Diary of the Dark Years 1940 – 1944 by Jean Guéhenno  

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

diary-of-dark-yrsThis is a sombre book, the diary of a thoughtful but determined man –  a teacher and writer who, 50 at the time of the Nazi occupation of Paris, decided to refuse to write a single word for publication under German control of the media.  In France, this book has been in print since 1947, but this is the first English translation.  It is moving, modest, observant, and philosophical, and not in any way defeatist.

Guéhenno writes mainly about the way he and others behave under Nazi rule, focusing mainly on the positons taken by those who collaborated more or less openly, those who went along perhaps reluctantly but knowingly (many admired anti-fascist writers, like Valery, Anouilh, and Colette, were published in Fascist journals, and ‘lived through the occupation without seeing it’ as the translator, David Ball, observes).  Then there were people like himself, who adopted a passive refusal to do anything for German radio or German magazines, and who held on, in private, to an unswerving vision of France – defined by him in terms of the spirit of the country, of great philosophers and writers – waiting for the turn of fortune – a ‘France that cannot be invaded’.  It does not cover, because he was afraid the diary might be discovered, any details, where he knew them, of resistance activities by some of his pupils or others.  During the occupation, he found work difficult, but he read very widely, he wrote this diary discreetly if not secretly, and he thought and read hard for a study of Rousseau.

June 19, 1940  Last night the voice of General de Gaulle on London radio.  In the midst of this vile disaster, what a joy to hear a voice with some pride in it at last.

June 25, 1940  I had not realised I loved my country so much.  I am full of pain, anger, and shame … I will take refuge in my real country.  My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.

June 27, 1940  Pétain is not France.  Pétain and Laval do not speak for us.  Their word does not commit us to anything and cannot dishonour us.

As time goes on, there are reflections on international events, in as far as he knew about them, the antics of the Vichy government and collaborationists, and also growing despair, interpolated with moments of hope as, for example, he deduces the difficulties on the Russian front.  At the beginning of 1942, he writes that ‘This year will be better. We are surely near the end’, but of course he was wrong on both counts.  But he takes pleasure in his reading, history, philosophy, literature, and his beloved Rousseau, in his teaching, and in the minor rebellions that happen everyday – marking a V for victory in your Metro ticket, scoring it on the trees in the park, painting it on the doors and walls of the city, or dressing in the colours of France – ‘The blue shoes, white stockings, and red dress of one woman.  The red jacket, blue purse, and white gloves of another. What pathetic efforts. But not wasted, after all  … mutual attention created the joy of a communion’ (July 17, 1941). At other times, he regrets that he and the rest of France can do so little, and berates himself for not being able to work, to think: ‘This diary is not at all what I would like it to be. It is too external. I don’t use it enough for inner prayer, to construct myself’ (June 11, 1942).

Then at the end of 1942, hope begins to grow – mingled with despair and outrage at the forced migration of French workers to Germany, the German occupation of the Free Zone – when America lands in North Africa on November 9.  And sometimes he is ashamed of his reactions:

December 27, 1942  Propaganda blares into our ears from morning to night, but we’re no better informed; we know nothing.  What’s the state of public opinion in Germany? Oh, if only we could be sure that they were suffering a great deal, dying in great numbers on the Russian front! Sure that the women of Germany have no more tears to shed. Sure that they’re on the verge of revolt. For only the excess of all those misfortunes can give us hope; it has come to this!

And then personal sadness, pending for months, touches him again (he had already lost his wife before the war) when his grandfather dies:

January 9, 1943  We’re back from Montolieu.  Grandfather died January 1, in the morning. … He won’t have known [that the Germans had occupied the village].  Now they’re going to move into his house … its all happening as if every bit of former happiness had to be destroyed.  But the trees will remain, and the fountain between its high cypress tress, the terrace over the river, the whole horizon, and the whole sky.  I’ll always have enough to remember it by.

But there is still real passion against the occupier (in his teaching in March 1943, ‘I can still blaspheme abundantly’ – against Vichy and Fascism, of course, not against his religion), against the Nazi idea not the individual:

February 12, 1943  I don’t hate you, I don’t hate you anymore. I pretend not to see you. I act as if you did not exist…in your uniform that that’s a bit crumpled and pretty well worn by now, [and with] a badge with the inscription Gott mitt uns. Is he still there when you’re in the firing squad? Was he there when you pinned a white paper heart on the chests of my friends so as to aim better?

And when things really get better, he still has an accurate and dismissive phrase for the traitors and the faint-hearted:

July 25, 1943  Mussolini has resigned. Ordinary people in the village are rejoicing, but the low comedy continues.  A notorious Pétainist just yesterday a great admirer of Mussolini, is running around the village square shouting to everyone who goes by, ‘Hey, how about those Macaronis?’ All the traitors are getting ready to betray again. Victory is not far off.

September 1, 1943  Sometimes a great surge of hope elates us – Hamburg razed to the ground, Nuremburg destroyed, the whole population of Berlin in flight … now that’s really something.  And we call for more ruins, more miseries still. They alone can bring us closer to deliverance.

As the book goes on, it becomes more literary, more philosophical, and more intense, though still laced with worries and despair about the occupation, then pieces of good news slip through.  One feels he is not able to write as much as he would like, because he knew people in the resistance, producing underground newspapers and so on, and feared his diary might be discovered.  In 1943, he was relieved of his university teaching, and set to teaching at a junior school, which was humiliating and exhausting.  But after June 1944, hope builds, and though it falters and is punctuated with more atrocities, the end for Paris is at hand, in the final words of the diary:

August 25, 1944  Friends call me, saying they can see huge fireworks over the Hôtel de Ville, with red and blue rockets answering them in the south and west. It was the signal. The first tanks of Leclerc’s army had just rolled up to Notre-Dame. And then all the bells of all the churches rang in the night, drowning out the rumbling of the big guns.  Freedom – France is beginning again.

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Jean Guéhenno,  Diary of the Dark Years 1940 – 1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, translated and annotated by David Ball (Oxford University Press, 2016). 978-0190495848 272pp., paperback.

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