

About a quarter to a third of the refugees were children, often in the charge of mothers whose husbands were with the army. A cohort of diarists and memoirists, including those quoted in Fleeing Hitler, caught the atmosphere well. But a short passage in Olivier Todd’s autobiography, Carte d’identités (2005), provides one of the best portraits of a mother and child taking to the road as the summer heat wave built. Todd’s mother had moved them from Paris to Alençon, just north of Le Mans, in 1939. The following year, approaching his 11th birthday, the boy watched as thousands of Dutch and Belgian refugees entered Normandy. Within a few days mother and son were part of a disparate crew including a Belgian woman with an infant at the breast, a bevy of nuns, a disabled child and two workmen unluckily seconded north from their ball-bearing factory in Toulouse. They were all packed into a Renault van heading for La Rochelle, the boy Todd nursing a cold sore and wondering, mile upon mile, what a ball-bearing could be.

André Zucca, ‘Rue de Rivoli’ (1942)
André Zucca, ‘Rue de Rivoli’ (1942)

On their breaks in the journey, Todd saw what everybody else was seeing before his driver decided to take the smaller roads: long lines of people, handcarts piled with furniture and bedding; victims of bombing and strafing runs, embittered soldiers; trucks and cars, bonnets up, expiring on the verges. He also remembers the cows, not milked for days, sweltering in the meadows with their udders distended. The nuns prayed for them, as they prayed for every battered village and thirsty child along the way. Young Olivier was impressed; he didn’t seem to know about the sacred order of the Fifth Column.

He and his mother would be lodging with friends outside La Rochelle. The Derryx family ran a ‘typing and business’ course, previously in Paris, and now in the sleepy town of Fouras, where they muddled along with six typewriters and three students. Not long after his arrival, Todd was sent off to the corner shop to see if there was any salt. On the way he encountered his first German soldier. The helmet and leather jacket, the motorbike and machine-gun left a lasting impression of the perfect modern warrior ‘with all eternity ahead of him’. For France, on the contrary, time had run out: the armistice was signed on 22 June and followed by the necessary pretence, for millions of people, that life might be resumed as usual or near enough. By the end of the summer, Todd and his mother, like most Parisians, had returned to the capital.

Nothing in Fleeing Hitler is quite as vivid as Todd’s recollection. Diamond feels that in general the period which ended with the armistice is under-remembered and under-commemorated, despite its serving as a backdrop to several movies and works of fiction, including Casablanca, René Clément’s Jeux interdits, Iron in the Soul and now of course Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française. Invention and memoir are not the same, she argues, as ‘collective memory’, but it may be that more recent films like Les Egarés and Bon Voyage are harbingers of a wider public interest, almost non-existent until now because it’s been difficult ‘to find any heroism in what could essentially be qualified as “running away”’.

Jean Vidalenc’s L’Exode de mai-juin 1940, published in 1957, seemed to see the stirrings of resistance in the hardships of the road. Diamond doubts this, though refugees, especially the evicted inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine, were among the most willing partisans. She points to a divide, in the public memory, between the period of flight and ‘the dark years that followed’, thanks largely to the instrumental myth of resistance – the so-called Gaullist myth – told and retold to unite the country in the aftermath of disgrace. When that began to fray, a bitter debate opened up about commitment, neutrality and collaboration, leaving the exodus once more unexamined.

How it was understood at the time is Diamond’s most interesting point. The British, watching from the other side of what Weygand described as their ‘very good anti-tank ditch’, were quick to blame the refugees for the failure of French military deployments. In most cases, according to the World War Two historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, ‘the flight of civilians followed the retreat of the French armies and did not precede it,’ yet British observers in France assured Whitehall that congestion and chaos on the roads had been the critical vectors of defeat. That is why the Ministry of Home Security instructed His Majesty’s subjects to ‘stay put’ if the Germans were ever to land. (Advice was much the same, later on, in the event of a nuclear exchange, with new orders to whitewash the windows and assemble in the stair-cupboard with a jar of Bovril.) Home Security even urged people to ‘stand firm’ as the German columns rolled forward, a slightly chilling tactic to ensure that Tommy Atkins would not be hampered by huge scatterings of displaced people – better dead than spread – as he drove the enemy back into the sea.

On the wrong side of the anti-tank ditch, Pétain was about to take charge of the defeated French in ‘unoccupied’ France. Reynaud threw in his hand on 16 June. He had failed to get a decision from his cabinet on Churchill’s last-minute suggestion for a full Franco-British Union (‘no longer two nations’), with reciprocity of rights and citizenship which, had it happened, would have relieved him and his ministers of any decision regarding a separate peace. And of course he had failed to find enough support for military capitulation, the path taken by Norway and Holland, which would have meant the government going into exile and persisting with some sort of war effort, as opposed to an armistice, with its obligation by both sides to cease hostilities. Like Weygand, Pétain was for armistice and found the idea of union with Britain lame if not grotesque. When it was put to him that he should assume the role of prime minister, he reached into his pocket and produced a list with the names of the politicians he’d already decided would head up his ministries.

