Vinen has a keen eye for incidents whose sheer absurdity shows just how chaotic and unpredictable things were. For instance, a Canadian insurance company, taking Vichy's theoretical neutrality at face value, continued to pay Pétain a pension throughout the war. Meanwhile, the French children's magazine Le Journal de Mickey, with support from Walt Disney, not only went on publishing but solemnly instructed French children in their duty to "the Marshal." So complex were Vichy's criteria for Jewishness, and so rigid the racial bureaucracy, that one woman was deported from France and sent all the way to Auschwitz, only to persuade officials there of her "Aryan" status, upon which they returned her safely home. Meanwhile, on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, an idealistic young French scoutmaster set up a model camp for "volunteer" French workers, leading them in songs, games and exercises that were occasionally disturbed by the smell of burning flesh. The scoutmaster later turned out to be a Gaullist spy.
Beyond the confusion and unpredictability, Vinen is particularly good at evoking the privations and hardships that served as the backdrop to nearly all French lives between 1940 and 1944. He waxes eloquent on subjects like ration cards, waiting in line (you could pay a mother seven francs an hour to wait for you; her children would deliver the provisions) and the black market. He explains persuasively that farmers endured their own share of hardships and did not enjoy a plenty denied to city dwellers. He recounts the plot of a novel whose intellectual hero, having gone hungry for too long, declares with bathos: "My son will run a dairy." He also reveals that Parisians kept 400,000 rabbits on their balconies as a source of food.
When Vinen takes the time to sketch out individual characters and incidents, his book is especially instructive and revealing. He gives a lively account of collaborationist crime and figures like the gangster Henri Lafont (who counted a black singer and a German Jew among his mistresses, and eventually volunteered to fight in the SS). Vinen also makes a fascinating comparison between three young French Jews who survived the war, showing the determining effect that their prewar social status had on their experiences. Unfortunately, however, much of the book moves too quickly for its own good. To take just one example, in his section on the "exodus" of June 1940, when as many as 8 million people fled their homes (including more than two-thirds of the population of Paris), Vinen seldom devotes more than a sentence to any single person or story. It is an admittedly unfair comparison, but Némirovsky's Suite Française gives a far more vivid sense of the chaos, confusion and anguish of this moment, and of the variety of individual experiences.
More serious, Vinen's allergy to generalization often leaves him with little to say that does not sound simply obvious: "German troops in France were not all the same"; "French people often discussed how they should deal with the Germans"; "Prison camps changed over time." At the end of the book, he writes: "The first and simplest conclusion of this book is that life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable." Did we doubt it? True, some historians of late have put relatively little emphasis on the hardships, but the basic facts have not been in question.
Most surprising, while Vinen details the many different ways the French dealt with the German occupiers, including political collaboration, sexual contacts, forced labor in Germany and bureaucratic connections, he almost entirely avoids the subject of resistance. He has an entire chapter on French laborers in Germany, but nothing at all on the "Free French" forces in England. And he provides only five pages on the organized Resistance itself--half the amount given over to the head-shavings of 1944-45, and scarcely more than on the black market, or standing in line. True, the book explicitly concerns "the bulk of the population" who did not actively resist, and is partly set against the old myth, long discredited by historians but still tenaciously upheld in some fiction, that France was a "nation of resisters." But in downplaying the Resistance so thoroughly, Vinen ends up diminishing the importance of the choices the French did indeed face during the war, however much their sheer exhaustion and despair, and the ambient chaos, may have led them to pretend that these choices did not exist.