Although I usually have a crime novel on the go, I read a lot of history and biography as well. I’ve almost completed Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, by Hanna Diamond (OUP 2007). This is an extraordinary book about the French flight from Paris after the German invasion of northern France. Although I’ve read many books about the Second World War, I must say that I hadn’t realised the extent of the exodus that took place. Parisians were clearly terrified; millions of them abandoned their homes, in most cases taking only the possessions that they could carry or wheel in carts or on bicycles. A very small minority had cars or vans, but were often forced to abandon these when they ran out of petrol.
Ironically, most of the populace would have been better off staying where they were, unless they were Jewish, as the Germans had no plans to harm them wholesale; in fact, they wanted as many people as possible to carry on working to support the German war effort. Doubly ironic is that, while Parisians and other inhabitants of northern France and Belgium were panic-stricken and took to the roads with little cause, in Berlin and other urban centres in Germany, German Jews believed that they were safe and stayed until it was too late. I have no explanation for the extreme fear amongst the French, unless it was caused by the fact that Paris had been invaded four times within living memory, on the last occasion only about a quarter of a century previously.
Of particular fascination is Hanna Diamond’s account of how the quite sophisticated Parisians (though, in many cases, they were only a generation away from having been peasants themselves) reacted to the extremely basic lifestyles of the peasant communities in which they found shelter. It is a snapshot in time of how two eras, the modern one and the age-old traditional one, collided. Despite bucolic discomforts, however, a significant number of Parisians did not return to Paris after the panic subsided, but stayed in these rural communities, especially if they could find work. Some of the wealthier départements were extremely generous; for example, the inhabitants of the Charente gave refugees ten francs each per day, even though they could obtain accommodation and food (‘including drink’!) for about twelve francs per week. Others – especially those on major routes south, which were assailed by wave after wave of large groups en route – received them with dour suspicion and moved them on as quickly as possible.
I’m not unduly patriotic, but the account in this book of the behaviour of the French government in power at the time of the invasion makes me somewhat proud of the contrasting achievement of the British government of the day. In Britain, the government gave everyone clear orders about rationing, evacuation of children, building of safety shelters and what to do in case of invasion. There were also regular news bulletins (though some were censored in order not to demoralise) about what was going on in the rest of Europe. The French government, by contrast, seemed to be incapable of organising anything at all. The refugees received no directions besides broad advice on which areas further south they should head for, no financial support, no food, no petrol and no information. It is hardly surprising that Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government commanded so much support when they first appeared; theirs was the only leadership on offer.
It is estimated that 100,000 people died during the flight from Paris and the subsequent bedraggled return of most of the refugees; many of these victims were children, the old, the ill and the infirm. Some may actually have starved. I do wonder, though, how many were murdered. There were fights for food along the way; fathers and husbands were forced to prostitute daughters and wives in return for petrol and other basics; and returning families sometimes found that their flats had been occupied by German soldiers or by French people who had taken advantage of their absence. Plenty of scope for nefarious deeds here, I should have thought, including a few undetected murders.
I have found much to interest me in this carefully-researched account of an aspect of the Second World War that does not usually get an airing. I recommend it.