It’s downright eerie that, as terrorist attacks hit Paris that I am reading a work like this; the Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Jean Guehenno. This new English translation by David Ball of one of the seminal works of life in France during the German Occupation in World War II is downright fascinating.
Jean Guehenno (1890-1978), was a well-known leftist writer and intellectual in the 1930s who would pick up the pen again after the Liberation. However, it’s this journal he kept during the war, and published in 1947, that he will be most remembered for. As Mr. Ball writes in his introduction, “This is the diary historians quote the most to describe literary life and ordinary life in Paris during the Occupation.” (Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944 ix).
Ball’s translation has received excellent reviews, including one by Alice Kaplan in the New York Times. As for me, I want to post this to my blog because of my own family’s experiences of this time. To put It bluntly, if it weren’t for the Occupation, my mother’s family wouldn’t have immigrated to America in 1951 and I wouldn’t be here.
My mother was born in Lorraine, in the Northeast part of France, during this period, in 1943, and she was only eight when she immigrated to America with her family. My grandparents didn’t talk much about life in France during this period. My grandmother, who was thoughtful in these matters, only said a few things here and there while she was alive. I remember when, as a college student, I said that I wasn’t too keen about eating rabbit she looked at me and said “if it weren’t for rabbits and chickens, we’d starve.” On a more serious note, regarding the Battle of the Bulge which raged in December 1944 she commented that “While we knew they (the Germans) didn’t have a chance, if they succeeded we would have been destroyed.” I knew she had a complete horror of war, that she was worried that my grandfather would be shipped off to Germany in the Compulsory Work Service, and that Charles DeGaulle was almost like a savior to her. It’s these bits of memories that were in my head as a I read this book.
Guehenno not only writes down what’s going on in his everyday life; the air raids, attacks and reprisals, food shortages, fear of informers and black outs, but also what he feels about the entire situation. He also writes down jokes told about his ‘prison’ (as he calls Vichy France), his reactions to what he hears on the radio, and the stories of other people. An example of this is one of his old students, ‘H’, who manage to return to Paris after working for months in a factory outside of Berlin under brutal conditions “..For two hours he told me his story like that, looking slightly crazy, and I don’t know how what to believe out of all he told me.” (Diary, pg. 217).
There are lots of references to Frenchmen of the past, like Voltaire, Moliere, Chateaubriand, as well as great philosophers such as Rousseau. Comparing the men of the past with the broadcasts of Joseph Goebbels on the radio or the work of Collaborationist writers like Drieu and Celine left a bitter taste his mouth; or pen to be more exact. He is thoroughly disgusted with Petain and the policy of Collaboration and in a few cases, such as with meeting a probable German agent named ‘Madame X’ for tea at the Hotel Wagram, he jeopardizes his safety by telling her what he thought about the New Order. “I went out. I walked up the Avenue de l’Opera in the sunlight, slowly, full of disgust….” (Diary, pg. 70).
There’s no doubt that he has a deep love for his country, its culture, and the role it played in the world. “Must we stop loving France as we do, and love another France in a different way?” (Diary, pg. 11) he writes early in his diary. One can argue that, in his own way, Guehenno was just as much of a nationalist as the Vichy supporters he despised.
It also seems that Guehenno was one of the few who actually heard General Charles DeGaulle’s famous June 18th radio broadcast, “what a joy to hear a voice with some pride in it at last..” he wrote on June 19th (in the back of the book, there is an English translation of that very speech). The fact is, very few Frenchmen heard the general’s speech from London that day and so many more were relieved that the fighting stopped. Guehenno understood this though he refused to collaborate let alone wait and see.
Guehenno could also be downright psychic in his prediction of events. In referring to Adolf Hitler’s speech in January 1942, he writes, “One fine moment came when he shouted “If I am alive, there will not be another 1918!” But what did he mean? Has he sometimes envisioned the defeat of his country? And if that happened, has he decided to die?” (Diary, page 144) Truth be told, that’s exactly what happened three years later.
Another time, from January 18, 1943, he wrote down what was by then obvious to all, “Nazi Germany is lost. But what if it went over to Bolshevism and gave itself to Russia. What would happen? Would the war continue between Anglo-Saxon Capitalism and the European Soviet, and then what choice would we have to make, we French?” (Diary, pg. 189)
The entries also mention references to the French Colonial Empire, which was just as important to France’s view of itself as Great Britain’s. However, no matter how much he believed in his country’s ‘civilizing mission’, facts were beginning to show him that perhaps it wouldn’t last in his lifetime. When he talked to ‘N’ a young Indochinese man and former student, Guehenno writes “He (‘N’) loves France still, he wants to love her. But am I aware of the wretchedness of his fellow countrymen now in France?” (Diary, pg. 53) and ‘N’ goes further to tell him what Japan meant to his fellow countrymen as rising power. How little did Guehenno know that France would fight two more wars there and in Algeria only have the colonial empire slip away?
Truth be told, France did choose Anglo-Saxon capitalism over the Soviets after the war by accepting the Marshall Plan. It also went on to join NATO, helped create the Common Market (the forerunner to the European Union), and experienced a wave of economic prosperity called Les Trente Glorieuse (the glorious thirty). Of course, Guehenno had no way of knowing this as he wrote his diary. That’s the nature of this work, the fact these are the opinions of a man of letters and not a political strategist.
Finally, what Guehenno writes about ‘a man of letter’s’ truly gets to me and I like it very much. “A true man of letters is not a purveyor of small pleasures. His freedom is not the freedom to be lazy or to dream. The vain contemplation of himself cannot be enough for him, nor the subtle games of his mind. For every man with a heart, freedom is, even more than his own liberty, the freedom of others…” (Diary, pg. 40). Those are true words indeed.
We cannot understand how it is like to be occupied by a foreign power, and whatever deprivations Americans had with rationing during WWII were nothing to the increasing starvation, and death, of so many Europeans at the time. Wars haven’t stopped, nor civilians being caught in the crossfire, since 1945 and as events this month show, bad things can still happen to people in Paris in the name of an ‘ideology’ or fanaticism. Perhaps that’s why Diary of the Dark Years 1940-1944 is so important and we should be grateful for Mr. Ball for translating this for us.