The Two Faces of France During WWII
What happens when part of a country's population embraces the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity while the rest abandon those principles in favor of work, family, fatherland, and a heavy dose of anti-Semitism? Moreover, what if that ideological split divides not only the country's people, but its leadership as well? If that country is France during World War II, facing off against a German fighting machine that some perceived as undefeatable, the answer is simple: the country is rent in two.
As soon as Germany stormed into Paris in June 1940 the French people were forced to choose one side or the other. Either agree with Prime Minister Paul Reynaud and General Charles de Gaulle and oppose Hitler, or side with vice-premier Henri-Philippe Petain who favored negotiating an armistice with Germany. Petain carried the day, replacing Reynaud as prime minister and establishing a puppet administration in the city of Vichy. France's dual personalities, collaboration and opposition, would endure through the war and well beyond.
Those French who disagreed with the armistice splintered into first a ragtag, then a highly organized, resistance movement. These "Free French" were led by de Gaulle from exile in England and worked in concert with and were supported by American and British forces. They did their level best to sabotage Axis war efforts, participating in the D-Day invasion and ultimately playing an instrumental role in liberating France.
Petain's government was expected to round up and surrender all French Jews to Germany, a task that it undertook aggressively. Thousands were deported. As Nazi persecution of Jews intensified, the Vichy administration established a secret police called the Milice, similar to the German SS. According to many reports, the Milice were every bit as ruthless as their Nazi counterparts, and the epoch of violence against the Jews left rifts among French citizens that endure to this day.
This article was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the
April 2010 paperback release.
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