This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.
Werth told his story with a kind of detachment that you suspect was born from shock. He also chose not to go beyond the recording of the facts, he did not to try and explain them. Luckily, there was no need. The facts as he recorded them speak for themselves, more eloquently than he could have. With scrupulous honesty, and without falling into the trap of national sentiment, he set down these facts based on the detached, impartial observation of his own actions as well as the actions of everyone around him: fellow refugees, local peasants, French and German soldiers. And in doing so, he managed to show what war is like – and how people behave in a situation that is anything but normal.
This flight from the Germans, known in France as l’Exode, the Exodus, in which some 8 million civilians attempted to reach the River Loire, beyond which supposedly lay safety, was reportedly the largest human migration in history. Werth started out at nine o’clock on 11 June – 3 days before Paris fell to the Germans – and expected to reach Saint-Amour in the Jura by five o’clock in the afternoon. He only arrived thirty-three days later.
As he left Paris, Werth thought he was leaving the war behind. But diverted from the main road by the military, caught up in an immense caravan of carts and broken down cars, there were days when he only progressed at the rate of one kilometre per hour. He described what was it like to be on the road for days, to be hunting for food, petrol, news, a place to sleep at night. Not surprisingly, the German army soon caught up with this flood of humanity moving at a snail’s pace and the refugees found themselves in the middle of some shooting. Thereafter the story of being on the road gave way to the story of being under foreign occupation as Werth and his wife found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the Loire for weeks.
There are some memorable, telling episodes in the book which I’d rather not spoil for anybody who decides to read it so I’m jumping straight to the conclusion:
The Power of Life or Death
Towards the end of the book, Werth spelt out his freshly acquired, chilling insight into life in an occupied country:
Behind this soldier is the entire might of the Reich… between this soldier and myself there is no man-to-man relationship or any relation determined by the laws and customs of a common country. There’s only the law of war, which is nothing but utility and caprice. Between him and me, it is understood that he has the power of life or death.
“Between him and me, it is understood that he has the power of life or death.” Personally, I didn’t need Werth to tell me this. I grew up with the stories of my grandmother – far more brutal, some of them, than anything Werth had witnessed in these 33 days – of how the invading Germans and Russians both behaved in her village in World War II.
The village where my family lived was fought over for about a month between the Germans and the Russians, taken and re-taken three times. Had it not been for my great-grandfather, who – having been a conscript in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I and a prisoner of war in Russia afterwards – could speak both German and Russian passably, the entire family could have been killed more than once, and I don’t mean that a shell could have hit the house (although of course that was a possibility).
Cooking in the Bathtub… And Potatoes in the Cellar
In one of these stories of my grandmother, the entire family was lined up against the wall of the kitchen and on the point of being shot by some Russian soldiers – simply because the women thoughtlessly refused to cook food for the Russians in the tin bathtub. As a child I always found this story so bizarre as to be hilarious. Cooking in a bathtub?
The Russians had looted some chickens from somewhere, came into the house and ordered the women to cook a meal for them. There weren’t any saucepans big enough for that much food, so the soldiers grabbed the tub and indicated that the women were to use that. The women instinctively refused; immediately, they were lined up against the wall, children and all. Just a misunderstanding? Certainly. But the only thing the Russian soldiers understood was that these civilians attempted to resist. After my great-grandfather managed to pacify them, he ordered his wife and daughter to cook the food in the tub. “You don’t have to eat from it,” he said crossly. “But if these idiots want to eat from a bathtub, then you let them!”
They’re outside the house and inside the house, which they enter whenever they like.
“A German soldier ordered me to go down to the cellar with him,” my grandmother recounted matter-of-factly. “To bring up some potatoes, he said, but it was obvious that it wasn’t potatoes on his mind. My father said he was going to the cellar with him but he grabbed me by the arm and started to drag me towards the door. So my father blocked the doorway and told the German that none of the women in the room was going to pass the threshold while he was alive. We all thought the German would shoot him.” In the event, the German decided to take the line of least resistance and settled for taking all the food instead. And it was my great-grandfather who took him down to the cellar and gave it to him all.
There were other episodes, some incidents so ugly that my grandmother didn’t tell me until I was an adult and I don’t care to repeat them here. But my great-grandfather’s language skills and “knowledge” of the world – he’s been abroad to Russia, the rest of the village have never been beyond the next cornfield – did save the family from the worst excesses of the occupying armies. “My father made us women all dress in dirty rags,” my grandmother recalled, “and dirty our faces. He didn’t allow us to leave the house without his escort, not even to fetch water from the well.” In fact, by the time the fate of the village was decided between the Russians and the Germans (this being the winter of 1944/45, the Russians won), my great-grandfather’s household had grown by more than half a dozen young females – entrusted to his protection by their parents on account of his integrity.
Forget the Geneva convention; as Werth had realised, the life and possessions of the civilians in a war zone depend entirely on the caprice of the men with the guns.