Jeremy Black is an extraordinary historian. Anyone who can condense a thousand years of history into just 220 pages has to be a master of his subject. In his book, A Short History of France, he broadly divides French history into chronological sections, ranging from prehistoric France to Emmanuel Macron’s controversially Napoleonic fifth republic. But perhaps the most enlightening section is the one about the Second World War where France was overrun by Germany almost without a fight in 1940. During the next five years, the country was administered by a puppet government located in Vichy, while many brave Resistance fighters fought against the massive odds and vicious reprisals meted out to them and their families by the Nazis.
One of the most horrific examples of this brutality took place in the centre of France in a town called Oradour-sur-Glane. Even today most French people shudder at the name of it. Visit Oradour today and all you’ll see is rubble – the ghost of habitations destroyed like many others during the war – except that Oradour is different.
In the summer of 1944, not long before France was liberated, German soldiers grown desperate in the face of allied opposition rounded up the entire population of the village. 642 civilians were murdered. The men were shot point blank. The women and children were herded into the small church in the square, undoubtedly weeping at the sight of their men and rightly terrified at what was now in store for them. Then, when they were all inside and the door was barricaded fast, the church was set on fire. Nobody survived. “Today,” relates Black, “the village stands as it was after the devastation”, a grisly monument in the history of a country often plagued by a lack of cohesion, a deep-rooted distrust of government and an anarchic mentality.
Black leaves the reader in no doubt that, after the Germans were defeated and driven out of France, the history of those dreadful years was rewritten to cover up the high level of collaboration with the Nazis and to glorify the courage of the Resistance fighters who had meanwhile stood their ground but were not perhaps as numerous as the French nation would have liked. The celebrations of victory were followed by “a popular fury, called the Epuration (purge), directed against collaborators. Possibly up to 10,000 were killed and 40,000 detained.” The Vichy government naturally was top of the list. “Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister who was convicted of plotting against the security of the state and collaboration, was executed by firing squad.”
Clearly, WWII was a defining moment in the history of France, but still it’s through the sections of the French Revolution that modern France is most clearly seen in context. History has a way of repeating itself, to greater or lesser intensity. The Terror of the Revolution, which Robespierre, the notorious French Revolutionary, describes as ‘speedy, severe and inflexible justice’, continues to pulse through the arteries of France. During the 2018 gilets jaunes protests, all of Paris and much of the country was thrown into turmoil. Ordinary people donned yellow vests and blocked all public transport to protest against a raise in fuel tax that the hapless Emmanuel Macron, then President, had tried to implement in the context of environmental measures. It didn’t go down well. When the French are unhappy with something they take it to the streets. There was no Bastille to storm so the shops would have to do. Paris was mostly boarded up in anticipation of the weekly riots that never seemed to end. Interestingly, on almost every occasion the government backs down in the face of persistent striking, riots and blockades. The merry-go-round of revolution, albeit without the horrors of the guillotine, goes on. France, writes Black, “emerged through a process of constantly renegotiated compromises between rulers and ruled” and the “process of compromise is part of the trade-off that always really underlay royal power and that has been translated to its republican successor.”
Any Cop?: A brilliant history book and a must for anyone who really wants to understand what makes France tick.