Just as no Germans could be found after 1945 who admitted to having been Nazi sympathisers, so there were no French who had been Vichy supporters. The entire country had apparently been in the Resistance, but mysteriously failed to make any impact on the German occupiers in the north and Marshal Petain and his puppet regime in the south. This self-justifying nonsense received a new lease of life under Charles de Gaulle's hegemony from 1958-69, when the general promoted the absurd notion that the Resistance was the main factor that liberated France. The allies had already colluded in this official consoling myth during the war, when they allowed de Gaulle and his supporters to "take" Paris in advance of the allied forces in August 1944; in reality, the German armies had already withdrawn. One of the most splendid things about Robert Gildea's excellent book is the way he consigns what Private Eye would call "Resistanceballs" to history's dustbin.
The book is primarily a careful micro-study of occupied France in the old Vendee area of the greater Loire Valley, taking in Nantes, Angers, Saumur, Chinon, St Nazaim and Tours. Gildea has sifted the provincial archives thoroughly and topped this up with some fascinating interviews, conducted Studs Terkel-like with local survivors of the occupation. The result is a peculiarly rich book, enlightening about conscription, forced labour, the role of the Catholic Church, sex between German soldiers and French women ("horizontal collaboration") and much else. Those without a starry-eyed view of human nature will not be surprised to learn that the majority of French men and women simply kept their heads down and worked out how to turn the occupation to their advantage. Black-marketeers and other rip-off artists made fortunes; the Church was glad to see the back of the Third Republic which, in its view, had been a breeding ground for anticlericalism, freemasonry and communism; local aristocrats found common cultural bonds with Junker officers. Until Hitler lost his head in 1943 and encouraged the Gestapo's repression of the whole of France, the occupiers and occupied lived largely in benign cohabitation. The only reason many Frenchmen in authority did not cosy up even more snugly to the Nazis was uncertainty (especially after 1942) about how the war would end.
However fascinating Gildea's picture of everyday life in the years 1940-44, it is his dismantling of the Resistance legend that forms the spine of the book. Gildea estimates that no more than 2 per cent of the French population ever had dealings with the Resistance - hardly surprising, given that service with the maquis was a high-risk business (one could be killed in shoot-outs or executed after one's identity was revealed under torture). More than that, Gildea establishes that the Resistance was not popular. The shootings of Germans by partisans inevitably led to reprisals against the innocent, so the universe in which the Resistance operated was not that of good versus evil, but of moral twilight. The occupation introduced its own world of moral chaos and relativism; for example, the hoarding of food, normally condemned as profiteering, could in this changed context be construed as denying succour to the Germans. The Vichy government itself pretended to be authoritarian to please Hitler, but was a cesspit of corruption, where officialdom invariably toadied to vested interests. Even those who opposed the Germans faced conflicts of loyalties: was it possible to be pro-Vichy and anti-German, as many right-wingers maintained (and still do)? If one opposed Vichy, too, should one support General Giraud in North Africa or de Gaulle in London? And if you were a communist, should you throw in your lot with Catholic partisan leaders or await clear orders from Moscow?
Gildea establishes persuasively that the cliched heroic profile of the Resistance has to be revised. Many of its "heroes" - especially in the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur - were at best ill-disciplined brigands who preyed on their own countrymen as much as on the Germans, and were at worst psychopathic thugs given a licence to kill by notions of la gloire. After the war, de Gaulle performed a double transformation. First, he marginalised the actual Resistance in favour of the Free Frenchmen who had been with him in exile. Then, in "compensation", and as part of his passionate hatred of the Anglo-Saxons (the real liberators of France), he wrote the allies out of history and produced a bizarre mythology where the Resistance, unaided, expelled the Reich from France.
History has had the last laugh. The Resistance heroes were dislodged from the pantheon by Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as that unique descent into darkness came to seem the central event of the war, even in France. Among Gildea's finest qualities is an acutely developed sense of historical irony. One result of his scholarly labours is that no one will ever again be able to view the occupation as a crude division between German oppressors and French oppressed.