The best book about France in the Second World War

Robert Gildea Author Of Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation
By Robert Gildea

The Books I Picked & Why

Strange Defeat

By Marc Bloch

Strange Defeat

Why this book?

An extraordinary account of the fall of France by a leading historian of the time, written in its aftermath. Both a first-person account of the debacle and a profound meditation on the structural problems of French state, army and society that led to defeat. All the more moving because Bloch was removed from his academic post as a Jew by Vichy and shot by the Germans as a resister in 1944.


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Journal à quatre mains

By Benoîte Groult, Flora Groult

Journal à quatre mains

Why this book?

A funny and moving account of life in occupied Paris by two young sisters, one sensible and studious, the other fun-loving. Written in diary form by each sister in turn, hence the ‘four hands’. Some signs of touching up with hindsight before publication in 1962. There is an English translation, ‘Diary in duo’ (1965) but currently out of print.


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Suite Francaise

By Irene Nemirovsky

Suite Francaise

Why this book?

This made a huge splash when it was first published in 2004, with some controversy over its fact/fiction status and how to read it. Written by a novelist of Russian-Jewish background, it moves from the exodus from Paris as German forces approached in 1940 to life under German occupation in provincial France. It is the more poignant because Némirovsky was deported and died in Auschwitz in August 1942. Made into a film in 2014.


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Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France

By Carmen Callil

Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France

Why this book?

A wonderful and troubling piece of historical sleuth-work by the founder of Virago press, who went to see her therapist in London as usual in September 1970 only to find that she had committed suicide. It turned out that she was the daughter of Vichy’s Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, a failed businessman who was promoted into a position to eliminate as many Jews in France as possible. A real-time account of the banality of evil.


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Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

By Arthur Goldhammer, Henry Rousso

Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944

Why this book?

A path-breaking book on how the puppet Vichy regime of 1940-44 was remembered in France in the decades after it vanished. It shows how collective memory and commemoration shapes and is shaped by rival political cultures and changes over time. It could do with updating beyond 1990 – something I have tried to do in my own work.


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