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The Military Administration in Belgium and North France (Militärverwaltung in Belgien und Nordfrankreich) was an interim occupation authority established by Nazi Germany. It remained in existence until 1944. The region was subject to Germanization policies and the Nazi administration was assisted by fascist Flemish and French collaborationists. In binational Belgian territory, the predominantly French region of Wallonia, the collaborationist Rexists provided aide to the Nazis while in Flemish-populated Flanders, the Flemish National Union supported the Nazis.
In Northern France, the German occupiers began a campaign of subjugation and forced Germanization. Sections of Northern France were off limits for any French person to go into, as these areas were intended for eventual German colonization. Further, the German Reichsmark was artificially manipulated so that one Reichsmark equalled 20 Francs, making it extremely difficult to purchase goods, as well as that the citizens Northern France received little supplies or support from the German occupiers resulting in malnutrition and squalid conditions.
The war years were a time of shortages, a time when things ran out. Because of German demand for French agricultural produce and the British blockade, shortages of many essential foodstuffs became acute as early as the summer of 1940. Rationing of essential goods like bread, sugar, butter, chesse, eggs, fruit, meat, and coffee was gradually introduced throughout France from the autumn of 1940 until the spring 1941 in response to growing shortages. Chocolate and fresh fish were added to the list of rationed goods in July 1941, with tripe and fresh vegetables joining them in October that same year. Rationing in France did not end fully until 1949.
Everyone was given a ration book of vouchers (un bon de décharge) to be exchanged, with payment, of course, against the rationed commodity. Each month, the amount of a particular rationed commodity to be purchased by each individual was set according to its general availability. One foodstuff that was readily available was the swede, le rutabaga, which rapidly came to symbolize the misery of rationing, the `légume fétiche de l'Occupation'. The general availability of many other essential foodstuffs decreased as the war dragged on and France's needs were consistently set below those of Germany.
Food shortages created much ill will as well as desperation. There were accounts of French people eating cats and dogs, and publicity posters were displayed in Paris alerting people to the dangers of eating rats. There were attempts at ration fraud - Henri Amouroux cites the case of a family who used the ration vouchers of their recently deceased child to obtain more food - but, more often than not, most turned to the black market to purchase extra goods.
The effect of such shortages on the health of the French varied according to age. For the middle-aged, the lower fat intake had positive benefits on health. The rate of coronary heart disease and cirrhosis, for example, decreased. For young children and the elderly, the shortages led to undernourishment and severe vitamin deficiencies. Cases of tuberculosis, particularly in urban areas, doubled amongst the young and the mortality rate of newborn infants began to rise again. The effects of food shortages were even worse for what Vichy and the Nazis called les indésirables held in French transit camps like Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers, or worse still, in a concentration camp like Le Struthof near Strasbourg.
Food was not the only essential commodity in short supply, as fuel for domestic heating as well as transport was scarce. Coal, gas, and petrol were all in short supply and priority, of course, went to the Germans. Petrol was unobtainable and vélo-taxis (i.e. taxi-cycles) became a common sight on the roads of Paris. Cars whose use was considered essential were converted to use gas instead or petrol with strange mechanical converters bolted onto the rear. Fuel for domestic heating created the worst misery as the winters between 1940 and 1944 were amongst the worst on record.
On top of these shortages was a lack of available housing. Buildings had been destroyed during the German invasion, and later by Allied bombing raids and yet construction had stopped due to the war and to the increasing demands of the German economy for building supplies. It is estimated that there were millions homeless in France during the war. Until the French economy was revived through economic collaboration with Germany, historians claim that there were over a million unemployed.
The majority of the French had to make do with what they had. The term that had for this is the untranslatable système D (as in débrouillard, resourceful). The French had to cope with what they had and develop for the first time, or rediscover, skills in making the most of what little they possessed.
Growing small vegetables like radishes in window boxes, or keeping rabbits in the courtyard or on the balcony are just two examples of the new resourcefulness the French were forced to acquire, or further develop, during the war. Barter, le troc, was a common way of making do with friends and acquaintances swapping food for clothing or vice versa. A factory worker in the city working for a company like Dunlop, for example, might swap a bicycle tyre - highly prized during the war - for fresh food from the countryside.
Replacement products, les ersatz, were used to fill the gap in demand. The most common sorts of replacement products were for desirable commodities like coffee (acorns, chick peas, chicory) and tobacco (sunflower leaves, Jerusalem artichokes).
