Ordinary Workers, Vichy and The Holocaust

vichy

Ordinary Workers, Vichy and The Holocaust –
French Railwaymen and the Second World War
By Ludivine Broch
Cambridge University Press – £64.99/$99.99

As Ludivine Broch writes in the Introduction of this idiosyncratically informative and most readable of books on a subject that still remains as equally taboo as it does tempestuous: ”This book tells the story of the cheminots during the German Occupation of France between 1940 and 1944 in eight chapters and one epilogue. It takes an overarching chronological approach, starting with a history of the cheminots pre-1939 and ending with an epilogue which explores the rise (and fall) of cheminot memory. The seven chapters in between are slightly more thematic, exploring topics of accommodation, resistance and deportation as well as everyday life, cheminot professionalism and class struggle.”

Indeed, the range of exploration within the chapters themselves, shed just as much light on Ordinary Workers, Vichy and The Holocaust – French Railwaymen and the Second World War as that of the actual occupation itself. And it does so in such a way that is analytical, gritty and respectfully real; for all to bear considered judgement to, whilst simultaneously anchored within the inexorable argument of who was a resister, and who was a collaborator.

For instance, in the book’s final chapter, ‘Liberation,’ Broch openly states: ”Most of those who underwent investigation were generally released after having given explanations for their dubious behaviour. What is striking is that any excuse, from a marriage breakdown to a prolonged illness, was accepted to justify cheminot collaboration. Considering that Oullins, near Lyon, was a communist and Resistance stronghold, such leniency is surprising. However, it is indicative of cheminots’ collective identity and their immediate concern with rebuilding the railway after a period of sabotages and bombings than with the politics of revenge.”

Some might view this somewhat differently, especially given the number of reprisals that were rampant throughout France, Paris especially, immediately after the country’s liberation: ”Other individuals, however, suffered far greater consequences for their more controversial actions under Vichy. Indeed, many people on France considered that true victory could only be obtained by purging France of its ‘corrupt’ individuals: ‘No Rations without Purges. No Victory without Purges.”’

There again, having read this book, it could be said that the cheminots were an entity unto themselves; which might not be surprising in the least given the relative underhandedness with which some might view the French government as having always pursued (the politically subliminal exploitation) of its railway workers.

Such is brazenly brought to bear in the book’s initial chapter, ‘Cheminots,’ where Broch openly admits: ”[…] when war broke out in 1870 […] the trains were vital for both the front line and the home front, and no one could be spared. Thus a law enforced in 1870 allowed all railwaymen to request exemption from military service, which Ministers unofficially encouraged the Companies to take advantage of. This new link to the nation, and this added patriotic responsibility, put the railway workers in an interesting position: they were now at the peak of their bargaining power. Indeed, the 1870-1 war was the first ‘modern’ war where all men and material were moved by rail. The role of railway workers had thus become paramount to military service.”

As a lecturer in History at the University of Westminster and co-editor of France in an Era of Global Wars, 1914-1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements, it ought hardly come as a surprise that Ludivine Broch has herein compiled 241 pages (excluding Abbreviations, Maps, Glossary of railway professions, Bibliography and Index) that are as a thorough an investigation on the subject of Ordinary Workers, Vichy and The Holocaust – French Railwaymen and the Second World War as we are currently likely to get.

David Marx

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