I was a bit taken aback when p.69 of Fleeing Hitler turned out to be an illustration which takes up the entire page. However, on reflection, I decided that this photo of peasant carts beautifully captures the main themes of the book. We can sense the slow progress made by these huge farm horses and the enormity of the efforts these people were making to distance themselves from the battle zone represented by the abandoned tank in the foreground of the picture.Read more about Fleeing Hitler at the Oxford University Press website.
This flight of French civilians from Hitler’s invading armies in 1940 reached monumental proportions and affected both those in rural and urban areas. Totally unaware of what lay ahead of them, people loaded up as much of their worldly possessions as they could carry or push along in prams and wheelbarrows or whatever they could find to enable them to leave their homes. As we can see, peasants piled their carts with all sorts of goods, including mattresses, furniture, cooking utensils as well as livestock. They tended to be much better prepared for this traumatic journey. By contrast, Parisians were ill equipped, having set out in inappropriate clothes and with little in the way of supplies as they had imagined that they would be able to buy food and petrol in the normal way. Towns in the south and west were swamped by the arrival of thousands of refugees from the capital and surrounding areas in addition to those who were already on the roads from Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and the north of France. Shops soon emptied. People struggled to get enough to eat and to find adequate shelter; most were forced to sleep rough. Many were machine gunned down by the German planes and families became separated from each other in the chaos.
What would become of them? Why did these people leave the safety of their homes? Where did they go? What would be the consequences of the largest displacement of population Europe had seen since the middle Ages? I believe that the p.69 test holds good for my book. If you are intrigued by this photo and the scene it portrays, you can learn more about this previously untold story of the civilian experience of May-June 1940 in France.
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