Pétain’s genius in the wake of defeat was to insist not on the humiliating nature of the occasion for the government and the military but on the hardships of the exodus for the millions who’d been on the roads. ‘Français,’ he broadcast a year later, ‘do you not remember the columns of escaping refugees … women, children, the elderly, all perched on vehicles of any kind … overwhelmed by fear and a desire to flee the enemy?’ He also felt that the woes of the displaced (so many of them decadent northern people from the cities) had been redeemed by their bracing introduction to the real France, a nation rooted in ancient values and dependable, virtuous economies: the sugar beet, the grape, the rolling pasture and the milking shed. In this way, a disaster was reframed as a voyage of discovery in pursuit of the truth. As Pétain announced in June 1940, ‘la terre, elle, ne ment pas.’ There was even a propaganda illustration under this legend, with Pétain condescending to a grateful peasant, in a pompous Vichy borrowing from the pompous Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. Pétain was simply exploiting the fact that despite mean-spiritedness, ill-treatment and downright abuse, many displaced French who stumbled across a different country on their flight south in the summer of 1940 never forgot the character and kindness of their hosts. La France profonde had been unexplored territory, full of danger and hospitality, overrun not by organised regiments of conquerors but by millions of conquered.

After the armistice, new kinds of generosity were called for: not resistance exactly, but risky acts of solidarity and provision, all the more decisive once the round of arrests and deportations became daily. Hélène Berr, a young woman in Paris, busy for the most part with her studies in English literature, enrolled as a voluntary worker for Ugif, the Union Générale des Israélites de France, in 1942, helping families listed for deportation, shepherding their children around the city and running youth clubs for the newly orphaned. Berr had a simple, clear-hearted politics but she was not a political creature by nature so much as a vivacious, intense young Parisian, steeped in the English and French literary canons, and an accomplished violinist. She lived with her parents on the avenue Elisée-Reclus on the left bank, a few minutes’ walk from the Pont d’Iéna.

We know about her because she kept a diary from the spring of 1942 until a few weeks before she and her parents were deported, via Drancy, in March 1944. She was 23 at the time. The diary was left with the family’s cook and after Berr’s death in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, it went to her fiancé, while typed copies circulated among family survivors. It was presented to the Shoah Memorial in 2002 and this year published in France to great acclaim.

André Zucca, ‘French women at the races’ (1943)
André Zucca, ‘French women at the races’ (1943)

It is an uncontroversial book, despite the fact that Ugif was steeped in controversy at the time and has been since: it was created by a Vichy decree in 1941 as an instrument of SS policy and its officials were denounced as collaborators, though Berr makes it clear that the attitudes and activities of Ugif volunteers were in no sense all of a piece. It was possible, especially early on, for someone like Berr to regard the organisation as a potential lifeline for Jewish families, and yet be alert to its murky role as an intermediary between persecutors and victims, including children referred by the authorities and ‘blocked’ – that’s to say, scheduled for deportation. Ugif, Berr wrote, appeared ‘by virtue of its non-clandestine character’ to be ‘a monstrosity’ to people on the outside and she could see why. Then again, she saw no point in abandoning the children.

In fact her volunteer work was only one part of Berr’s over-stretched life. By the summer of 1942 she also had to deal with her father’s arrest. Raymond Berr was a distinguished and wealthy man, formerly president of the Society of Civil Engineers and senior director of a company of chemical engineers. In June he was stopped on the way to his office in Paris and later detained because his wife, knowing how often he changed his suits, had taken the precaution of stapling, rather than sewing the yellow star to the one he was wearing that day. Hélène went with her mother and sister to visit him in his cell before he was sent to Drancy. Hélène was shocked to find him without a tie, which had been removed along with his shoelaces – ‘Papa without a tie!’ – but Raymond himself was in good spirits. They sat and talked while her mother sewed the star firmly to his jacket. The mood was neither tense nor ominous, the weather outside was beautiful, the police were sympathetic, ‘but that’s because there weren’t any Germans.’ After a while, a new trio of women bustled in – the mother, ‘a big, vulgar blonde’, the fiancée and a third ‘who must have been the sister’ – to see a young dark-skinned detainee, an Italian Jew, Berr thought, probably held for trading on the black market. The two families were now left in the same room. ‘The four of us together were so far removed from these poor people,’ Berr wrote, ‘I couldn’t get it into my head that Papa had been arrested.’ The focus of persecution, at this stage, was still officially on ‘foreign’ Jews and would not shift fully to people like the Berrs, a French family of long standing, until the following year.

