Fleeing Hitler: Searching For Memories
Hanna Diamond, author of Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, is Senior Lecturer in French History at the University of Bath. She lived and taught in Paris for many years and has spent her career researching the lives of the French people during the twentieth century. Fleeing Hitler shows how the mass exodus from Paris was a defining moment in the war for the French. In the original piece below Diamond reflects upon how difficult it was to get into the French psyche.
When I was approached by OUP to write a book on the exodus in France I had already read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise and I jumped at the chance. Aware that official archives, police reports and other documents drawn up by officials were not likely to be available since most had left their posts along with the rest of the population, oral history seemed an ideal way of reaching this experience. I had already written a book on women and their experience of the Second World War which had made extensive use of oral history and it seemed logical that this topic would also lend itself well to gathering oral testimony. My previous book had also dealt with the war period and the immediate post war years. For this I had interviewed close to 70 people, mainly women, about their experiences. So I embarked upon this new project with some enthusiasm.
Once I set out to arrange these interviews, however, it immediately became clear that this study was going to be more challenging than my last one. The first problem I encountered was that of actually finding witnesses. While researching my previous book I had been living in Toulouse and then Paris. I was able to get all my contacts to put me in touch with their elderly relatives – I became the Englishwoman who was interested in everyone’s grandparents. But, that was ten years previously and I was now based in Bath, UK. The experience of organising meetings long distance was much more challenging. I mobilised all my French contacts but it was much more difficult to find people who were prepared to speak to me about their experiences in May-June 1940 and of course they were all quite elderly – well into their 70s and 80s and often not all that inclined to discuss this traumatic and difficult period of their life. One Parisian doctor friend told me that I was a year too late as there had been a terrible heat wave the previous summer which had, he claimed, wiped out a generation of his elderly patients. Nonetheless, I did manage to secure a number of appointments and conducted 30 or so interviews.
To my surprise, I soon found that the actual content of what they had to say was a little disappointing. Their memory of these weeks was very sparse and was related in a few short sentences which could be summarized as follows ‘We learnt that the Germans were coming. We left. It was terrible on the roads and we were shot at. There were all sorts of people there with us, travelling in all sorts of vehicles. Cars often had mattresses on top of them to protect them from the German machine gunners. And then we came home’. On the other hand, if these accounts of their exodus seemed a little truncated, once they moved into talking about their daily experiences after the Germans were in occupation, they needed little encouragement before they were relating detailed accounts of how difficult it was get enough to eat and their contacts with the Resistance, however tenuous this may have been.
It soon became apparent that the exodus was emerging as a ‘forgotten memory’ and that oral sources were not going to be sufficient for me to tell the story adequately. In many ways this is quite understandable. Who wants to remember a traumatic and difficult defeat? In order for a memory to remain alive it needs to be cultivated and for that to happen people need to be interested in hearing about it. France’s dark years of occupation have now become an ‘acceptable’ memory of the war and French people are reasonably comfortable with talking about it as they can frame this experience in terms of portraying themselves as victims of the Nazis. The exodus, on the other hand, is a much more complex event which marked the beginning of France’s collaboration with the Germans and opened the way to the Vichy regime which took power in June 1940. Many of those I spoke to said that no one had ever asked them about their experiences of the exodus before, even their own children, so as a memory it has disappeared.
For the purposes of the book therefore, I turned to other sources which offered me more detailed information about how individuals experienced these events which could supplement the interview material I had gathered. I set about foraging through the archives and libraries of Paris in search of journals, autobiographies and memoirs which dealt with this period. I was not disappointed and found many useful sources which enabled me to piece together a much more detailed impression of how these events had exploded into people’s lives. Unfortunately, despite the fact that women made up the majority of those who left Paris in the wake of the government’s departure on 10 June 1940, I was able to trace very few accounts written by women. The published diaries of famous feminist, Simone de Beauvoir proved one of the rare works to provide a daily account of her experiences on leaving Paris in June 1940 and her later return to the capital under occupation. Many other accounts were invaluable and I found that quoting these texts directly and relating the anecdotes that I discovered in them invested my narrative with a vividness and realism that helped me to transmit the terror and the enormity of the experience of this flight.