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Looking past the propaganda

LAURENCE REES: To what extent then is it dangerous to see the Parisian experience as representative of the whole experience in France. Or indeed to focus primarily - as many do - on the other film footage of different French towns happy at the moment of liberation?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I think it’s a terrible problem. I think we tend to focus too much on too few images and there are often photographic images or brief newsreel footage that are taken by the US Army Signal Corp photographers or film makers following the allied troops units into a given village. Of course everyone comes rushing out into the town square and there’s a moment of genuine gratitude and a spark of relief, surprise and happiness and then off goes the unit on further toward the Front. Now what interests me as an historian and what I think should interest us much more is the story of those people in that town square that might come out to greet an American jeep. Who are those people? What have their Second World War experiences been like? How had they survived the previous 4 years? And just as interesting is what was going to happen to them now that the military liberation had passed through their village, now that political order had been turned on its head, what lay in store for them?

Because their story of retribution, of trials, of seeking justice and perhaps not finding justice, those stories of those individual communities and their faith after their liberation is not integrated well into the history of the Second World War. It’s often shunted off onto the side and we often focus on it in a different kind of historical writing. But liberation crosses the boundary between war and peace and if we’re going to be good historians focusing on the whole process of liberation we have to incorporate the human dimension of liberation over a period of months and maybe even the whole year of 1944 to 45. In fact as those American jeeps left the village square they often left behind a small detachment of American soldiers who had enormous power. Sometimes they use their power well, sometimes they found local leaders to get the water back on or to get the electricity back on again. Sometimes they worked very well with local French leaders who were in civil affairs detachments to restore some sense of order. But small numbers of heavily armed battle weary soldiers in a small village in rural France had an inordinate amount of power and they could use that for well and they could also use it for ill.

What’s interesting is to find how tempting it was for those soldiers to feel that they had a certain degree of proprietary ownership over the territory they liberated. So imagine 12, 15 or 20 men having paid a terrible price fighting their way into France now feeling that this was their moment. They were in occupation of a particular village or a particular crossroads and if they wanted to rob the chicken coop down the road and have fresh chicken for dinner that was their right. If they wanted to sleep in a featherbed and it just so happened that the chateau down the street was available they felt that that was their right. There’s an enormous sense of (and one sees it again and again in the records, the oral histories that many soldiers have left - it is also seen in the police reports of the local French police officers) there’s just a sense that they were owed, and this had rather negative results for the lived experience of French people who were left in the rear areas of these armies. There was a lot of tension, a lot of looting and a lot of robbery. There was also a lot of sexual violence and truthfully you would expect that with an army of what became almost 3 million Allies in Western Europe, heavily armed and quite angry and still fighting a war against a very difficult foe, the Germans. You’d expect a lot of that kind of tension, that kind of violence. But unfortunately it doesn’t fit very well into the story we like to tell about the Second World War and so it’s often overlooked.