Everything in the preface and afterword of this edition steers the diary firmly towards the vast entranceway of Holocaust studies and there’s every reason to wave it under the gantry. Even so, it is stubbornly of its place and its time, when the righteous victim was still a blurred shape on the outskirts of history – 1948 is the year of destiny for this figure, in southern Africa and the Middle East – and identity politics was a blunt instrument in the hands of the master race. Hélène Berr became fully Jewish, nothing other than a Jewish person, by decree. She clung fiercely to her sense of herself as a Frenchwoman, and to her place in Paris, with which she renewed her infatuation every day like a devoted lover. ‘When I write “Jewish”,’ she confides to the diary, ‘I do not express my own thinking, since to my mind such a distinction does not exist.’ And again: ‘The Zionist ideal seems to me too narrow; every exclusive grouping whether it’s Zionism or the terrifying exaltation of Germanness … involves an excess of pride.’

Berr dealt with the problem of her own yellow star as though she were appearing in public with a deformity. In the end it seemed to her an act of cowardice not to wear it. There were sidelong looks and terse orders to travel in the last carriage of the Métro – provoking ‘tears of pain and revolt’ – yet at the Sorbonne, where some semblance of ordinary life was kept up, her comrades were loyal. At large in the city, she was often surprised by impromptu shows of sympathy. Delivering a letter by hand, she was met by a cleaning lady who told her that ‘the Russians’ would avenge her. Walking along near home, thinking about her shoes, she was stopped by a stranger who announced in a loud voice: ‘A French Catholic shakes you by the hand … and next, revenge!’ Within a year she would be raging against Catholics for their indifference to the fate of Parisian Jews, a sin that had spread from the hem of the cassock, she felt, to infect the meek and ignorant – and many who probably knew better.

Raymond was released after three months in Drancy, thanks to the efforts of his company and his record of service to France: he was one of a handful of Jewish people to win this honour and, with it, a brief remission. The understanding was that he would leave for the so-called ‘free zone’, but the Berrs sat tight, though Hélène does not explain why. Perhaps her force of character had something to do with it. She was adamant, all along, that it would be shameful and improper to leave Paris. Towards the end, when she knew the game was up, she was incapable of regret. She was where she belonged, in the city that belonged to her, and not to the Germans, however unsettling her life had become. On this point she would not or could not budge.

By the time her father was released from Drancy, her world was contracting rapidly. She had a degree in English language and literature, capped with a diploma, but she was forbidden, as a Jew, to prepare for the competitive teaching qualification known as the agrégation. She settled instead for a PhD thesis on Keats. She kept up her commitments to Ugif, worked as an unpaid librarian at the Institut d’anglais, part of the Sorbonne, played the violin several times a week, attended concerts and lectures and also tried for much of this time to make up her mind about the two suitors who’d caught her fancy. She was swayed in the end by the charms of the man on the spot, but he left Paris at the end of 1942 to join the Free French and from then on she found things much harder. The city she venerated, with its ‘luminous and fragile beauty’, became a flickering projection glimpsed through a mesh of anxiety. Her sister married and moved out, leaving her alone with her parents, and early in 1944, with French Jews in great danger, the Berrs stopped sleeping at their apartment, even though they often longed to return home at the end of the day. They succumbed to the temptation in the spring and were rounded up the following morning. Berr’s parents were sent to Auschwitz, where her mother died in the gas chambers and her father was murdered by a Polish medic.

By the time they were seized, Berr had turned her marvellous will to live into a readiness to face the worst, consoled as she did so by her music, her diary and her reading: A.A. Milne, Shelley, Dostoevsky and the last volume of Roger Martin du Gard’s enormous novel, Les Thibault, which had appeared in 1940. The rest of life had become one torment after another devised by the occupiers, an ‘exasperated race’, she felt, whose soldiers drilled up and down outside the Métro stations, their orders barked out like ‘the screams of animals’ under serene skies. Meanwhile families were disappearing into the east; only the worst rumours about what happened to them would turn out to be anywhere near the mark. (‘Is it true,’ Berr wondered about infants deported with their parents – useless, after all, for hard labour – ‘that they’re put on the German social assistance system?’)

In the autumn of 1943, after the arrest of 25 families across the river, she had drawn up a list of treasured possessions she’d want to ‘save’: her violin, the letters from the man who was now her fiancé, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov he’d given her and a selection of books she felt were ‘indispensable’ in their own right. She began calmly and resolutely with Tolstoy. Then came Shelley, and after Shelley Hardy, and now she couldn’t seem to stop. Galsworthy, Kenneth Grahame, Hemingway, Rilke and so on. There was no end to the things that Hélène Berr loved. But it was impossible, when her time came, to load a handcart or fill up a car, as people had done in 1940, when the barbarians were not yet through the gates.