In May 1940, Hitler’s armies swept lightning-fast into France and the Low Countries. Fearing the worst as the Nazis advanced, more than eight million panicked civilians left their homes and fled south. It was soon one of the largest mass migrations in recorded history. Today, the French simply call it l’exode: the exodus. Two million Belgians were on the road by June, roughly one-third of the entire country. Six million of the refugees were French. Somewhere between one quarter and one third of them were children. Entire cities emptied overnight. Reims, a bustling regional center in Champagne, lost 98 percent of its quarter-million inhabitants. The town of Evreux shriveled from twenty thousand souls to fewer than two hundred. By June 13, even Paris had been deserted; only the old, the sick and the poor remained behind. Southbound roads coagulated and clogged with overheating cars, teenage boys on bicycles, pushcarts piled high with suitcases and mattresses and tired children. The last trains to leave the capital were choked with people.
One of the refugees, a 62-year-old French novelist named Léon Werth, produced an astonishing eyewitness account of his passage into exile. “We’re not living in ordinary times,” Werth wrote that summer. “We are shipwrecked.” That the memoir was ever published is something of a miracle. Thirty-three days after they left Paris, Werth and his wife Suzanne arrived in Saint-Amour, a village in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The text was completed by autumn, but publishing it in the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France was out of the question: Werth was Jewish. In October, however, Werth was visited by his best friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a gifted writer and pilot who smuggled the manuscript out of France via Algiers and Lisbon. Werth never saw the book in print. Lost mysteriously for fifty years, the memoir first appeared in France in 1992. The first English edition of 33 Days appeared last year, a slim volume translated with great dexterity and feeling by Austin Denis Johnston.
Armed with an astonishing literary imagination, Werth was an extraordinary witness to important events. His cinematic testimony is the stuff of historians’ dreams. But Werth’s style of reporting, focused conspicuously on the tiniest fragments of daily experience, was also a startling challenge to classical forms of historical thinking and a subtle repudiation of the grand visionary politics of the twentieth century. His writing lingers because it emanates from that mysterious place where poetry and history bleed together, where small things are inordinately significant and we’re forced to distinguish what is real from what is true.
In her symphonic novel Suite Française, written shortly before she was murdered at Auschwitz, Irène Némirovsky described the chaos of June 1940 as “the nightmare of an incoherent world.” Werth gives us dreamland, strange and terrible. He and his wife left home at 4 o’clock in the morning on June 12. They joined a desperate crush of people bearing what remained from split-second decisions taken in darkness: children, furniture, family heirlooms. In the backs of wagons, Werth reported, shattered families arranged themselves “in rows like the audience at a theater.” Perched atop a tarpaulined truck, a young girl recalled a naval figurehead. A foal lay nestled in a peasant’s pushcart. Birds trilled in cages. “A monkey,” Werth observed, was inexplicably “leashed to a radiator.” So many refugees had refused to part with their own beds that Werth wondered wryly if France had not suddenly become “the kingdom of mattresses.”
Werth’s account conveys the baroque theatricality of exodus, the heightened sense of reality it draped over everything. The transformation of every doorway into a proscenium arch, every window frame into a Caravaggio. Sixteen kilometers south of Paris, Werth and his wife pulled off the road and stepped into a café. The spare, silent interior struck Werth as a carefully composed allegory of defeat. The proprietress, a “warlike blonde,” grimly patrolled the sliver of territory behind the bar. Across the room, two soldiers sat across from one another, a bottle of wine resting on the table between them. “They are together but not speaking to each other,” Werth sketched. “They don’t look at one another and their gazes are fixed on different points on the floor.”
Individual personalities are drawn with Tolstoyan vitality. A female collaborator has “the bulk and jowly muzzle [of] a fairground wrestler” and speaks “the way dogs bark.” Stuffing his face and “filling himself with wine the way he would fill a fuel tank,” an enormous German corporal “seemed like one of those giants who lift the globe.” Nazi soldiers, blond and brutal, are “death’s heads topped with flax.” Werth is almost unfairly good at snatching away a reader’s breath. As he rested against the car one evening, the twilight falling “sad and soft,” Werth heard the lethal clatter of machine-gun fire. Bolting for safety, he momentarily forgot about his wife. “It was so unexpected and quick that I hadn’t time to feel afraid,” he recalled. “It was irresistible, like a fall from the top of the towers of Notre-Dame must be.”
He never failed to wonder at the world’s beauty, however small or slight. Rose blossoms. The afternoon light in a brushwood thicket. The way “the sun shines through the branches and the ground is crimson.” Yet Werth also marbled his account with the blackest of humor, an ironic timbre characteristic of the dark twentieth century. On the road from Paris, Werth spotted a man wearing the sort of trousers he had always wanted. “My longstanding desire for corduroy pants to wear in the country,” he observed wryly, “has reached its climax.” Told by yet another refugee that safety lay across the Loire River, he grumbled that “all the peasant women in France” had apparently “taken courses at the War College.” And as German soldiers arrived to subdue southern France, Werth chuckled at the sheer absurdity of the situation. “The cannons are in the orchard and soldiers in shorts are everywhere,” he wrote. “Oppression is cannons and shorts.”
