Powerful Lessons from Spring Break in World War II France

April 23, 2019
Montluc Prison

Instead of traveling to Daytona Beach or Puerto Vallarta over our spring break this year, we traveled back in time. We joined nearly 50 of our graduate students at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on a week-long staff ride to Paris and Lyon to explore the French Resistance in World War II. But what we learned was less about sabotage, spycraft, and surveillance than about soul-wrenching moral dilemmas. Studying the tensions between collaboration, resistance, and betrayal during the German occupation of France quickly brought to the forefront many of the moral issues we face today. It left all of us asking a deeply profound question: If you found yourself in the same position, what would you do?

Staff rides are a longstanding military tradition, originally developed to educate military officers about battlefield leadership in past conflicts. Officers journeyed on horseback across recent battlegrounds to study the decisions made by rival commanders and learn from their mistakes and triumphs. Each participant played the role of a specific person involved in the battle, and gave a presentation in character to discuss how the terrain, weather, and enemy forces affected their decisions. Modern military staff rides rarely unfold on horseback, but still involve role-playing on the fields where key decisions were made. Staff rides with our students usually go a step further, extending beyond the battlefield to include the political, economic, and social dynamics that shape the overall strategic context.

Instead of studying a military campaign this year, however, our staff ride delved into its dark aftermath. After its forces were suddenly and unexpectedly defeated by the German blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940, France signed an armistice that ended the conflict and permitted Germany to occupy the northern half of the country. The Germans also established a French puppet government in Vichy to rule the unoccupied south, and to administer German rule nationwide through the existing French civil service and police. Our staff ride examined the roles and actions of the Germans, Vichy officials, members of the nascent resistance, minorities and artists, and average French citizens trying to survive and take care of their families.

Our program — which was planned entirely by a team of students — began on the edge of Paris, visiting Mont-Valérien, where German forces shot over 1,000 of the 4,000 French resistance members that they executed during the war. We spent several days in Lyon and the French Alps, which were centers of French resistance and German reprisals. We heard presentations at Montluc Prison, where the Germans held suspected resistance fighters and Jews while awaiting interrogation or transfer. Some were executed within the prison complex, while most of the others were deported to Nazi concentration camps. We traveled to the Plateau des Glières near the Swiss border, a mountainous redoubt where weapons and supplies for the growing local resistance movement were dropped by parachute. A determined German assault in early 1944 retook the plateau, and almost 150 resistance fighters were killed or deported. We spent a gut-wrenching afternoon in the same region at Maison d’Izieu, a refuge for Jewish children where the infamous Nazi SS officer Klaus Barbie seized and interrogated 44 children and seven adult guardians before dispatching them to concentration camps, where only one adult survived. We also visited museums dedicated to the resistance and to France’s role in the Holocaust. At every stop, we heard powerful presentations from students and faculty portraying occupiers, collaborators, bystanders, and victims.

The subject and nature of this staff ride made it strikingly unconventional. Every day was incredibly intense and frequently disturbing, full of horror and tragedy broken by only occasional glimmers of hope. As we travelled between sites and discussed our experiences over dinner each night, we began to process some of the lessons of this harrowing period of French history. And as we did so, we gradually began to draw some bigger lessons about human behavior under intense pressure — lessons that have powerful applicability today and well into the future. To be absolutely clear: We are not suggesting that life in the United States today somehow resembles life during France’s Nazi occupation. But we did find that many lessons of that terrible and turbulent time remain far more relevant to the many disruptions and dilemmas emerging in today’s complex and fast-changing world than we had initially expected.

What did we learn?

Deeply divided societies are vulnerable to authoritarianism and appeals for order. France entered World War II deeply fragmented across political, social, and economic lines. The French were also profoundly war-weary from their staggering losses of soldiers and civilians in World War I, a Pyrrhic victory which severely eroded their national will to fight another major war. After the sudden and unexpected collapse of their army in 1940, many in France simply longed for order and predictability. Cooperation with the German and Vichy authorities seemed the easiest path to normalcy for many French citizens, and some even welcomed the first weeks and months of the occupation as a way to restore stability to their daily lives.

Opportunism can motivate people as much as political beliefs can. In the summer of 1940, the French had every reason to expect that the occupation would last indefinitely, given how thoroughly the Germans dominated the European continent. Reality dictated that every French adult needed to cooperate to some extent with the Vichy regime and the German authorities, in order to be able to work and feed their families. But a considerable number of French citizens went much further, seeing the occupation as an unexpected opportunity to improve their power, position, and personal enrichment. Some accepted senior positions in the Vichy government while others made money by turning their businesses and industries toward supporting the occupation. Few of these collaborators were genuinely enthusiastic about the Nazi occupation (though many French readily supported the deportation and execution of Jews, as discussed below). But nearly all collaborators chose to put aside any objections in order to improve their own personal standing.



Morally offensive actions can be entirely legal. The June 1940 armistice officially ended French resistance, legally established the German occupation, and ultimately spawned the French Vichy government. The United States and several other countries acknowledged the legitimacy of Vichy and dispatched ambassadors to manage their relations. Yet over the following two years, Vichy passed a series of laws that resulted in many resistance fighters, communists, Jews, and other “criminals” being rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The French authorities who enforced these laws had the full legal right to do so, and many believed it was their responsibility to do so effectively. The idea that simply following orders was not a legitimate defense against charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity was not well-established until the Nuremburg war crimes trials in 1945 and 1946. These events were a pointed reminder that laws alone can be an insufficient arbiter of individual morality.

