In the aftermath of World War II, the French government commissioned multiple organizations to study the defeat, the occupation, and the Resistance. The most ambitious of these was the Committee on the History of the Second World War (Comité d’Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale or CH2GM), which brought together a group of distinguished historians to preserve, collect, and study the documents and testimonies of the period 1940-44. One of the CH2GM’s most important projects was a multi-decade effort to construct a database of key events, using a common format, on standard card stock. The regional correspondents of the CH2GM were given unprecedented access to state archives to facilitate their work. Upon completion in 1980, the approximately 160,000-filecard database was microfilmed and archived. Its contents have never been systematically analyzed.
With the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Research Grant, we created a computerized database that captures comparable features of all violent events described in the CH2GM’s card file. Several dozen French-speaking research assistants worked together to read every card; identify those that described violent repression by the Axis occupation forces or Vichy authorities, or acts of violent resistance by French citizens; and record key data, including the date, location, type of event, and magnitude of violence. The database was recently completed with additional funding from our home institution. Analysis is ongoing.
One preliminary finding is that the intensity of both German repression and French resistance at the local level is shaped by the prevalence of political extremists in each locality for both the left and the right.
The project of which this database is a part has resulted so far in the publication of an article, “Lines of Demarcation: Causation, Design-Based Inference, and Historical Research,” in 2016 by the journal Perspectives on Politics. This article won the American Political Science Association’s prestigious Heinz I. Eulau Award in 2017. In this article, and using CH2GM data, we find that violent resistance to German occupation in the vicinity of the line of demarcation that divided France was more frequent in the directly occupied zone than in Vichy France — not because of differences in political rule between the two zones — but because strategic railways that the Germans used for moving troops within France were far more abundant in the directly occupied zone. In fact, this was so in part because the Germans had delineated the line of demarcation so as to keep these strategic railway lines within the zone they controlled directly. Our article highlights further the organized nature of French resistance in conjunction with Allied efforts to liberate France, casting doubt on exclusively local analysis of these violent dynamics.
We are now analyzing the broader data for the entirety of French metropolitan territory. One preliminary finding is that the intensity of both German repression and French resistance at the local level is shaped by the prevalence of political extremists in each locality for both the left and the right. This finding gives support at the local level to the long-held belief among historians of the occupation that much of the violence was the product of a “Franco-French War” in which the French right, under cover from their Nazi overlords, attempted to annihilate the French left, prompting it to take up violent resistance.