Visits to relatives in the countryside was an important means of acquiring extra foodstuffs. This was frequently known as le marché gris, the grey market. The living conditions in France's major cities meant that few had land on which to cultivate crops. However, as most French people still had family living off the soil, weekend visits to the extended family helped ensuring additional food, especially fresh meat and vegetables. Although stations were carefully controlled by customs, a great deal of food was smuggled into the impoverished cities.
Much has been made of the better-off countryside, stuffing itself with fresh food whilst the city dwellers starved. This myth disguised the real hardships that many in the countryside faced. Certain regions, like Languedoc-Roussillon for example, were characterized by the cultivation of a single crop (in French, they are called monocultures) and suffered just as badly as urban areas. Moreover, shortages of petrol, diesel, and of spare parts for farm machinery meant that many farmers were forced to return to more traditional farming methods with longer working hours.
The Black MarketEdit
Shortages of food, fuel, clothes created much ill-will as well as a busy black market. Those without `country cousins' were obliged to use the black market to source additional food and other essentials. Although `official' food prices remained fairly stable between 1940 and 1943, this price stability was meaningless to most people. What did it matter if the price of meat remained the same if there was none to buy in the first place? If a family wanted a chicken or some potatoes then the most immediate source was the black market who could charge what they thought the market could take.
As supply dwindled and demand grew, prices generally soared. Some estimates indicate that food prices increased 270% over the course of the war and that around 75% of family income was spent on food. To give just one example of spiralling food prices, a pound of coffee might cost as much as 1,000 francs, a vast amount when you consider that the average monthly salary of a Parisian was 2,500 francs. The prices on the black market were the result of a number of variables: the season, the region and the degree of police control all informed the market price. Although income levels during the war stagnated, or even increased for some, their real value, that is to say, their spending power in the marketplace, actually decreased considerably. This was particularly felt by large families who could no longer afford to feed their children.
Because life was generally grim in wartime France, there was a great need for pleasure and escapism. The pleasures for many French people on lower incomes were few and simple. In the context of the difficulties of home life and in spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of domestic heating, sexual intercourse appears a particularly popular pastime. Although we commonly think of les trente glorieuses (1945-1975) as the years in which France's birth rate increases, statistics indicate that the increase began in 1942-3. From a birth rate of 13.1 to every 1,000 in 1938, it had increased to 15.7 in 1943.
In public, in spite of privations, the show had to go on and the French entertainment industry enjoyed something of a boom period. Paris in particular, enjoyed something of a cultural revival in spite of the exodus of many of its avant- garde artists. The main stimulus to its cultural life was, of course, the large numbers of cash-rich Germans. One of the enduring images of Occupied France is of the German military enjoying the delights of gay Paris.
Cafés, cabarets, and concert halls were soon open and were welcoming their new, and wealthy, visitors. Popular singers like Maurice Chevalier performed before German audiences in the French capital. Jazz enjoyed particular popularity in wartime France although it was less acceptable to the Germans who considered it a decadent Jewish and Negro music. For many French jazz fans, their musical preferences were a symbol of refusal. A particular youth sub-culture, les zazous (baggy trousers, braces, wide ties, moustaches à l'américaine etc.), was spawned with its own style of dress and disdain for the Germans and for Pétain's dreary National Revolution. Indeed, the jazz scene became a common milieu for resistance in Paris.
Cinemas all over France were beneficiaries of the desire for escapism. In 1938 it is estimated that there were 200 million visits to the cinema. By 1943 that number had increased to 304 million with turnover at the box office increasing from 1.5 billion francs in 1941, to 3.2 billion francs in 1944. In spite of the import of hundreds of German films, the embargo on Anglo-American films helped stimulate the French cinema industry. Some 225 films were made between 1940 and 1944 and a large number are still considered to be amongst the best French films made. Clouzot's Le Corbeau and Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir are frequently cited here although one could add many others. Although Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir is now interpreted by postwar viewers as an allegory of Occupation and the beating heart of French resistance, its attractions and pleasures to a wartime audience were purely escapist.
More and more people took to reading, with municipal libraries and bookshops all reporting increased demand. Escapist literature like Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, or detective novels by Georges Simenon and Leo Malet as well as practical works like the Larousse Gastronomique were particularly sought after. The theatre enjoyed a particular revival too with Henri de Montherlant's La Reine morte, Paul Claudel's Le Soulier de satin and Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Mouches all making their debut performances during the war.
