Book Review: The Riviera at War

The Riviera at War:World War II on the Côte D'Azurby George G. KundahlIB Tauris, 2017Even the title of George Kundahl's impressive new book, The Riviera at War, sounds fundamentally odd to modern ears; the gorgeous, sybaritic glories of southeastern France almost always strike their visitors as inviolable parts of the place, like the sea and the sunlight – the very idea that war could mar such a place seems untenable.And yet the Côte d'Azur was as ravaged by the Second World War as was the rest of Europe – more so in many ways, since it saw not only the foreign brutalities of Italian and then German occupation but also the home-grown varieties experienced under Maréchal Pétain's quisling government at Vichy. The Allied landing to liberate the Riviera in August of 1944 was an immense operation involving 850 ships, and for years before that final assault, the area was a focal point not only for the French resistance but for streams of refugees, including more than 50,000 Jews.Kundahl has done outstanding, indispensable work in pulling together every available source for all sides of this often-overlooked pocket of the larger conflict, and he opens the story on an almost comical note that will be familiar to anybody who's ever spent time on the Côte d'Azur – the way the real world is almost always such an inconvenience to the rarefied goings-on taking place:

The eruption of war in Europe could not have occurred at a worse time for Cannes. Statistically, it was the second-largest city in Alpes-Maritimes with a population of 49,000 in the 1936 enumeration and making great strides forward. Royalty from maharajahs to kings and princes visited with regularity, and aristocrats like the Rothschilds were in residence. France's tennis team challenging for the Davis Cup trained here in 1939 … The crowning accomplishment, however, was to be a film festival scheduled to begin in September. Biarritz and Algiers had talked about initiating such an event, as had a relatively unknown spa town named Vichy, but Cannes won the right to host the gala. During the summer a galaxy of stars came to promote the inauguration – Charles Boyer, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, George Raft, Norma Shearer and Mae West. The films were on hand, everything was ready for opening night when Germany invaded Poland.

Things darken quickly, and the rest of Kundahl's book is devoted to the Riviera versions of the dramas unfolding all across France: we read stories of resistance to the Nazis, stories of desperate attempts to cling to some kind of normality, and, in one of the book's most touching if frustrating threads, the efforts of citizens across the area to shelter Jewish children, to forge ration cards for them, to forge baptismal records for them (and do the actual baptizing), all in an attempt to keep them out of the awful bureaucratic machinery of death the Nazis instituted once they took control of the region. When writing about these efforts, Kundahl perhaps understandably wants to find as much heroism as possible, considering the depth of the darkness on all sides. One such case, for example, is that of Monseigneur Paul Rémond, the Bishop of Nice, who's introduced with a chilling bit of justifying sophistry – “The bishop had a greater contribution to make to the cause of human liberty, and freedom of religion, however, than anti-fascist pronouncements that might well have led to his forcible removal from office” – but is then patiently shown to be a diligent behind-the-scenes player in saving as many lives as possible among “the next generation of France's Jews.”Ultimately, such efforts were mostly doomed to failure. Nearly one-third of all France's Jews were deported during the war years to death camps in former Polish territories (thousands of these deportees were small children and elderly citizens); only 3 percent of the Jews deported from Alpes-Maritimes to Germany survived. “These statistics show no winners,” Kundahl writes starkly, adding a sop he no more seems to believe than he expects his readers to believe it: “The only bright spots were those many instances where individuals helped other human beings to survive, often at the risk of their own lives, thereby providing expressions of the innate goodness of mankind.”Weighed in the balance of the war years, there's precious little innate goodness of mankind on display in the events Kundahl chronicles, but the book is nevertheless fascinating throughout, lavishly detailed without ever smacking of the tedious regional-study myopia that infects so many works of area military history. And as usual in works of this kind, The Riviera at War ends with thunder: in August of 1944 Berlin ordered that Toulon and Marseilles be defended “to the last man and the last cartridge.”The 15 million tourists and vacationers who visit the Riviera every year catch not even the faintest echo of such bitter violence; they go for the gentle lapping of the waves and the friendly smiles of the locals, never guessing that these same warm, inviting beaches were once the scene of an amphibious landing second only to the Normandy invasion in size and destruction. The Riviera at War ought to be prominently displayed in every bookshop from Menton to Saint Tropez, as a riveting reminder of when paradise was a battlefield.