Early actions to oppose the Germans carried great moral significance despite their limited effects. During the first two years of the occupation, small acts of resistance — distributing newsletters, slashing tires, and painting “V for Victory” symbols on walls — posed an ongoing nuisance to German and Vichy officials but did not significantly affect their power or authority. Yet these actions were extremely important nonetheless, because French men and women saw them as ways to make moral choices and reassert some degree of control over their lives. Over time, these individual acts took on even greater moral significance, as they demonstrated an alternative to passive collaboration with the authorities and catalyzed a greater number of larger resistance efforts.

Minority populations become even more at-risk during times of national crisis. During the four years of the German occupation, over 76,000 French Jews were deported to German concentration camps, and only 2,500 survived. These actions were widely supported by French authorities and citizens alike. Vichy’s persecution of French Jews built upon the veins of anti-Semitism widespread throughout society before the war, and was strongly enabled by the large number of individuals who willingly informed on their friends and neighbors. More than two-thirds of the deported Jews were arrested by French police, not by German occupiers. (Compare that to the Netherlands, where local police arrested only one-quarter of the Jews who were deported, and to Belgium, where the number was only one in six.) In fact, according to an exhibit we saw at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, more French Jews were deported in 1942 than any other year — while half of France remained ostensibly free, and before Hitler imposed his most draconian requirements on Jewish populations in the occupied nations of western Europe.

Accountability for heinous acts is always uneven. After the war, the most senior members of the Vichy government were prosecuted in French courts for their actions during the occupation. Several were executed, and others were sent to prison. But the vast majority of French citizens who actively collaborated with the Germans were never held to account. As historian Julian Jackson has noted, after the Allied liberation, Charles de Gaulle deliberately promoted the idea that everyone in France had been a resistor, effectively absolving all but the most prominent of their wartime actions in the name of restoring national unity. Not until the 1970s did French historians start to examine the true story of deep French collaboration during the war, and especially how many French officials and citizens enabled the Holocaust. Despite the lack of legal accountability for those who helped the Germans advance their lethal objectives, this belated public reckoning of widespread French complicity eventually gave way to a moral accountability for the nation. As we saw from the hundreds of schoolchildren visiting resistance and Holocaust memorials during our journey, the war’s powerful lessons continue to inform younger generations of French citizens.

The impressions of this remarkable trip continue to haunt those of us who participated, and occupy many of our conversations and private thoughts. And the more we’ve thought about our experiences, the more we’ve realized how much they offer lessons to help guide us through the moral dilemmas of our own time. The staff ride forced us to confront the widespread biases, deep-seated racism, and fundamental lack of humanity that often lie just beneath the civilized surface of any society. And, almost inevitably, we realized that even modern democracies like the United States are not exempt from these primal forces. We’ve crystallized our reflections into three key lessons, which may serve as helpful guideposts as we navigate the moral challenges of our tumultuous world.

Many choices are black and white only in hindsight. When we look back at France during World War II, we rightfully hold Vichy and the German occupation authorities morally accountable for their innumerable atrocities. But we should also recognize that what now seems morally black and white involved many murky and shifting shades of gray as events unfolded in real time. In 1940, the French did not know if the German occupation would last four months, four years, 40 years, or forever. Many of the choices made by individual citizens and rank-and-file police and civil servants were shaped by the expectation that the occupation would last for a very long time. Many of the most senior Vichy leaders even seemed to genuinely believe that they were acting in the best interests of France. As we chart an ethical path through the many moral challenges of our world, we must remember that the shades of gray we see around us may someday become far more black and white to those who will judge our times. We must do better at challenging ourselves to find the greater moral clarity that often evades us as we focus on our present-day lives.

Ask whether key decisions are moral, not just whether they are legal. The French government enacted laws that legally legitimized the deportation of tens of thousands of its citizens to their ultimate deaths. Perilously few French citizens or officials were willing to ask if the laws were morally defensible. Even when an action is perfectly legal, there is immense power in one individual asking: “Isn’t this just wrong?” To paraphrase a famous quote that is often attributed to Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens and policymakers can change immoral policies. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Everyone has a responsibility to evaluate policies and consider what’s right and what’s wrong — and to make their voice heard.

Beware the boiling frog. According to a well-known fable, a frog placed into cool water in a pot over a stove’s burner will comfortably sit in the pot as the water grows hotter one degree at a time, without noticing the difference until it has reached a lethal boil. In wartime France, lots of seemingly small decisions and tiny compromises by officials, police, civil servants, and citizens accumulated into a national acquiescence to utterly immoral policies, and ultimately even genocide. The best strategy to avoid the boiling frog is to identify personal moral red lines as far ahead of time as possible, and to continually and candidly reevaluate whether any have been crossed. (We published a column in late 2016 that outlined some ways to identify personal red lines for those considering serving in the administration.)

As we somewhat unexpectedly discovered throughout our trip, the lessons of the French Resistance resonate strongly more than 75 years later. On the surface, little about life in France during World War II resembles the furiously frenetic world of 2019. But searching a bit deeper, many aspects of the French wartime experience shout out cautionary lessons as we struggle with our own mélange of murky moral dilemmas in this new century. It challenges all of us to think harder about just what we stand for, and to be ready to challenge the comfortable truths of our time — and to be always ready to ask the central moral question: “Isn’t this just wrong?”




Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.


Image: Nora Bensahel