In Vichy France, The Nazi Era Viewed Up Close
Deposition 1940-1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France
By Léon Werth; edited and translated by David Ball
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $34.95
The French Jewish novelist and essayist Léon Werth spent World War II, buffeted by history but shielded from its worst consequences, chronicling the passivity, inertia and gradual political awakening of his countrymen and women.
As he described in his memoir “33 Days,” Werth (1878-1955) fled with other refugees to Vichy France — the so-called Free Zone — when the Nazis marched into Paris. He was fortunate enough to have a vacation home in the village of Saint-Amour, in the Jura Mountains region of Southeast France. From there, as well as the nearby town of Bourg-en-Bresse, and occasionally Lyon, he followed the war’s progress and the shifting public attitudes toward the Vichy regime, the Germans and the possibilities of resistance.
Werth’s diary of the period, “Deposition 1940–1944,” is a pointillist record of a mostly solitary existence, composed in short emotional bursts. It’s a mosaic of impressions rather than a conventional narrative, a tough but revealing read.
An assimilated, nonobservant Jew, Werth is a keen observer, and an acerbic one. His voice is alternately angry, bitter, ironic and hopeful. He mocks what he sees as the cowardice of the French populace and its blinkered allegiance to the World War I hero Philippe Pétain, who, as Vichy’s premier, headed the collaborationist government.
In September 1940, Werth writes: “Fear has been resolved. Into acceptance, even attraction. The German has become a magician, who possesses the secret of order.” For him, though, “France is like a factory destroyed by fire. Everything has collapsed.”
As the years pass, Werth takes note of the new anti-Semitic laws, the round-ups and deportations, Nazi atrocities and Nazi defeats. He notes the handiwork of the growing French Resistance, from anti-German graffiti to organized sabotage. Leftist in his sympathies, he is nevertheless a proud Gaullist — in the words of one of his French editors, Jean-Pierre Azéma, “a committed spectator.”
This first English edition of “Deposition” has been translated and annotated meticulously by David Ball, an emeritus professor of French and comparative literature at Smith College. Ball’s introduction and extensive footnotes supplement those from two previous French editions, clarifying references obscured by the passage of time. Ball has wisely abridged the diary, which ran to more than 730 pages in the original.
Ball is the translator of Jean Guéhenno’s “Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris.” But in its sophistication, sensitivity to the deformation of language by political propaganda, and its obsession with public attitudes, “Deposition” also is reminiscent of Victor Klemperer’s gripping diaries of daily life in Nazi Dresden.
An avid consumer of radio and newspapers, as well as village gossip, Werth writes about “false news” and “the criminal use politicians make of words.” (Later, Klemperer’s contemporary analysis of the language of the Third Reich became a book.) Werth decides that it is “coarse to stick to the news like a leech,” and concludes, much as Klemperer did, that this is what his aim should be: “To master time, to master oneself, not to lose one’s inner freedom.”
Like Klemperer — who was a Jewish convert to Protestantism married to an “Aryan” — Werth confesses to feeling humiliated by having to declare his Jewishness to the authorities. But the humiliation, he says, comes “not because I’m Jewish but because I am presumed to be of inferior quality because I’m Jewish.” When the time comes, he writes, “I threw out the word ‘Jew’ as if I was about to sing the Marseillaise.”
As with Klemperer, Werth’s marriage is an important part of his story. He constantly misses his wife and his son, Claude, both of whom travel back and forth, at great peril, between Paris and Vichy. Why his wife keeps abandoning him isn’t at first clear. Only late in the diary do we learn that she has “helped, hidden, and saved people who were being hunted down.”
Werth also receives a visit from his close friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who in 1943 would dedicate his classic children’s tale, “The Little Prince,” to Werth, because “he is cold and hungry” and “needs consolation.” Saint-Exupéry, a pilot, did not survive the war. Werth did, even though his hiding was mostly in plain sight. “[N]o one denounced him, although everybody must have known he was Jewish,” Ball writes.
Consumed by the events he describes, Werth tries, nevertheless, to keep the conflict at an emotional remove. “Let it be over, so I can get back my own life,” he writes in January 1941. Later, he declares, “I’m above the war like an old, tired god.”
Werth sees the strikes and protests in the fall of 1942 as “a bit of wind rising in paralyzed France.” But as of June 1943 he remains bitterly skeptical: “Deprived of meat, deprived of tobacco, deprived of thought. Thought deprivation is the one people bear most stoically.” In December of that year, despite all he has heard of German atrocities, he writes, “I no longer feel anything but my own suffering.”
In November 1942, the Nazis occupy Vichy, heightening the danger for Jews. In January 1944, Werth decides to rejoin his wife in their Paris apartment. Once there, he continues to hide, leaving the apartment at first only at night and then not at all. He supports his wife’s Resistance activities, and together, amid political chaos and street battles, the Werths await the seemingly inevitable, too-long-delayed German surrender.
At his best, Werth is not just an observer but also a philosopher, keenly interested in the moral implications of dictatorship and war and their aftermath. “For the moment,” he writes, “I think that if a people does not succeed in vomiting out a government it detests, it’s because it didn’t stick its finger far enough down its throat.”
He wonders how the Nazi torturers and murderers — and their French accomplices — should be punished. As judgmental as he can be, and as angry, he struggles toward compassion: “Who, considering the Germans’ acts of cruelty, cannot hate Germans?….You have to look that hatred straight in the face.” Yet, he adds: “Must one give into it completely? Can you believe that a new world, a less despicable world, can be born from that hatred?”
More than seven decades later, those questions still resonate.
Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein