Remembering Exodus and Defeat 70 Years On…
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 on reader feedback from her book. Read her previous OUPblog post here.
70 years ago, this month, France was thrown into turmoil by the dramatic turn of events of the Second World War. From May 1940, the Germans advanced successfully through the North of the country and the Allies were routed. The British Expeditionary Forces were evacuated at Dunkerque leaving the French populations, both civilian and military, terrified and exposed to invasion.
The ensuing flight of populations which started in northern and eastern France, spread to Paris by mid-June and took on biblical proportions as the entire country ‘folded over on itself’. People fled their homes by whatever means they could; their only concern was to escape before the Germans arrived. These people who had become refugees in their own country swelled the towns of the southern half of the country where they collapsed in exhaustion, aware that they could go no further.
As an author, it was an unusual and extraordinary experience for me to receive emails and letters from readers who had themselves been in France at this time. Many identified with the various eye witness accounts in the book which chimed in with their own vivid memories of these weeks. Young children at the time, they commented on how extraordinary it is that this experience has been largely overlooked by historians. The widespread lack of awareness of the events of May and June 1940 are poignantly underlined by one of these messages. An American woman wrote to me after caring for her dying friend’s mother:
Because I knew nothing about this episode in French history, I purchased your book. I would read excerpts from it to Josette as we talked about her own refugee experience. Her reaction was extraordinary. It was as if she felt vindicated and finally able to prove to her family, who’d heard these stories over and over, that she hadn’t fabricated these experiences. In a small way, your book gave Josette some measure of comfort.
I am hopeful that as the 70th anniversary commemorations of the events of 1940 take place over the next few weeks, that many more individual stories of this period will come to light, and that those whose may have felt silenced by the apparent lack of interest will feel able to come forward and explore their memories of this dramatic period in European history.