Vichy France

Zach – We have an interesting topic today. Usually I come up with topics through random research and tangents. One interesting thing leads to another and I find a forgotten corner of history. Today is a piece of history that’s always been in the open but never paid attention to. Last week I was looking at “Operation Torch” where the Allies invaded North Africa and the Vichy French fought back.

The occupied French were fighting against the liberators??  Huh???

The occupied French were fighting against the liberators?? Huh???

I was confused. Here was something I didn’t understand but wanted to. So, I delved into a topic I knew little about in order to find out the truth of this matter.
Anna – Let’s get into it and see if we can make sense of Vichy France. With us we have Countess Matilda of Tuscany: personal face wrecker to the Pope,  Gaspar Correia: imaginative historian and conquistador. And lastly we have St. Olga of Kiev: Russian convert to Christianity and expert at blood soaked rampages.
Matilda – Let’s start with the military crisis that created Vichy France. Having fought the Germans before, I know how stubborn they can be in battle. The French were completely unprepared for the German invasion in 1940. Their tactics were outdated and they had no desire for war. After the destruction of WWI, the French people simply had no stomach for a fight. The German tactics rolled over the French army and France was occupied in a matter of weeks.
Anna – How did France respond to this total defeat? That’s a rather complicated answer. The response depended on the group. Some military and government leaders fled and went to either England or the French colonies. Some welcomed the Germans because they feared the English even more. Others simply gave up and accepted it. Most, including the average person, just wanted to live in peace. The question was, what cost were they willing to pay for this peace?
Zach – This is what will define the Vichy government, peace at any price, even if that price was war. The ease of the German defeat crushed the French spirit so completely that they had no hope of ever regaining their independence. So, instead of fighting back, they just ducked their heads and rolled over. They saw no way of fighting the Germans. The French had another problem: they were completely divided. The socialists hated the conservatives, the conservatives hated the Republicans, the Republicans hated the liberals and everyone hated the communists. The conservatives (don’t confuse these terms for modern political ones) accepted the occupation because they like Germany’s focus on strong leadership, family and strength. The socialists accepted the Nazis because they liked the Nazi’s focus on socialism with government ownership of private business and social programs. The communists accepted it because at the time Germany was allied with Soviet Russia. Seeing German troops goosestepping around Paris seemed a small price to pay for survival. They feared that if they fought back, they’d lose their country completely.

The Germans directly occupied the norther half of the country and let the southern half have nominal autonomy. All of this was a joke however.

The Germans directly occupied the northern half of the country and let the southern half have nominal autonomy. All of this was a joke however.

Olga – (Laughs) Oh, these Frenchies, they so proud of they freedom and thought they could work with German mean men.
Gaspar – Yes, the French, who hated the former Republic, were glad to see it go and viewed the occupation as a chance to set their government right. They changed their constitution and set up a WWI hero named Petain as a virtual dictator.

Petain's the guy on the left and, oh yeah, the guy he's shaking hands with is freaking Hitler.  (I know I usually have a rule to not mention the "H word" but this is to prove a point.) This guy kept wanted to have meetings with the Big H, but Hitler didn't even care enough to respond.

Petain’s the guy on the left and, oh yeah, the guy he’s shaking hands with is freaking Hitler. (I know I usually have a rule to not mention the “H word” but this is to prove a point.) This guy kept wanting to have meetings with the Big H, but Hitler didn’t even care enough to respond.  He unfriended him on Facebook.

Matilda – Germany didn’t occupy the entire country because they had better things to do. As long as France didn’t get uppity they were left alone for the time being. They mistakenly interpreted this as a good sign. In reality it was that France was now beneath their notice and was cheaper to let France police themselves. Petain started trying to negotiate with Germany as if they were equals. They wanted to maintain the independence by pleasing their new masters. They hoped that if they collaborated with their evil overlords they would prove useful and work as partners. I remember when Germany invaded my beloved Tuscany and I rolled over and surrendered…oh wait, that’s right. I fought back against the entire Holy Roman Empire.  Hmmm…
Gaspar – There were a few problems with trying to negotiate in a rational manner on equal terms. One: they had nothing Germany wanted that they couldn’t just take. Two: German wasn’t rational. Three: Germany had no desire to work with the French. The Big Evil H wanted revenge, not friendship. He’d rather lose the war than have his men march shoulder to shoulder with Frenchmen. This is why he deployed undead soldiers to occupy France to free up his living soldiers for the rest of Europe.

These unstoppable undead stormtroopers struck fear into the local populace.

These unstoppable undead stormtroopers struck fear into the local populace.

Olga – Fire works against zombies, dah?

Anna – The Germans laid down the terms of the armistice and the French accepted them. But that was not all, the French wanted to go further. They wanted to fight against the British. In fact, the Germans were so surprised at the willingness of the French to work with them, that they distrusted them even more. They were like a small, annoying dog trying to get its master’s attention.

The dog waiting obediently for its master's voice.

The dog waiting obediently for its master’s voice.

