The Dark Years: France 1940 - 1945


German forces began their invasion of France on 10 May 1940. Just over a month later, on 14 June, German soldiers entered Paris with almost no opposition. No one expected France to collapse so quickly and so completely. The governments of other defeated nations went into exile and continued to fight from exile.The case of France was different and disappointing, even shameful.The French government chose not to go into to exile but instead abandoned their democratic republic to anti-democratic, anti-republican Frenchmen who quickly made peace with Germany.

To the French people, the years from 1940 to 1944 are known as "the dark years." This SDG is an exploration of those years. In order to understand the story, we must start with the historical, social and cultural context in which the unexpectedly rapid disintegration of the country unfolded. Northern France was occupied and harshly ruled by the Germans while Petain's nominally French government in Vichy, abolished democratic institutions, persecuted Jews, Freemasons, and Communists, and forced half a million others to work in German factories. In the immediate aftermath of the war, historians and politicians created "the Resistance myth" in which the "real" France was embodied in de Gaulle's Free French and the Resistance movement.Starting in the 1970's, historians' focus shifted to the complexity of Vichy. By the 1990's, a much deeper view of the Resistance, included the complicated internal disputes, began to surface. 

The goal of this SDG is multifaceted: to understand how so many French people became collaborators; to understand what it was like to live under German occupation, as well as in Vichy; to consider the role and dimensions of the Resistance; and to consider why and how historians write history as they do. 

Weekly Topics

  1. The background through WW: the divisions within French society dating to the Revolution of 1789; the creation of the 3rd Republic; anti-clericalism; the rise of "the new nationalism" and antisemitism; the Dreyfus Affair; the impact of WWI; the 1920s.  Jackson, chapters 1 and 2, through page 52;the pertinent sections from the books listed below.

  2. The background: The 1930s through 1938. Jackson, the rest of chapter 2, chapter 3, and chapter 4 to page 92; the pertinent sections from the books listed below.

  3. The preparation for war and the fall of France.  Jackson, the rest of chapter 4 and chapter 5. 

  4. French defeat (chapter 6)

  5. Establishing the Vichy government and collaboration (chapters 7-8)

  6. French collaborators and the Vichy government in power (chapters 9-10)

  7. Vichy in power:  Propaganda, policing, and administration (chapter 11)

  8. Controlling the French people:public opinion, intellectuals, artists and entertainers (chapter 12-13)

  9. Nazi policies: Vichy and the Jews (chapters 14-15)

  10. The Free French and the Resistance (chapters 16-17)

  11. Power struggles in the Free French and in the Resistance (chapters 18-19)

  12. Resistance in society: the peasantry, women, foreigners, communists, workers and intellectuals (chapter 20-21)

  13. Liberation (chapters 22-23)

  14. After the war (chapter 24 and Epilogue); Historical Perspectives (Introduction). 


France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson, 2001.

AND any one of the following you choose (all of these are available as used books through Amazon): 

  • The Collapse of the Third Republic by William Shirer, 1969.  This is also available as an e-book.The first 21 chapters cover the period from 1870 to 1939 (about 1/3 of the book).

  • From Versailles to Vichy by Nathanael Greene, 1970. 

  • The Decline of the Third Republic: 1914-1938 by Phillippe Bernard and Henri Dubief, 1975.  

  • A History of Modern France (3rd edition) by Jeremy D.Popkin, 2006.

  • France since 1970 by Charles Sowerwine, 2001.  

The last two books in this list cover longer time-frames than our SDG but both are quite good and they cover the time-frame for our course well. 

Other books (optional):

Fighters in the Shadows:A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea, 2015.

The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 by Julian Jackson, 2003.

The Holocaust, the French and the Jews by Susan Zuccotti, 2nd edition, 2014.

The UnFree French: Life under Occupation by Richard Vinen, 2006.