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Gordon, Bertram M. (editor) Historical Dictionary of World War II France: The Occupation, Vichy, and the Resistance, 1938-1946. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998
Melton, George E. Darlan: Admiral and Statesman of France, 1881-1942. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998
Two new books from the Greenwood Publishing Group in Connecticut bring together much interesting and useful material about the role of France in the Second World War, a role still very much debated in France.
The first of the two volumes is a general encyclopedia/dictionary with hundreds of brief entries (from a paragraph to a few pages) contributed by a stellar cast of serious scholars and experts from France, the United States, Canada, Germany, and elsewhere. These cover the personalities, political parties, governmental organizations, and important issues from 1938 through 1946.
While there is little new to learn in concise entries for well-known leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, the sketches of lesser-known individuals are invaluable to anyone delving into the history of France and Vichy. Likewise, relatively obscure groups such as the Institut d'Etude des Questions Juives, the Front National des Arts, and the Comite France-Allemagne are clearly explained. Even a few relevant summaries of films about the era are included.
Inevitably, though, not every topic of interest can be included. While Mers-el-Kebir, Dakar, and Madagascar (where there were military actions between Vichy and Allied forces) are covered in separate entries, the overall emphasis tends to be more on domestic matters than the overseas empire. The French enclaves in India, and even the St-Pierre & Miquelon episode, for example, are barely mentioned (and then only within the short "Empire, Overseas" entry).
Largely, then, a political and social dictionary-- and as such very successful. Nevertheless, it would have been nice to see more emphasis on military matters and even a bit more on the least-known of France's overseas possessions. (At least one of which is missing from the map of "France and its Empire during WWII".)
As to Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, the page-long biography in the Dictionary concludes:
...his precise political leanings were anything but clear. It is perhaps easiest to understand him as a technocrat and a pragmatist: he looked for what "worked" and went with the prevailing political current, laying the foundation for a postwar France that would place great faith in the ability of a technical elite to solve its national problems.
No mention is made of the circumstances surrounding his assassination.
Melton's Darlan, on the other hand, seems to come to a climax with the assassination, investigation, and cover-up.
The early going of Darlan is a bit stuffy and likely to appeal only to the true specialist. Fortunately, Melton presents the Admiral's early life in short, episodic chunks. The bulk of the book is taken up explaining the pivotal role Darlan played in the Vichy government. Although seeming pragmatic to many of his contemporaries, he was branded a collaborator and opportunist by the Americans in particular. On the other hand, the Germans, who originally thought he was a man they could do business with (to use a phrase about another leader from another era) eventually found that not to be the case.
By the time of Operation Torch, the Allied landings in French North Africa in November 1942, Darlan's power had waned considerably (except with the French Navy) and he had not endeared himself to the Americans, British, Free French, or Germans. However, the apparent loyalty of the French fleet was enough to mark him as a man to be reckoned with.
Although Darlan's arrival in Algiers on the eve of Torch is sometimes considered to be part of a wider scheme, Melton shows that not so; it was simply the illness of his son, Alain, that brought him to Africa. (Alain was eventually invited to the United States by FDR and received treatment at Warm Springs in 1943 for polio that left him in a wheelchair.) Darlan briefly found himself holding a trump card and "...dangled before [General Mark] Clark the bait of the French fleet." In a confused sequence of negotiations, secret armistice, messages from Vichy, and repudiation of those messages, the Admiral seemed to be assuming the role the Allies had attempted to reserve for General Giraud who had been smuggled from Vichy by submarine. When German troops crossed from occupied France into unoccupied Vichy, Darlan had no choice left but to throw in his lot with the Allies.
With the Allies ashore, Morocco and Algeria secure, and the French fleet scuttled, Darlan just as suddenly became expendable. He was assassinated by a lone gunman. In the intrigues that followed, suspicions about the power behind the young assassin ranged from Americans to British to Free French to monarchists to Germans. There was a botched investigation, cover-up, renewed investigation, and renewed cover-up. In the end, according to Melton -- who quotes correspondence from the chief of Military Intelligence in Algiers -- the evidence most strongly points toward General de Gaulle. If it was not done on his orders, then it was probably done by his agents on his behalf. "In the absence of a written assassination order, any claim of de Gaulle's personal responsibility for the crime would be premature. But the evidence that the Gaullists played the decisive card is impressive."
A very scholarly treatment.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Greenwood.
Thanks to Greenwood for providing this review copy.
Reviewed 16 August 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
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