Propaganda, as disseminated through the press, posters, leaflets, radio broadcasts and cinema newsreels, was an integral part of life in Occupied France and played a decision role in the battle of ideas between the Vichy government, the German occupier, and the resistance. As early as the 18th June 1940 the Germans placed 200 officers in charge of La Propagande Abteilung (Propaganda Section) in Paris in charge of radio, press, poster and cinema propaganda.
Another common medium for propaganda, though one more commonly used by the Vichy government, were bill posters. Although the resistance and their British allies were capable of distributing leaflets and small fly posters, larger poster campaigns were the reserve of Vichy. One recurrent theme in many of the posters that appeared during the Occupation, was the notion of Pétain as the `father' (`père') and saviour of the French nation. These posters exploited Pétain's appearance (snowy-white hair = purity; kindly grandpaternal smile = trustworthy and true; his military background = national honour etc.) to create a kind of cult or mystique. Other posters concentrated on the Travail, Famille, Patrie and stressed the value of hard work, matrimony and motherhood, and service to the nation. Another sort of poster demonized France's enemies: the Jews (represented in the worst anti- semitic tradition as hirsute, heavy-jowelled, hook-nosed profiteers), freemasons (the supposed allies of the Jews) and the Allies, in particular the British and the Americans who were perceived as thick as thieves with the `verminous Jew' in undermining France.
Similar themes and ideas appeared in the newsreels that accompanied every film shown in French cinemas. The Vichy government initially had editorial control over the content, in particular, over the France-Actualité newsreel. However, as early as September 1940 this control was handed over to the Germans who imposed their own footage and editorial values. In general, these newsreels showed international events and sports, with a strictly German bias of course such as scenes of German troops marching down Les Champs Elysées, and a handful of items about France.
Despite the daily bombardment of propaganda text and images, it would be unfair to conclude that the majority of the French accepted the messages Vichy and the Nazis attempted to disseminate. Most were indifferent, or even hostile, to the propaganda that surrounded them. This was most acute towards the end of the war when the gap between propaganda rhetoric and grim reality became larger. H.R. Kedward has written, for example, of cinema audiences jeering German newreels or else leaving the auditorium for a cigarette. The German police responded by placing some cinema audiences under surveillance, leaving the lights on to deter or identify troublemakers and, in the process, making the newsreel unwatchable.
The Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA) has an excellent web site at Les Archives de guerre full of documentary resources (text, sound, and still and moving images).
La Guerre des ondes/War of the AirwavesEdit
Radio was a particularly powerful medium because of the potential to enter the homes of millions. In France in 1940 it was estimated that, out of a population of 41 million, there were 5 million radio sets or almost one in every household. Because it is possible to broadcast from one location and be heard from millions of others many miles away, it was particularly difficult to police. When Paris was invaded by German troops on the 14th June 1940, all French newspapers were prohibited. However, accurate information on the progress of the war could be heard on the radio, particularly from the BBC which, far from German interference, was free to broadcast throughout Europe.
Historians today speak of the so-called `guerre des ondes', a war fought over the radio waves for public opinion. Some of the most important announcements and appeals to the French were made on the radio. For example, Pétain's historic speech of the 17th June 1940 - `c'est le coeur serré que je vous dit aujourd'hui qu'il faut cesser le combat' (`with a heavy heart I call on you to cease fighting') - was broadcast on the radio. Almost immediately, General de Gaulle responded with an injunction of his own to the French to struggle to save France.
In cooperation with the British authorities de Gaulle and the other Français de Londres broadcast two five-minute programmes a day, most of them written by the writer and journalist Maurice Schumann, on patriotic themes, the past and future greatness of France and the value of continuing to struggle against the Nazi occupier. One final point: quite apart from any propaganda value the radio had, it was also extremely important as a medium for transmitting coded messages - e.g. les langoustines sont fraîches - to the separate units of the French resistance.
Pétain and his ministers were equally convinced of the propaganda value of radio in shaping public opinion. All radio broadcasts were centralised in Paris with high- ranking members of the government, including Pierre Laval, using it to make speeches to justify or glorify one aspect or another of Vichy France and its National Revolution, to downplay the damage caused by the allied bombings or military successes and to spread fear amongst the population. This was a particular tactic of the Nazis who broadcast in 32 languages throughout Europe news of their inexorable progress.fr:Administration militaire nazie de la Belgique et du Nord pt:Administração Militar na Bélgica e no norte da França