The best books about France in World War II

Bertram M. Gordon Author Of Historical Dictionary of World War II France: The Occupation, Vichy, and the Resistance, 1938-1946
By Bertram M. Gordon

Who am I?

As a child in New York, I was interested in history to the point where by third grade I had memorized the list of U.S. presidents beginning with George Washington. The world was more Eurocentric than now, and I was taken by what I saw as the richness of European history. Surrounded later by Leftist academics, I became interested in the Right. Why were so many, especially among the lower middle classes, drawn to the Right and fascism during the first half of the twentieth century? This led to my interviewing and studying World War II pro-Nazi French collaborators. Later I branched into food history and the history of tourism.


I wrote...

Historical Dictionary of World War II France: The Occupation, Vichy, and the Resistance, 1938-1946

By Bertram M. Gordon,

Book cover of Historical Dictionary of World War II France: The Occupation, Vichy, and the Resistance, 1938-1946

What is my book about?

This book is a comprehensive guide to France during the Second World War. Short encyclopedia entries address the political and military as well as the social and cultural aspects of the years from 1938 through 1946 in France, focusing on the French failure to thwart the expansionist moves of the German Nazis in the late 1930s, and their defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940, together with articles on life in Paris and elsewhere in France under the German occupation, D-Day and the Liberation of 1944, and the postwar purge of suspected collaborators with the Germans. With articles written by specialists in the political, social, and cultural history of the period, and suggestions for further reading, this encyclopedia of World War II France is an excellent starting point.

The books I picked & why

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Vichy France

By Robert O. Paxton,

Book cover of Vichy France

Why this book?

First published in 1972, this book significantly altered the views of French collaboration with the Nazi German occupiers during the Second World War. During the immediate postwar years, many in France maintained that the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain and its supporters had done everything possible to resist and subvert the German occupiers and that the Resistance and the Pétain government had been part of the same struggle, the “sword and shield” of France against the German occupiers. Writing at a time when most relevant French archives were closed to historians and using German archival material that was captured during the war, Paxton showed that contrary to the Vichy government’s being a shield, it had in fact more actively supported the Germans while establishing an authoritarian government aligned in many ways with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This book altered French views of the war to the point where it is frequently said in France to have given rise to a “Paxtonian revolution.”

Vichy France

By Robert O. Paxton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vichy France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robert O. Paxton's classic study of the aftermath of France's sudden collapse under Nazi invasion utilizes captured German archives and other contemporary materials to construct a strong and disturbing account of the Vichy period in France. With a new introduction and updated bibliography, Vichy France demonstrates that the collaborationist government of Marshal Petain did far more than merely react to German pressures. The Vichy leaders actively pursued their own double agenda-internally, the authoritarian and racist "national revolution," and, externally, an attempt to persuade Hitler to accept this new France as a partner in his new Europe.

France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise

By Philippe Burrin, Janet Lloyd (translator),

Book cover of France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise

Why this book?

Whereas historians and others in postwar France focused on French resistance to Nazi Germany during their Second World War occupation (1940-1944) relatively few in wartime France did in fact actively resist the Germans. Instead, while some in France either collaborated with the Germans after France’s defeat in 1940, many and arguably the majority chose a more passive accommodation to German supremacy. Especially in the early years of the occupation, French civilians often found the German soldiers more polite and seemingly respectful of the country they had just conquered than had been France’s British allies. Many in France, artists, intellectuals, business, and labor leaders, as well as military and clergy, were quite willing to accept German rule. Some hoped that German occupation would lead toward a more authoritarian French state, more in line with those of Germany and Italy at the time. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in France, where local people often collaborated with the occupation authorities in their persecution of the Jews. This book is one of the many published during the late twentieth century that refuted the immediate postwar image of France as a nation of resistors. 

