'33 Days' Is a Complex Portrayal of Life Under Nazi Occupation

by Hans Rollman

10 August 2015

A harrowing, psychological – and true – first-hand account of Nazi Germany’s invasion and occupation of France.
 
cover art

33 Days

Leon Werth

(Melville House)
US: May 2015

On 11 June 1940, at nine o’clock in the morning, French writer Leon Werth and his wife set out in their car to flee Paris ahead of the advancing German forces. Over a month later, they finally reached their destination. 

33 Days tells the story of their flight through the French countryside, joining other columns of refugees, seeking shelter in farmhouses, piecing together the story of France’s defeat and surrender from passing soldiers both French and German alike, living in an occupied village, and eventually hatching a plan to escape and return to the road in search of their missing son.

Beyond a riveting wartime tale fraught with danger and flight, 33 Days is above all a masterful psychological depiction of life under occupation from an invading army. How does one react the moment that invading enemy soldiers appear? What does one do when they ask for water? How does one react to the French refugee who offers a bucket of water to the exhausted German invaders?

The simple answer is, there are no easy or straightforward responses; no way to know how to react to such a situation. Stereotypical notions of heroism, courage, resistance, all fade away into the uncertain surreality of the moment. German soldiers appear on the road where a column of French refugees is inching along. “One of the soldiers stops in front of the car door. His face becomes visible, framed by the window. This face-to-face, this proximity, is uncomfortable. And this discomfort goes beyond worry or fear. I have the urge to kill this man, or to talk with him about the weather or his health.”

Werth’s powers of observation are deployed in full force. He discerns the powerful psychological implications of the everyday. As the German invasion looms, he nervously discusses with friends whether or not to flee Paris, but takes solace in the sight of a water sprinkler on a nearby lawn. “This sprinkler makes us think childish thoughts, it gives us confidence: ‘If things were that serious, they wouldn’t think of watering the grass…’”

After the invasion, he witnesses the emergence of the ‘fifth column’ among French refugees who were one moment declaring their unswerving allegiance to France, and the next were cheerfully inviting in the invaders to share their best wine. “We’re in a country we didn’t know existed: a France that has come to terms with the German victory, or rejoices in it, a France that feels no connection to French customs or French character.”

He witnesses the slow transformation of the war from an abstraction discussed by politicians to the brute reality of armed violence. In the tension of this occupation, the smallest acts become endowed with immense significance. Whether to fetch a German soldier water upon request. Whether to smile back or ignore them when they offer a friendly greeting. Whether to accept the cigarettes and chocolates they offer. “Dignity isn’t measured arithmetically. The smaller the event, the better one grasps the nuances of freedom and dignity. I sensed at that moment I belonged to a people who were recognizing nuances.”

Hungry, lost, with mortar shells firing in the distance, Werth and his wife sit in the woods. Suddenly a German soldier appears, and offers them a can of corned beef. “I felt humiliated,” writes Werth of his feelings in that moment. “I was the conquered, who receives his food by the conqueror’s generosity. Such is war: it imposes gross simplifications, it thinks poorly, it forces poor thinking, in gross categories; it pits nations against each other in an excess of unity that’s nothing but insanity; it contrasts victor and vanquished; it eliminates subtle conflicts and replaces them with a fistfight. As big as the fistfight may be it’s only a fistfight. But at the moment nothing can change the fact that this soldier is victory and I am defeat.”

Werth served in the First World War, and he quickly realizes that this one is very different in character. “The 1914 war was limited in its goals, modestly territorial, modestly economic. At stake this time is the totality of man, the totality of all men.”

He is clear on the roots of the conflict. He “knew that if Hitler was responsible, he wasn’t as important as he was made out to be and he hadn’t invented himself without help.”

Eventually Werth tires of the shelter of a friend’s house in a small occupied French village where they are surrounded by German soldiers – “they’re next to us, up against us and all around us. They’re outside the house and inside the house, which they enter whenever they like”—and they hatch a plot to find gasoline and hit the road again. 

This is no tale of universal humanism; no Christmas-time story about soldiers crossing the battle-field to join in singing songs. Leon Werth despises the Germans; he hates the invasion. But more than hating and despising the German invasion, he is astounded to the point of being consumed by his own fellow nationals’ reaction to the occupation. And he is fascinated by the Germans. Pages upon pages describe them, the ways they differ from the French; their obsessive efforts to bare their souls to the defeated French, to share cigarettes and German military propaganda, as though they and their prisoners were all in this together.

“We never know their intent. Do they want to humiliate us? Do they want us to join in their joy as victors? Or to dissolve ourselves with them in some dream of a Pax Germanica? Do they want us to celebrate the end of the war with them? They are the victors and about to return home. At least they no longer risk being killed. Maybe they can’t imagine that their joy isn’t ours. A happy man can’t stand the sadness of others, he nullifies it, to him his joy seems to project onto the universe.”

Although countless books have been published on the Second World War, Werth’s is unique for its deep psychological portrayal of occupied France, and of the war from the civilian point of view more generally. It disrupts the conventional narratives of conqueror and conquered; of aggressor and victim. Allegiances and virtue are difficult to define in this world, and the tangled messiness of it is what Werth masterfully conveys. “Even so, I ask myself whether in all wars there aren’t these contacts between conquered populations and victorious soldiers. Historians and novelists neglect them, because they want their texts to be edifying and discreet, because such unfortunate details break with the party line, spoil their crude imagery.”

The journey of Werth’s book is almost as dramatic as that of his own during the war. In 1940, with the war still raging, Werth’s close friend Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince) smuggled the manuscript out of occupied France and into America, where Saint-Exupery was trying to raise support for US intervention into the war. Saint-Exupery found a publisher in New York, but the manuscript disappeared without ever being published. In 1992, the manuscript was rediscovered and published in France. In 2014, the original introduction to the book – also written by Saint-Exupery, and also long-lost – was rediscovered as well, and the two have now been reunited for their long-awaited (over 70 years late!) first English-language publication.

The 33 days that Werth recounts were hardly pivotal moments in the war. But Werth’s short book – fast-paced, engaging and philosophical all at once – offers an astonishingly honest and perceptive expression of life under occupation. “I know I’m not recounting a big event,” he writes, after describing a Frenchwoman who found a German soldier stealing eggs from her barn and forced him to return them. “But there are no small events. A person and his nation are wholly within the smallest act… I know I almost sound as if I’m joking and relating the infinitesimal. But we never knew which of these small incidents would be the last.”

33 Days

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