Hanna Diamond's "Fleeing Hitler" is the sad, but compellingly told, social history of the collapse of France before the advancing Nazi armies in 1940. The main focus of the book is the extraordinary exodus of the French population as they fled West and Southwards ahead of the fighting, and the subsequent re-migration back to their homes after the defeat.
Despite the fact that this great migration and return was one of the great movements of people of the twentieth century (counted in millions, rather than tens-of-thousands), the events of that dark year are little known outside France. Diamond's book, is apparently the first historical work on the subject in English and as such it fills a major historiographical gap. Whilst most books on the WWII era, enhance or deepen our knowledge of well-known historical outlines, this book I found massively informative as it opened up a whole chapter of the war about which I knew almost nothing.
Diamond's research is thorough, basing much of her writing on diaries and memoirs of civilians caught up in the Exodus, bringing their individual human voices to bear on the larger statistics of migration. She also writes with great clarity and compassion, and the melancholy of the broken nation in 1940 is evident throughout. It is actually a profoundly moving piece of historical writing.
Whilst the focus of the book is of the millions of French people abandoning their homes and taking to the roads, with possessions in wheelbarrows or in carts; the trials and hardships of the road, the struggle for food, shelter, with uncertainty, chaos and desperation for news from the front; Diamond provides more than this. Helpfully, the core social-history of the book is mapped onto the broad outlines of the disastrous military campaigns, and the political machinations which shaped the collapse of the Republic; the rise of Marshall Pétain and his assumption of dictatorial powers. The story of the chaotic and farcical collapse of the French government is tragic. She also explores the varying German policies towards occupied populations, and the ways in which initial French resistance was dampened by benign policies including significant assistance with organising the return to homes and resumption of normal life albeit under the false pretence that this would hasten the return of POW's.
This has everything a good historical read should have - it is genuinely breaking new ground, bringing to a wider audience important stories which are largely untold. It is nicely researched, well written and reads with great pathos, not clinical detachment. Another top-notch summer read for not much money from the annual Oxford University Press Sale.