WW2 Comparative History from Below
Written by Claire Andrieu
Unlike the objects of its title, the subject of this book did not fall from the sky. I did not set out to write a comparative history of the reception of downed airmen in Britain, France and Germany during World War II. The story of When Men Fell from the Sky. Civilians and Downed airmen in Second World War Europe is firstly the story of discovering a treasure trove of overlooked archives.
In 1997 I contributed to a special issue of Le Mouvement Social on the French Resistance. I called my article “Les résistantes. Perspectives de recherche” (“The Women Resisters. Research Perspectives”). At the time, I was disappointed by the quality of the existing published research. It presented standard profiles of women in the Resistance without placing them in a more scientific social history. Many a book looked like a moving, sometimes beautiful portrait gallery, but lacked critical distance. However, I was struck by two books in which footnotes opened up new horizons for a scholarly approach. These were Women in the Resistance (Praeger, 1985), by an American historian, Margaret L. Rossiter, and Massacre Over the Marne: RAF Bombing Raids on Revigny, July 1944 (Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1994), written by a well-known British amateur historian, Oliver Clutton-Brock. In their footnotes, both mentioned the debriefings of downed Allied pilots who had escaped from occupied Europe. This was at last a good source: serial archives contemporary with the events themselves. A social history of women in the Resistance through the lens of helping the Allies was now possible.
I started at the National Archives in Kew and found the debriefings of British and Commonwealth airmen and soldiers who had managed to escape continental Europe: precise narratives, mentioning the help given by the local population, with dates and places. A delight for a historian. Now, for reasons that the archivist at Kew still resented, the individual files of the helpers had all been sent to the United States. So I flew to Washington and found the 36 or so linear meters of individual files, arranged by country and in alphabetical order. A new joy. Every country in continental Europe was represented on the shelves, except Germany. Where was Germany? The archivist replied: no helpers registered there, but instead, in another record group, hundreds of war crimes files relating to the behavior of civilians towards downed Allied airmen. This changed my subject. Instead of a social history of French women in the Resistance, a European social history became possible. For a comparative history, I still had to choose the countries to study. France was my specialty, Germany stood out because of the specificity of violence against airmen, but what would be the third party? I was very interested in looking at Hungary, the only country where there was a comparable number of helpers and lynchers. But the obstacle of language led me to leave the case aside. I chose the United Kingdom as a test country, since it was like Germany, both bombed and remaining sovereign.
Comparing the fate of downed airmen in France, Germany and Britain during WWII appeared to be strangely simple. The story begins with the arrest of Luftwaffe airmen who had fallen over France during the invasion. French civilians resisted the invaders in a way that challenges the literature on the French ‘debacle’. Afterwards, during the occupation, fugitive Allied airmen and British and Commonwealth soldiers were almost systematically hidden and assisted on their way to freedom. The “helpers” participated in the building of the French Resistance. In Britain, civilians received the hapless German airmen with calm and even courtesy. The government’s message of “keep calm and carry on” seems to have shaped their collective behavior. In Germany, from mid-1943, an increasing number of civilians attacked and lynched the downed airmen. This history of violence seems to testify to the never-ending process of Nazification of German society under the rule of Hitler.
This description may seem caricatured and stereotypical. The point of the book was precisely to deconstruct national homogeneity and specificity. The study reveals the determining factors of civilian action in wartime in the circumstances of an unexpected encounter with a soldier or a fallen airman. The driving forces appear to be the history and memory of previous wars, longue durée cultural traits and the political regime. In France, the culture of men in arms combined with the experience of the third invasion in a lifetime to create a strong spirit of resistance whatever the ruling regime. In the United Kingdom, the combination of the preservation of democracy and the cultural belief in “British humor” managed to shape good manners towards prisoners of war. In Germany, the Nazi view of airmen as “Jews” and “Negroes” contributed to a spiral of violence that converged the regime in power, long-term cultural traits and national war memory. Taken as a whole, the book challenges the routine understanding of the three home fronts. It shows civilians at war, fighting and responding to history, culture and the regime in power.