France’s Dark Divide
In 2014 France will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. But 2014 marks, too, the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the country from German occupation. It will be the last ten-yearly commemoration to involve the remaining living witnesses to the ‘Dark Years’ of Vichy France and Nazi domination.
On this important occasion, this article examines the so-called ‘French civil war’, a period of bitter political conflict in France during 1934-1944. In February 1934, fascist paramilitary groups rioted in Paris and overthrew a left-wing government, an event that contemporaries would later judge to have been the harbinger of the Vichy regime. Four years of divisive political battles followed as France polarised between the fascist ‘leagues’ and the left-wing Popular Front. Such divisions would be blamed for the collapse of the democratic Third Republic within weeks of the Nazi invasion in May 1940. For the next four years, France endured foreign military occupation and the authoritarian rule of the Vichy government. Vichy’s policies, many of which could be traced back to the right-wing ideas of the 1930s, grew evermore cruel, culminating in the violent repression of dissenters and the deportation of nearly 80,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Opposition to Vichy was led by General Charles de Gaulle, who by the end of the war had united the various internal resistances movements with the London-based Free French.
Published in the March 2014 issue of History Today, the article combines historical narrative with an examination of how historians’ works on this period have developed under the influence of contemporary political and cultural agendas.