Twentieth Century France: Continuity In An Supposed Rupture

2166 words - 9 pages

One of the major concentrations of historians who study twentieth-century France—between Third Republic in the 1930s and the formation of the Fifth Republic in the 1960s—has been to uncover continuities in period of supposed rupture. Both Robert Paxton and Philip Nord take up this paradigm of continuity. Robert Paxton’s work uncovers continuity in what seems to be a historical break. To view Vichy France as something special, as something forced upon the French is to remove it from the minds of the French—from the history of France. Paxton traces the roots of Vichy in the Third Republic and exposes Vichy in the Liberation. Philip Nord works within this paradigm to further trace the origins of the modern French welfare state in an era of supposed discontinuity and confusion. Paxton provides the tool of continuity and Nord expands its gaze.
The issue of continuity is central to Robert Paxton’s thesis. Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 shattered several myths of rupture. Prior to the publishing of Paxton’s monumental work, the common view among both the general public and historians was that Vichy acted in the interests of the French nation. Keeping with this line of reasoning, Vichy France was, therefore, an unfortunate stepping stone to a defeated Germany. Thus, it was believed that the National Revolution was “imported on German tanks” at the request of Adolf Hitler.1 Accordingly, Vichy France was a Nazi diktat where the Germans had huge influence on the actions of the government.2 Another myth of Vichy deals with a so-called “Shield,” or the idea that Vichy was essential for the protection of France. Vichy therefore spared France of the perils of Nazi rule; Vichy was the best of two evils.3 Lastly, it was thought that Vichy officials were involved in a “double game.” Meaning, Vichy officials publicly appeared to be in cahoots with the Germans, but in reality were actively conspiring with the Allies toward to defeat of the Third Reich.4
All of these myths necessitate France’s innocent involvement in the creation and operation of Vichy. In other words, these myths are really about rupture. They require outside influence, and therefore, a break in the history of France. Paxton’s work actively sought to challenge these three beliefs. Paxton’s thesis is not about the evils of Vichy and Nazi Germany but the continuity represented by the Vichy government. He argues that Vichy was the choice of the French. It was not “imported on German tanks.” Vichy France was not ruled from Berlin. Direct German interference in Vichy policy-making was almost non-existent.5 The Nation Revolution, Paxton argues, was largely the result of French hostility towards the Third Republic. Vichy was an opportunity for the reformulation of France. Vichy was not a “shield,” nor were French officials actively participating in a “double game.” Vichy officials made attempts to collaborate with Germany as a neutral negotiator between Germany and her...

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