Interview with Robert Gildea

Historians in the News

Jennie Rothenberg interviews Robert Gildea, in the Atlantic (Nov. 2003):

In the immense canon of books about Europe during World War II, numerous works center on France, immortalizing the glory of la Résistance or revealing dark scandals of Nazi collaboration. Marianne in Chains is a different kind of story. In its pages, author Robert Gildea tells the tales of ordinary French people who were less concerned with abetting or resisting the Nazis than with maintaining their everyday lives.

Rather than surveying the entire nation, Gildea chose to focus on the Loire Valley, a coastal region that was part of France's occupied northern zone. Exploring newly opened archives and interviewing numerous older citizens, he was able to reassemble a picture of daily life during the occupation, complete with farmers, café owners, priests, and accordion players. More sensational characters do make occasional appearances: underground activists, corrupt officials, and informants reminiscent of Dickens's sinister Madame Defarge. But Gildea's research centers first and foremost on mainstream citizens, and his stated purpose is to move "beyond praise and blame... to understand actions and sentiments in terms of the options and values obtained under the occupation, the one extremely limited and the other extremely fluid."

Compared with other parts of Europe—most notably the Eastern Front and the Balkans—the Nazi occupation of France was relatively gentle. The French, whose Latin heritage ranked them high in Hitler's racial hierarchy, were given more freedom than those of other nations to maintain their local governments, churches, and ways of life. Food was scarce, but rather than focusing on hunger and poverty, Gildea looks at the resourcefulness of the French people as they satisfied their daily needs through clandestine networks and "gray markets." In one chapter entitled "Circuses," he spends two full pages listing youth clubs and leisure organizations that existed in occupied France, demonstrating that the French people did not spend the war years "cowering at home."

Gildea's demystifying approach to history has not always made him popular with French academics. His book begins with an account of a 1997 paper he presented at the Academy of Tours, in which he argued that not all French people spent the war years in misery and starvation, and the riot his conclusions provoked from the audience. This reaction inspired Gildea to expand his research, and the conclusions he draws in Marianne in Chains are comprehensive and nuanced ....

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