2014: France Under Fire
The final definitive version of this review was published in European History Quarterly October 2014 44: 783-784, doi:10.1177/0265691414547183aj. All rights reserved © Ian Birchall. See http://online.sagepub.com
France under Fire: German Invasion, Civilian Flight, and Family Survival during World War II, Nicole Dombrowski Risser, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2012, xvi + 312 pp, 6 illustrations, £62.00, ISBN 978-1-107- 02532-5 (hb)
When during the Iraq war the American press called the French “surrender monkeys” it was echoing a dimly remembered cliché about the fall of France in 1940. The reality was much more complex, as this carefully researched study by Nicole Risser shows. The French left was disorientated by the Hitler-Stalin pact; a section of the French ruling élite feared communism more than Hitler. There was panic and many people fled the advancing German armies. Press censorship, suppressing news of the military situation, encouraged “a culture of rumors”.  By summer 1940 there were some eight million refugees.
Risser analyses the policies of the Third Republic in its dying months, then those of Vichy and the German occupiers, making extensive use of national and local archives. She has also built up a picture of what the policies meant by studying letters from refugees applying for help, and by interviewing survivors. This is history from above and from below. We have the statistics and the governmental negotiations, but also what they meant to a female cleaner of Yugoslav origin without French citizenship.
The refugees faced many dangers. As they fled they were repeatedly attacked from the air by German aircraft. The bombing of Rennes station on 17 June 1940 cost 5000 refugee lives.  This was undoubtedly a war crime against civilians, but it was not covered at Nuremburg. Risser endorses the judgment of Telford Taylor “that the Allied powers wanted to avoid indicting the Germans for aerial bombardment so as to divert attention from their own catastrophic bombing campaign against cities such as Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki”.  As she points out. “in so doing …the Allies themselves dealt a brutal blow against postwar prohibitions that might have protected civilian innocents in the future from such wanton disregard for human life.” 
The burden fell especially on women. Many men had been called up into the army; their wives, often in charge of small children, were left to fend for themselves. Risser shows how they dealt with their needs for money, transport, food and shelter; the pressing problems of sheer survival meant that many women abandoned their traditional subordination in order to “challenge hierarchies of authorities”.  Some women rubbed mustard on their bodies to discourage German rapists - in fact more women were coerced into sex with members of the French army, who demanded that they should fulfil their “patriotic duty”. 
Gender was not the only factor. The elderly and sick faced especial hardships. Class divisions were strikingly visible; car-owners were able to flee in relative comfort. When the German bombing ceased, Northern France was subjected to bombing by the British, especially but not only in the port areas. As Vichy’s Special Representative for Refugees, Louis Marlier, reported: “We have confirmed that the last bombings have above all fallen around the families who live closest to the factories already attacked by bombs but which risk being targeted again. It is considered a given that it is working-class families by and large who live in these densely populated neighbourhoods.” 
After the surrender Germans and French worked together to try and repatriate refugees. But the Germans were already imposing their racial policies. They insisted on strict control of the Demarcation Line between the Occupied Zone in the North and the Vichy-controlled South. “German border guards enforced the exclusion of Jews from the Occupied Zone, sending entire trains back to their point of origin for transporting a single Jewish person.”  The Germans used repatriation policy “as a tool for engaging the French in policies of racial and political discrimination”. [233-4] We may presume that some French were not too reluctant to be thus engaged.
Movement in the opposite direction was equally controlled. In early 1942 Simonne Zuckerman, a Parisian Catholic married to a Jew, crossed the Line of Demarcation hidden in the boot of a car (an act punishable by death in 1942), though pregnant, in order to join her husband in the Free Zone. 
The French made some attempts to argue against such controls, but were not in a position to win any concessions. This was how the Germans began to impose their racial policies, preparing the way for the ethnic cleansing and deportations that followed.
Risser’s findings make a real contribution to our knowledge of this historical episode, now remote but still within living memory. In her introduction Risser recalls that still today “many families elsewhere in our world live in war‑torn societies” [xiv]; her account, dispassionate yet sometimes powerfully moving, enables us to empathise with them.