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Living Through the Occupation

Everyday life in occupied France was experienced with varying degrees of struggle by the country’s population depending on the extent to which people were vulnerable to the repression visited upon the population by the Nazi invader and the French puppet government it used to impose its authority. It also depended, as is typical in wartime, on the means people had to stave off the hardships caused by a spiralling cost of living, chronic shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies and care when, as was often the case, families were fractured through bereavement in conflict or divided by the imprisonment of POW fathers and brothers in Germany.  The quality of everyday life depended on where one lived. In the countryside it was, generally speaking, easier to obtain food than it was in Paris where distribution of what little was left after disrupted transportation and pillage by the German army, was chaotic. Oil, gas and electricity were severely rationed and in Paris, where there were no alternatives like wood to chop and peat to burn, the population suffered extreme misery through some of the coldest winters on record.  Those who lived in the city also had to travel a distance to their place of work. Cars had no petrol to run them and were, in many cases, commandeered by the German army. Buses and underground trains operated on a reduced service or not at all and when they did run they were often full to overflowing. Many commuters simply had to walk and this many had to do in clog-type shoes with wooden soles because leather, like so many materials, was unavailable. Daily hardships which continued without respite for almost five years, ground people down physically and mentally. Illness, physical and mental, for which there was little by way of support, care or medicine took its toll on the population.

Malnutrition facilitated the propagation of illnesses like TB which became rampant, particularly in Paris. Minor illnesses, which in peacetime would be relatively benign, were fatal. People of all ages were dying of complications caused by measles and colds and flu.   So, for the most part, the population was hungry, cold and fatigued.  Personal wealth helped to offset the worst of the misery by giving access to the black market and privileged social circles sheltered from the deprivation, but this was largely the exception.  Many personal testimonies of the period, including Madeleine’s account, tend to foreground the day-to-day hardships of the Occupation whilst making scant mention of the presence of the German military and the physical and legislative repression which was evident from the very earliest days of the Occupation but which did not directly affect broad swathes of the population. However, if one was of a race, religion or political grouping anathemic to Nazi ideology, then everyday life was inescapably affected by it and by the discriminatory policies enacted by the Vichy regime which, in many cases closely aligned with those of its Nazi governors.

Political opponents, particularly those associated with the Communist and Socialist left-wing were arrested, held as hostages, shot or deported to concentration camps.  The Jewish community was targeted from the very first months of the Occupation. First of all, it was subjected to discriminatory legislation which excluded many from posts held in the French civil service (which, in France meant any employment funded by the state, including universities, schools and libraries). Progressively, legislation affected freedom of movement and association. By the summer of 1942, Jewish people were being made to wear the yellow star in public and were being rounded-up, interned and deported in their thousands.  It is generally accepted that the intensification of the persecution of the Jews and, particularly, the imposition of the yellow star insignia persuaded the French public that the Nazis, not the Vichy government, were governing the country in reality. It was this realisation, in conjunction with intense material hardship and increased confidence after Allied successes (and alliances with the USA and the Soviet Union) that the Nazis could be beaten, that turned public opinion against the Vichy regime.

In summary, life under the Occupation had to go on and the French had to adapt to everyday hardships and danger in order to survive. This they did through a variety of strategies and ruses. Informal networks through which people bartered goods, swapped ration tickets, sold services for sustenance, meant that they could bypass the scant food rationing and material shortages. Had they done nothing, they would have, quite simply, struggled to survive. The fact that this struggle to survive is the memory which overrides so many for the vast majority of the population not directly endangered by the Nazi occupier, is hardly surprising. The story of the everyday for so many was the story of how to stay alive.

Madeleine’s everyday life

Madeleine’s experience of the Occupation was, in the first years, largely unrelated to military matters. Finding enough food to eat despite the severe rationing and poor distribution of what little there was preoccupied her as it did most Parisians.  The Occupation did make it harder for Madeleine and her friends to continue to study. Most of her postgraduate friends from Britain, the Commonwealth and America had left the country and abandoned their studies. Of those remaining, largely French nationals, some had to go out to work or return to their homes to support their families in the absence of POW fathers and brothers.  However, many women, including Madeleine persevered with their degrees although all had to earn money where they could alongside.  The diary gives a fulsome account of how Madeleine lived her day-to-day.  There were unrelenting periods of hardship and psychological frailty and physical illness but also brighter periods of relative abundance, social activities, intellectual diversions, romance. Only on occasion did the war irrupt into her daily life in the earlier years of Occupation. She recorded round-ups, arrests, Resistance attacks and makes reference to her own contribution to the resistance effort. Of her most direct and traumatic connection with Nazi persecution – the hounding and arrest of her Jewish student friends – she gives little explicit detail but routinely references contact with them. There is certainly enough in the diary to attest to Madeleine’s concern and support for them. Only in the summer of 1943 did Madeleine begin to write more about the war and then only when it was clear that the war looked to be edging towards an Allied victory.  Again, although there is little detail, she does write about military campaigns, Allied victories and Axis setbacks and begins to imagine a future at home. After the D Day landings in June 1944, the diary becomes increasingly focussed on the possibility of a conflict she may have to survive as well as the possibility of liberation. The final month of the diary is an in intense and richly described account of the military liberation of Paris and the manner in which civilians experienced and survived it. She makes a final entry on 18th September 1944 although she would not return to Britain until the following year in February 1945

Use on the Curriculum

The material is applicable and relevant to a broad range of subject areas and age groups including, but not limited to, History, English and Modern Foreign Languages across all key stages. We have created several lesson suggestions for each area across several key stages. However, because teachers have access to diary extracts relevant to Everyday Life under Occupation, a podcast comprising guest interviews with experts on Occupation history and the documentary film, there is a great opportunity to design bespoke materials suited to the needs of particular groups of students and which can be modelled to suit timetable constraints.