France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise

By Philippe Burrin, Janet Lloyd (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked France Under the Germans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From 1940 to 1944, the French people adapted in a variety of ways to life under the domination of Nazi Germany. France under the Germans is the definitive study of the choices made by ordinary French citizens during that turbulent historical period, exposing for the first time the degree of their complicity with the Nazis. Acclaimed Swiss historian Philippe Burrin makes use of a wide variety of newly discovered sources: the records of businesses, industrial organizations, and banks; police files; and reports on mail censorship and telephone conversations. France under the Germans is an extraordinary analysis of the ways in…


France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944

By Julian Jackson,

Book cover of France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944

Why this book?

This book has been described as a “monumental” history of France during the Second World War. The author devotes considerable attention to the crises of the interwar years: the human and material losses suffered during the First World War, social divisions, and threats of civil war during the 1930s, and the continual fear of a powerful resurgent Germany, especially after the rise of Hitler to power in 1933. The author points out that immediately after their defeat in 1940, few in France could have guessed that their country would be liberated four years later. It was not unreasonable to assume that France would face generations under German domination. Emphasis is given to German exploitation of France’s economic resources and French collaboration, the latter beginning to sour after 1942 when it became increasingly apparent that Germany was not going to win a quick victory in the war. This book is encyclopedic in its coverage of the defeat of France and the German occupation that followed. 

France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944

By Julian Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The French call them 'the Dark Years'...

This definitive new history of Occupied France explores the myths and realities of four of the most divisive years in French history.

Taking in ordinary people's experiences of defeat, collaboration, resistance, and liberation, it uncovers the conflicting memories of occupation which ensure that even today France continues to debate the legacy of the Vichy years.

Strange Defeat

By Marc Bloch,

Book cover of Strange Defeat

Why this book?

Marc Bloch was a prominent French historian, who specialized in Medieval social history during the years between the two world wars of the twentieth century. He was a major figure in the formation of the “Annales School” which focused on the study of history with an emphasis on long-term developments in social history. Of Alsatian-Jewish background, he wrote the book Strange Defeat during the summer of 1940, following the rapid defeat and conquest of France by Nazi Germany. Bloch’s book was published in France after the war, in 1946, but he did not live to see it. He was able to maintain a professorial position at the University of Montpelier in southern France but, after joining the Resistance, was captured, tortured, and executed in 1944. In Strange Defeat, Bloch examined the long-term causes of the 1940 defeat, focusing on the failure of the French military leadership to adjust to the ways in which warfare had changed following their victory in the First World War. 

Strange Defeat

By Marc Bloch,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Strange Defeat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A renowned historian and Resistance fighter - later executed by the Nazis - analyzes at first hand why France fell in 1940. Marc Bloch wrote Strange Defeat during the three months following the fall of France, after he returned home from military service. In the midst of his anguish, he nevertheless "brought to his study of the crisis all the critical faculty and all the penetrating analysis of a first-rate historian" (Christian Science Monitor). Bloch takes a close look at the military failures he witnessed, examining why France was unable to respond to attack quickly and effectively. He gives a…


The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Henry Rousso, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Book cover of The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

Why this book?

The role of France and the activities of the French during the Second World War German occupation, spanning the range from resistance through accommodation to collaboration, has been the subject of considerable literature on both sides of the Atlantic. First published in France in 1987, The Vichy Syndrome characterizes the memory of the war years as “a past that doesn't pass away.” The book addresses the different ways in which the war years were remembered and helped popularize the study of historical memory, meaning the study not only of the events themselves but also how they are remembered and how these memories influence political and cultural life in succeeding generations. Rousso received France’s National Order of Merit in 1995 and in 2018 was chosen by President Macron to supervise the design of France’s new Memorial Museum of Societies Facing Terrorism.  

The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Henry Rousso, Arthur Goldhammer (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Vichy Syndrome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Liberation purges to the Barbie trial, France has struggled with the memory of the Vichy experience: a memory of defeat, occupation, and repression. In this provocative study, Henry Rousso examines how this proud nation-a nation where reality and myth commingle to confound understanding-has dealt with les annees noires. Specifically, he studies what the French have chosen to remember-and to conceal.

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