This distinguished British historian of France has written a very fine history of "everyday life in the French heartland" (the Loire Valley) during the German occupation. There have been previous studies of French attitudes and behavior from 1940 to 1945, and Gildea's conclusions do not differ much: rejecting the myths of both a heroically resistant France and a cowardly, collaborationist France and pointing out the various kinds of accommodation the French population practiced under German and Vichy rule. What is new and important is Gildea's care in documenting, through interviews and difficult-to-obtain archives, exactly how the French lived, what strategies they used, and how they faced hardships and challenges during "the dark years" -- a term Gildea finds misleading, for they were not dark for everyone.
What emerges from this fascinating mass of detail is the complexity and diversity of the French experience. A country addicted to centralization found itself cut in two by the "demarcation line," and Vichy's authority was never decisive in the occupied half. As a result, local "notables" (especially mayors, but also landowners, businesspeople, and religious leaders) acted as crucial intermediaries between officials, German or Vichyite, and the population. Gildea thoroughly treats the main issues: the problem of food, terrorism, the fate of the Jews, forced-labor conscription, conflicts between resisters and ordinary citizens afraid of reprisals, the turbulence of the liberation, the era of disappointment that followed it, and the bewildering clashes of memories that persist. His most interesting observation, however, is of how the occupation led not only to violence and hatred between the French and the Germans, but also to a complex mutual experiment in learning to live together -- perhaps a crucial factor in postwar reconciliation and, eventually, European integration.