Even Dr. Seuss saw that the Nazis weren't exactly well intentioned neighbors.

Even Dr. Seuss saw that the Nazis weren’t exactly well intentioned neighbors.

Zach – The Vichy French didn’t see the realities of the situation. They thought this Germany was the same Germany they’ve been dealing with for the past thousand years. They saw a post war Europe where Germany dominated several partners. They thought Germany could be rational. But slowly the Germans kept taking away freedoms and liberties. For the first year, 1940-41, the resistance was practically non-existent. This could be due to shock from such a total defeat, to an idea that they could finally make France how they wanted, to the fear that England would come in and take over. They wanted to maintain their overseas empire.

Thank you, Gordon Ramsay, that is a very good question.

Thank you, Gordon Ramsay, that is a very good question.

Olga – Okay, okay. I still no understand. Why do French peoples no fight back? I get it. They want peace, yes? But I no take crap like they take. I fight back and burn German houses down…with them in it.
Anna – Many were more afraid of a possible British invasion and the chaos and destruction that would come with it.
Olga – They too scared to fight. That is sad. Theywant be slaves and safe than risk danger and be free. I don’t think I like these Vichy French peoples.
Zach – In 1942, the Allies invaded North Africa and the Vichy French fought back. They wanted to impress the Germans to show they could be partners. They also didn’t want to lose their overseas territories to the English. The Allies destroyed the French navy while they were still in port in a matter of hours. Another humiliating defeat. A few days later, Germany occupied the rest of France. Now the illusion of autonomy was proven false to everyone but the most fanatic of pro-Vichy politicians.

Joan D'Arc would not be pleased with this outcome. This made Agincourt look good.

Joan D’Arc would not be pleased with this outcome. This made Agincourt look good.

Gaspar – What about this famous Resistance I keep hearing about?
Zach – At first they had to hide. After the 1940 invasion, the idea of resistance was met with disdain and a French jackboot to the face. Young men didn’t have local support so they would flee to the mountains and hills and fight any way they could including assassinations and bombings. As Germany ran out of slave labor from Eastern countries, they began to take men from France. As time went, they wanted more and more laborers and instead of being packed up in train carts, they fled to the mountains and joined the resistance. Think about it, these men wanted to fight for their country, but their own country didn’t want them too. That makes the handful of Resistance fighters that actually fought back, that much more impressive. They were the real heroes while the rest of the country were tripping over themselves to please the Nazis.

The French people didn't try to fight back because they didn't want to risk anything. Safety was worth more than freedom and it ended up costing them heavily. It cost them their honor and their souls.

The French people didn’t try to fight back because they didn’t want to risk anything. Safety was worth more than freedom and it ended up costing them heavily. It cost them their honor and their souls.

Anna – But now we have to talk about something even more unpleasant. The Germans demanded that France deliver their Jews to them. At first it was only the foreign Jews that came to France as refugees, but as the quotas increased, they began to deport French citizens. Out of 76,000 Jews that they deported, only about 3,000 ever returned. In contrast, Fascist Italy fought back against the deportation of Jews and Bulgaria flat out refused. France didn’t care as long as they pleased their overlords.
Olga – Now I really no like this Vichy France place. I go burn their houses down.
(Olga gets up and leaves.)

Gaspar – Is that alright that she just left? I mean, she might just burn down the first house she sees.

Anna – It’ll be fine……………right?
Zach – What could go wrong? I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I started digging around the history of Vichy but I wasn’t expecting this. What I saw was the desire for safe slavery at any cost. They were willing to fight England, deport Jews and help the Nazis. I was hoping to find some real reasons for what they did, maybe some secret resistance against the occupiers. I was hoping the battle in Northern Africa was a fluke, but it turns out, Vichy France wanted to fight England much more. This is my opinion, but what I found I thought was absolutely pathetic.
Anna – This makes the Resistance much more heroic in my eyes. Dugal, the exiled French general that fought to regain his country, faced opposition from his own countrymen. There were real heroes in this story, but they weren’t working with Vichy France.
Zach – As always, I encourage the reader to investigate this story and find out for yourself. Maybe your opinion may be different than mine. Two people can look at the same set of facts and come out with completely different conclusions. (Disclaimer: I’m not talking hating on the entire French people or their history, just this one period of time that was led by cowardly and weak politicians. )

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16 comments on “Vichy France

  1. Joe in PNG says:

    Point to Ponder: I get the feeling that the lack of fighting spirit at the start of WW2 may be a result of a backlash towards the pre-WWI French “Cult of the Offensive”.
    Could there have been a kind of sick relief once the Battle of France was over, that the mass bloodletting of Verdun wouldn’t be happening?

    • Absolutely. They disliked the British because of their “Aggressive” behavior towards the Germans. WWI was far more horrible to the French than we Americans can realize and they seemed to fear and hate war. I really tried not to judge them too harshly because of that, but then when they were biting at the bit to fight England, that’s when I said “okay, now they’re just being stupid.” This issue is far more complex than I could write in one post.