Most of all, Werth recorded how senseless and incoherent the world had become. “Everything since Paris,” he wrote, “is inexplicable by the laws of reason.” Events now followed the logic of dreams. Even other human beings had become illegible, their personalities murky and their motivations unclear. Many other witnesses agreed. “In the space of several days, we have lost all certainty,” remarked Paul Valéry, a poet and fellow refugee. “We are on a terrifying and irresistible slope.” For Werth, writing about the experience was more than an act of documentation; it was a way of locating the terms that could explain this inverted and incomprehensible landscape.
Many observers saw past ages reflected in the chaos and confusion. The poet Camille Bourniquel remarked that “the Middle Ages have been reinvented.” Another writer thought that “France had jumped backwards six centuries, finding itself at the gates of a medieval famine.” Werth saw glimmers: Horse-drawn wagons carrying household possessions seemed “like the Merovingian chariots of feudal kings,” while Nazi officers reminded him of preachers, “authoritarian and litanic.” But he also sensed the presence of an even greater antiquity. The kindness of strangers put Werth in mind of Homeric hospitality, while his encounter with a French soldier on the banks of the Loire felt nearly mythical. “I see a Senegalese infantryman appear on the riverbank, like a god emerging from the water,” Werth marveled. “He rummages through his haversack again and offers me a pack of cigarettes. … It was a magnificent gift, like in legendary times.”
Werth began to feel that time itself had been wrenched out of joint, that in leaving Paris they had also, somehow, left behind the twentieth century. The messy and complicated present had been replaced by the rude simplicity of ancient times: night and day, motion and stasis, enemies and friends. Everyday errands like picking currants or searching for a tobacco shop became heroic quests. It often seemed to Werth as though supernatural forces had crept back into the world. A refugee woman cast in the role of “emaciated, disheveled sibyl,” muttering prophecies. The Loire a “guardian angel” offering the convoy miraculous protection.
This kind of temporal slippage makes for addictive reading; it is also a penetrating and unusually sophisticated way of understanding the condition of exile. From Adam and Eve’s garden expulsion to the perilous Mediterranean journeys of 21st-century Syrian refugees, exile is most frequently imagined as a physical experience: the crossing of borders and oceans under duress, the geographic separation of individuals from loved ones and homeland. Bertolt Brecht described it as the sensation of “changing countries oftener than our shoes.” Yet Werth treated exile primarily as a chronological condition, the feeling of distance from one’s own age. It was the sense, he wrote, of being hurled “outside normal time.” This is Werth as renegade historian and citizen philosopher, dissolving chronologies and distilling his memories to decipher the modern condition. Exile, he suggests in 33 Days, is really a species of anachronism. It is time travel.
At mid-day on June 17, 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain delivered a radio address to the French nation. “With a heavy heart,” he explained, “I tell you today that it is necessary to stop the fighting.” Five days later, his new government took France out of the war. Under the terms of the armistice Pétain signed with Germany, a little over half of the country would be occupied by Nazi soldiers; southern France would be governed by Pétain and his associates from the resort town of Vichy. The exodus was over. The southbound flood of people ground to a halt. Everyday chaos dissolved into welcome tedium. Relieved of the daily pressure to record so many remarkable events, Werth grew more meditative and the rhythm of his account slowed. “Our life,” he wrote as the first German occupiers arrived, “consists of waiting, anxiety and the passage of time.”
Upon reaching the Loire River, Werth and his wife took refuge in an old farmhouse. They soon found themselves uncomfortably dependent on two women who made no secret of their enthusiasm for the new Nazi order: their hostess Madame Soutreux and her boisterous sidekick, Madame Lerouchon. Werth looked on in disgust as the women fawned over the enemy soldiers, chatting away in German as they served their occupiers the very best champagne. “We’re in a country we didn’t know existed,” Werth remarked. “A France that has come to terms with the German victory, or rejoices in it, a France that feels no connection to French customs or French character.” As defeat sank in and his compatriots surrendered with alarming speed, Werth felt once more out of place: in a foreign land, surrounded by soldiers and strangers. “I go into the house from time to time to avoid seeing them, to forget them,” he explained. “Then I feel an instant relief, as if I were getting into a bath after a long walk. We ache from Germans.”
Werth’s account is sui generis, but it does call to mind a contemporaneous work by the medieval historian Marc Bloch, a brilliant scholar and brave Resistance fighter who was arrested, tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944. Before his death, Bloch published Strange Defeat, a meticulous autopsy of the French collapse that has become required reading for generations of European historians. “We have just suffered such a defeat as no one would have believed possible,” Bloch wrote in 1940. “On whom or on what should the blame be laid?” Like Bloch, Werth believed that France had suffered a massive failure of citizenship. But the two men were gripped by very different questions. Bloch wanted to understand the causes of military catastrophe; Werth, with great prescience, was rather more interested in the moral choices and compromises that led individual men and women to accept their defeat and collaborate with the victors.
