- Deposition 1940–1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France by Léon Werth
We owe a debt of gratitude to David Ball for making available in English this diary of the Dark Years penned by Léon Werth, whose significance has only increased over time, as Ball explains in the Introduction. The stubbornly unorthodox Jewish thinker confronted first-hand two world wars, colonialism, and the Holocaust. With wide-ranging talents as a writer and art critic, he articulated singular perspectives on numerous matters of French politics, culture, and society of the first half of the twentieth century. His incisive Occupation diary explores many aspects of the German occupation of France, including the various faces of the Nazi presence, Vichy and its figurehead Philippe Pétain, along with the ideology of the 'Révolution nationale'. The policies and propaganda of the 'French State' are everywhere visible to Werth as he narrates his everyday life, first while living in his wife's house in the town of Saint-Amour in the Jura, then during the last few months of the Occupation in Paris. Werth proved to be an astute observer, aware of the [End Page 337] uncertain nature of his sources of information and his distance from events. He nevertheless remained keenly attuned to what was happening, with an acute sense of living through a pivotal moment of history. Werth observes, notes precisely, and reflects critically on France, the French, prominent figures such as Pétain, de Gaulle, Hitler, townspeople, friends such as Lucien Febvre, and ideological discourses of all stripes. He is particularly adept at describing paradigms of thought and expression with their various quirks and perversities due to the circumstances that inform them. His vibrant, compassionate humanity expresses itself as curiosity, irreverence, scepticism, humour, and irony. There are hints of Montaigne, Voltaire, even Pascal and La Bruyère in these pages that are a delight to read: Werth's pithy descriptions and commentaries are bracing, refusing the commonplace and the conventional without denying the heritage of predecessors. He also offers invaluable observations on the war as it unfolded in dramatic events and tested the mettle of a proud people faced with the unsavoury realities of Vichy, shortages, collaboration, deportations, and repression. As Ball points out, this English edition represents a judicious selection of entries from the 700-plus pages of text in the original French. He consulted the archival material in Léon Werth collection at the Centre de la mémoire of the Médiathèque Albert-Camus at Issoudun. The collection thus focuses on life in Vichy France, leaving aside reflections on science, the Church, contemporary writers, and dreams. Ball has proceeded with his own selection of entries gleaned from Werth's original French text without following those of the abridged Seuil/Points edition. One wishes that it had been possible to offer the entirety of this remarkable text in translation. Having edited notes provided by Lucien Febvre and Jean-Pierre Azéma, Ball has added his own. An index, de Gaulle's 'Call of June 18', and a biographical dictionary provide an array of references readily available to the reader unfamiliar with the context of the Dark Years in France.