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Dr Hanna Diamond
Dr Hanna Diamond

Press Release - 13 June 2007

French government let its people down during Nazi invasion, says book

A book which criticises the French government for failing its citizens during the German invasion of 1940 will be launched this week.

Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, written by Dr Hanna Diamond, an academic at the University of Bath, says that the French cabinet fled Paris without giving adequate instructions to its inhabitants, and its local government and police were among the millions who took to the trains and roads.

“Without wishing to be judgmental, my personal view is that they messed it up – the French were let down," said Dr Diamond, Senior Lecturer in the University’s Department of European Studies and Modern Languages.

Dr Diamond spent three years researching the book, which is published by the Oxford University Press, price £16-99 in hardback tomorrow (Thursday), when an official launch will be held at Topping & Company bookshop in Bath.

Dr Diamond said that since the war the French had overlooked the story of the flight of thousands of civilians from northern France and Paris as the Allied armies collapsed in a matter of weeks in May and June 1940.

Almost two million Parisians fled the capital, some by train, a few in cars, some by bicycle and the majority walking, carrying their possessions as they went. Most were women and children and they suffered greatly in the heat, often going without food or water as they struggled to escape the Nazi advance.

Her book may prove controversial in France because she suggests that this was not just a traumatic period in French history but also in some ways a shameful one.

Dr Diamond, who lived in Paris and Toulouse for seven years, said: “There are very few French works which look at this mass evacuation and it is a largely forgotten episode.

“The French were terrified of the Germans and feared they would rape the women and chop off the hands of their children. They believed until the last moment that their armies would win the war, and it was a terrible shock for them to find that the Germans had broken through and were heading rapidly for Paris.

“They were given contradictory information and little guidance about what to do and only realised what was happening when refugees from Belgium, Holland and northern France arrived in the city, and their own government ministries began evacuating. The rich areas of the capital, whose inhabitants were not working and had cars, evacuated first.

“In many towns and villages, the police and the local government fled, leaving many inhabitants to fend for themselves.

“I think it is this sense of the failure of the authorities, and how they were compromised, which has made the French reluctant to face their history. I have notice how few histories deal with these events in any detail.”

Dr Diamond said it was the chaos in France that led Winston Churchill to issue strict orders to the British to stay where they were and not try to flee invaders should the Germans cross the Channel.

Dr Diamond interviewed around 25 French people, now in their 70s and 80s about their experiences of the time, and also consulted diaries. There were few official records of the time because most officials were also evacuating the capital.

Dr Diamond said that the irony was that those fleeing were in more danger than those who remained, because they faced German aircraft which strafed columns of people as they fled.

“In fact the occupying Germans, once the French had stopped fighting, were conducting a charm offensive,” she said.

“They were under orders from Hitler to get the French to return to their homes and to put them back to work in armaments factories, now for the Third Reich.

“Some months later the Jewish round-ups began and the Germans became openly repressive especially in response to the French Resistance which had now started to organise.”

Most refugees had returned to their homes by October, but many remained in exile. Some of these displaced individuals were responsible for founding the early the Resistance groups.

Not all French officials deserted their posts, said Dr Diamond. Some, like the Prefect Jean Moulin, based in Chartres, were determined to organise and protect local people. Moulin later played a leading role in the Resistance until he was captured. He died under torture, without revealing the Resistance’s secrets.

The work, which is written in an accessible style, has been praised by critics who have called it “a vivid and poignant account”, “a compulsive and intricate story” and “invaluable”.

Dr Diamond’s book follows the critically-acclaimed work Suite Française, an unfinished novel portraying life in the early months of France under Occupation by the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky, who later died in Auschwitz.

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