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In the summer of 1940 the French army was one of the largest and best in the world, confident of victory. In the space of a few nightmarish weeks that all changed as the French and their British allies were crushed and eight million people fled their homes. Richard Vinen's new book describes the consequences of that defeat. It does so not by looking at political leaders in Vichy or Paris or London but rather at those who were caught up in daily horrors of war. It describes the fate of a French prisoner of war who was punished because he wrote a love letter to a German woman, and the fate of a French woman who gave birth to a German-fathered child as the Americans landed in Normandy. It describes the 'false policemen' who proliferated in occupied Paris as desperate men on the run seeking to feed themselves by blackmailing those who were even more vulnerable than themselves. It asks why some gentile French people chose to risk imprisonment by wearing yellow stars. It recounts the fate of a couple of estranged middle-aged Jews, separated by the mobilisation of 1939, who found themselves (in July 1942) on the same train to Auschwitz. Extremely moving and brilliantly readable, The Unfree French is a remarkable addition to the literature of the Second World War.
Richard Vinen is Reader in History at King's College, University of London. His last book was the highly acclaimed A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century.