- Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War by Ludivine Broch
Broch is of two minds about the community of workers that she studies. For much of Broch’s book, railwaymen, or cheminots, are presented as a conservative, hierarchical-minded bunch, loath to strike and protective of the tools of their trade, from the mighty locomotive on down. Yet, by the time her story draws to a conclusion, sometime in the late 1940s, cheminots have become involved in Resistance sabotage and a rash of occasionally violent postwar work stoppages. The two views are not incompatible; it is interesting to note how Broch fits them together.
The argument for cheminot conservatism hinges on two points. A great strike wave welcomed the arrival of Léon Blum’s Popular Front government in 1936, but railwaymen did not take part. During the war, France’s national rail service, the sncf, helped to ship Jews from internment to transit camps within France and then to camps in the East. The Germans did most of the organizational work, but the French executed German orders. sncf executives paid for such cooperation after the Liberation with their jobs. But what about ordinary rail workers who kept the deportation trains rolling? Broch is generous to them: They were professional men just doing their jobs, modest cogs in a machine the ultimate purpose of which the cheminots did not grasp.
Broch does not want for explanations of cheminot conservatism. The railway milieu was a large one, more than 470,000 strong, and cheminots often lived among themselves, apart from other workers. Their commitment was not to the working class but to the railroad. Moreover, France’s rail industry, nationalized from 1937, occupied a special place in public affairs. Whenever a great collective effort was required—whether mobilization for war or reconstruction after it— cheminots were called to keep the rail system functioning through the most challenging of times, a national responsibility that cheminots [End Page 144] were proud to shoulder. Not least of all, they knew something about the heavy costs that labor activism incurred. Cheminots had joined the strike wave that followed the bloodletting of World War I and felt the state’s repressive ire in consequence, a chastening experience that made many of them think twice about joining again—hence cheminot quiescence in 1936.
World War II, however, was a transformative experience. The Germans pillaged France’s rail industry for men and materiel. Increasing shortages of fuel and food made life difficult for even the most privileged of workers. Cheminots, once the model of disciplined professionals, began to steal from the sncf, and, in time, they became involved in the Resistance. Like other résistants, they did not make the fight against Vichy’s antisemitism a central plank, but they did engage in acts of rescue and acts of sabotage, abjuring, if only for the war’s duration, professional inhibitions to the contrary. As D-Day approached, the Allies, working with the Resistance, concocted a plan that called on cheminots to obstruct German re-supply efforts; the railway workers did what needed to be done. In the wake of Paris’ liberation, Résistance-Fer, a national Resistance organ, emerged, and not long thereafter, René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (1945), a quasi-documentary film about the cheminots’ wartime exploits. Both developments burnished a myth of cheminot unity and heroism that may have been exaggerated but contained, as Broch acknowledges, “more than a kernel of truth” (240). As for labor militancy, the once strike-shy cheminots were no longer so. In 1947/8, high prices and a shortage of essential goods, not to mention deepening Cold War tensions, provoked an explosion of labor militancy; this time, unlike in 1936, railwaymen did not sit on the sidelines.
Broch marshals a wealth of evidence in support of her narrative, drawn not just from sncf archives but also from the oral testimony of cheminot old-timers. At times, the book...