      • oldliberty says:

        Will you be doing further posts on this, then?

      • Specifically on Vichy France? Probably not. But I could recommend books if you’d like.

      • Joe in PNG says:

        Also, the alliance between the French and English at this point only went back 40 years or so… which is a rather short timeas far as politics goes (parallel that to the influence Watergate and Vietnam still have on policymakers today). That Petain and other of the ancient generals running Vichy France could see England as an enemy is kind of understandable, but not excusable.

        And that the mustachiod madman spent the past 22 years howling for retribution against France, and had in fact stomped innocent neutral countries flat to get that opportunity… should have been the Vichy government’s clue that the occupation wasn’t going to be days of puppies and kittens…

      • The French were also understandably upset about the British capture of some and sinking of other Vichy French ships after the fall of France in 1940, which included one pitched battle, Mers-el-Kabir, on July 3rd 1940, which killed over 1200 French servicemen. The British judged that the French would turn these ships over to the Germans, an event which if it had happened might have meant British defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic. Here, the French suffered for the damage to their reputation among the British caused by their relatively quick and easy surrender in 1940.

        Really, the French suffered from an extreme version of an attitude common in the West in the Interwar Era, especially among Western intellectuals. They simultaneously believed that the defense was now eternally-paramount — so no one could possibly break through the French lines no matter how half-assed their command and control system — and at the same time that if the war went total all sides would be annihilated by strategic bombardment with chemical weapons and incendiaries.

        The British had this attitude too. The difference is that the British people took their own intellectuals a LOT less seriously than the French did. Those same intellectuals would spend World War II sucking up ot the Nazis, and after the war to the Soviet Union.

        You’ve probably heard of the paramount one: Jean-Paul Sartre.

  2. suicidal idiot says:

    This does a lot to explain the current tolerance for the muslim occupation of France.

    How many cars get burned every night in Paris again? There are huge sections of Paris the police won’t enter.

    The Nazis occupied, but never colonized. France is screwed.

  3. Julaire says:

    Hi Zach,

    In addition to my prior request about the Tilden-Hayes election, do you think you could do a post on the Children’s Crusade? I’ve never really heard a lot of detail about it.


  4. paulgenesse says:

    Excellent suggestion, Julaire. Zack, another great post. Well done.

  5. DaveP. says:

    One thing I didn’t apprehend was that Petain wasn’t just some guy the Germans called out of retirement to head their puppet government: he had been part of the pre-surrender French government for quite some time and had spent a lot of it writing extensive memos about how France was doomed and should surrender immediately. Since he had been a big name in the military ‘tween wars (with a lot of moral authority) and was at least in part responsible for the disaster of French arms against the Reich, a lot of things fall into perspective…

    • The really sad thing about Petain is that he had been one of the most courageous and competent of the French generals during World War One. He seems to have expended all his courage in that war, though … by World War Two, all he wanted to do was give up.

  6. Veritas says:

    I wonder how you would characterize the British slaughter of French seamen in Algeria. Weren’t they allies? So does the reaction of the Vichy French to the invasion of their territory surprise anyone who is sane? The response of the French is complicated. Even Vichy looks far better than FDR’s actions at Yalta.

  7. Gerardo Tejada says:

    Sartre and other intelectuals were dweling in the reason to live and reduced all philosophical questions to one “why dont we kill ourselves?” after the invasion all the intelectuals had a reason to live, to drive out the germans. Thats acording to both Camus and Sartre.

    And to compare this to “the muslim ocupation of france” is tipical of the chauvinist spirit of europe, or shoul I say “the western”.

    So before someone argues that the french are cowards, first ask yourself Who are the French?

    There has been never a unified homogeneus nation, contradictions exist, for example XIX century USA was built over slavery and militar expansion, and many were prodly calling themselves an “Empire”, yet to say the United States citizens were all slave traders, speculators and imperialists would be wrong.

    And also, germans were not “irrational”, reason is not a virtue but a weapon. Is the legacy of the XVIII that make us think that reason is something out of Itself, often forgetting that at our core we are just primates that can operate tools. Seek the actions of the rational man of the XVIII and XIX and see they have not progressed much from the Medieval Men they hated so much, and see that the Germans were not worse than many men before them.

  8. Gerardo Tejada says:

    Also the reasonmany countries didnt want to fight the Nazis was the same reason USA and Soviet Union never faced each other.

    After the Great War there was a fear that the next World War would end Europe. Germany had Spain and Italy, war would have been suicide. And to die fighting for freedom is a noble choice for an individual but a silly choice for a country, independence wars were for wining, you dont start a war you can not win.

    For the upperclasses freedom was almost the same, there was no reason to fight. That repeated along south america in the cold war, the powerfull chose to side with the conquerer to remain powerfull.

    Also the views on the Nazis in those times were not as they are now, Germany had friends in every nation acrosss Europe and even in America.

    And the Nazis had enemies in their own lands too! Germans and French fought against the Nazis, but that is something people would like to forget, because they cant understand It.

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