The Wilson Quarterly

It took decades for historians to shatter the political fable that the French fought back fierce­ly against their German occupiers during World War II. Now, re­searchers have debunked the economic myth that the Nazis were solely responsible for the pervasive hunger and deprivation in occu­pied France during the period. In fact, the French government vol­untarily turned over far more mon­ey and manpower to the Hit­ler regime than the terms of the armistice ­required.

In 1941, French leaders, expecting Britain to surrender quickly, maneuvered to curry favor with Germany to boost French standing in a new Europe dominated by Adolf Hitler, write economists Filippo Occhino and Eugene N. White of Rutgers and Kim Oosterlinck of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. “Germany secured a massive and, per­haps, unparalleled transfer of re­sources from France” to finance its war on other fronts, the au­thors ­say.

The French turned over 479 billion francs to the Germans from 1940 to 1944. The occupiers took billions more in loot. While the economists don’t translate the sums into current U.S. dollars, they note that the payments were equivalent to 55.5 percent of French economic output in 1943. The elderly French hero of World War I, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, was allowed to remain head of the country because he ensured the “passivity” of the population and the continued exploitation of the economy during the occupation, according to Occhino and his ­co­authors. The strategy worked so well for Ger­many that it took fewer than 40,000 unfit and ­over­age German occupation officers to administer all of France until the Allies threatened a ­cross-­channel invasion in ­1943.

When the Germans marched around the Maginot Line and launched their blitzkrieg against France on May 10, 1940, France’s economy was slightly larger than Germany’s on a per capita basis. When France agreed to an armis­tice six weeks later, the two nations’ fortunes reversed. The Germans received 400 million francs a day in “occupation costs,” a figure so large that Nazi authorities were unable to spend it. Reduced to 300 million francs a day in 1941, the toll was raised to 500 million a day by 1943 as the war turned against the Germans. Germany also put thousands of French prisoners of war to work in its muni­tions industries, and con­scripted another 649,000 civilian laborers to work in its ­factories—­altogeth­er, about 10 percent of the French labor force. Germany comman­deered 92 percent of France’s oil, cut off 40 percent of its coal, and took so much of its food that adults were reduced to 1,500 calories a day, less than the daily rates in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Roman­ia. (Conquered Slavic states were exploited more ruthlessly, but they were targeted for eradication under Hitler’s plan.)

Twenty-five years earlier, France and its allies had demanded 132 billion gold marks in reparations from Germany after its defeat in World War I. In the years from 1923 to 1931, Berlin paid the Allies 50 billion deutsche marks, or 83 percent of one year’s gross domestic product. The amount of the reparations was considered so crippling that it helped Hitler justify World War ­II.

France’s collaborationist Vichy government paid Germany much more, and much faster. The pay­ments, the authors conclude, probably represent the “maximum degree of exploitation that is feasible when a state is left intact.”

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The Source: "France Under the Nazi Boot" by Filippo Occhino, Kim Oosterlinck, and Eugene N. White, in The Journal of Economic History, March 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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