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The Unfree French

The swift and unexpected defeat of the French Army in 1940 shocked the nation. Two million soldiers were taken prisoner, six million civilians fled from the German army's advance to join convoys of confused and terrified refugees, and only a few managed to escape the country. The vast majority of French people were condemned to years of subjugation under Nazi and Vichy rule. This compelling book investigates the impact of the occupation on the people of France and dispels any lingering notion that somehow, under the collaborating government of Marshal Petain, life was quite tolerable for most French citizens. Richard Vinen describes the inescapable fear and the moral quandaries that permeated life in German-controlled France. Focusing on the experiences of the least privileged, he shows how chronic shortages, desperate compromises, fear of displacement, racism, and sadistic violence defined their lives. Virtually all adult males festered in POW camps or were sent to work in the Reich. With numerous enthralling anecdotes and a variety of maps and evocative photographs, The Unfree French makes it possible for the first time to understand how average people in France really lived from 1940 to 1945, why their experiences differed from region to region and among various groups, and why they made the choices they did during the occupation.
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About the Author

Richard Vinen is on the faculty of the Department of History, Kings College, University of London.


This book makes an important contribution to a full understanding of World War II France. Taking a social as opposed to a political perspective, it aims to re-create life under German occupation as it was experienced by ordinary French citizens, especially women, Jews, prisoners of war, refugees, and young men drafted to work in Germany. Vinen (history, King's Coll., Univ. of London) relies on archival sources and published, retrospective accounts, especially autobiographies, to show that life for most of the French from 1940 through 1944 was miserable. Misery, he explains, came to include not only material shortages, physical discomfort, and geographical relocations but also fear, social dislocation, and societal breakdown. Debunking the myth of wartime France as the united home of patriotic resistance fighters, he asserts that particular experiences were shaped by class, geography, occupation, and personal circumstance. He is especially sensitive to class, using case studies and brief biographical vignettes to illustrate his themes. For example, those French women most likely to have relations and relationships with German men came from the most underprivileged parts of society: they were young, poor, and not well educated. Vinen amplifies our understanding of this era. Recommended for academic libraries and specialists in the field. Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

"Even well-informed readers will come away from Vinen's social history with a deeper knowledge of what it was like to live in France during the German occupation. It turns out in his wide-ranging account that it was much bleaker than what we had supposed."-Robert Wohl, author of "The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950." -- Robert Wohl

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