After the Second World War, French politicians and historians had much to say about the Resistance and very little to say about the unsavory details of what they called les années noires: the dark years. American historian Robert Paxton put a decisive end to this collective amnesia in 1972 with Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. Paxton’s book inflamed French society by cracking open the nation’s forgotten history of collaboration and revealing the Vichy regime’s eager complicity with Nazism. While the French reckoned with their past, historians around the world began shifting their attention away from political elites and institutions to tell new stories, long neglected, about workers, women and everyday life. As a result of these developments, historians of twentieth-century Europe now wrestle with many of the same questions that tormented Werth in the summer of 1940: How do ordinary people behave in times of war? How do they make sense of violence? What compromises are made? How is social solidarity forged and broken and repaired? Why do people collaborate with evil?
A poet and critic with no formal training as a historian, Werth wrote like a man from the future. Decades before it became academic orthodoxy, he recognized that there was a narrative quality to all historical knowledge. Historians professionalized themselves in the late nineteenth century, guided by the spirit of Leopold von Ranke and his famous admonition to represent the past objectively, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist—the way it actually was. In the Seventies and Eighties, however, postmodern critics like Hayden White forced the discipline to confront the troubling reality that written histories were the result of subjective literary choices: the deliberate selection and omission of facts, the imposition of narrative order on events. Werth knew this to be true from his own experience. Reflecting on his own reporting, he wrote that “a raw transcription of events is impossible. Event, emotion and opinion comingle. However faithful a report might be, it gives a beginning and end to what has neither, and transforms it into theater.” Werth’s project was rather to put his readers in touch with the fundamental truth of exodus, to convey the way this history actually felt.
Werth fretted to Saint-Exupéry that the work he had produced was leaden and lifeless. “Forgive me, Saint-Ex; forgive me, Tonio,” he apologized to his friend. “You wouldn’t recount such mediocrities. …You make crystal. But I don’t know how to fly.” Unlike Saint-Exupéry, a poet who hymned the world from thirty thousand feet, Werth stayed close to the ground. “I recount the lowly,” he admitted. “I tell, in the immensity of this war, the stories of insects.” Yet this capacity to perceive the divinity of ordinary things was the defining quality of Werth’s genius. His biographer has observed rightly that Werth was “a kind of specialist in the reflected instant,” able to “extract the hidden meaning” from everyday scenes. “I know I’m not recounting a big event,” Werth explained in 1940. “But there are no small events. A person and his nation are wholly within the smallest act.”
We generally treat history and poetry, and the two styles of writing that go with them, as different, even incompatible ways of knowing the world. In Book IX of the Poetics, Aristotle observed that “the historian narrates events that have actually happened, whereas the poet writes about things as they might possibly occur.” Poetry was more significant than history, he went on, because it was “more concerned with the universal, and history more with the individual.” Modern historians hew remarkably closely to this classical definition of their craft—though naturally they refuse to concede true significance to the poets. Skeptical of universal laws and explanatory models, historians prefer specific instances, particular details and local context. Human behavior is not easily understood or predicted, they insist. It is complex. It is granular. It does not repeat itself.
But Werth, treading the shadowy borderlands between history and poetry, looked at small things and saw the world. Individual stories put him in touch with cosmic forces. Daily encounters sent him spiraling through time and space. This is why reading Werth is like tumbling through the looking-glass: a bracing and unexpected fall into a wider, more significant universe. Indeed his writing feels most true, most deeply consonant with lived experience, when it is the most poetic.
The point is not to dissolve history into poetry, nor to suggest that historians all adopt Werth’s strange and stirring brand of magical realism. It is still worth distinguishing fact from fiction. Werth’s gripping memoir suggests, however, that the stark epistemological differences of poetry and history mask a sensibility held in common. The very best histories, after all, use singular events to help us think more deeply about our experience as a species: how we live and why we fight; the ways in which we define ourselves and build our communities; what precisely we are capable of as human beings. Werth helps us to see that it is exactly this sense of poetry, this ability to brush up against universal things, that distinguishes true historical writing from tired antiquarianism.
Saint-Exupéry once wrote that Werth was “the fruit of civilization … but he is also its guardian.” For Werth’s poetic sensibility represented an ethical and political commitment as much as an epistemological one. During an age defined by great hubris and ideological fixity, his lowered gaze was a dissenting act. Not for Werth the sweeping social blueprints of high modernism, the plasticity of souls. Human dignity, Werth observed in 1940, was not the sort of thing that could be “measured arithmetically. The smaller the event, the better one grasps the nuances of freedom and dignity.” This is not anti-politics. It is not quietism. Werth is not asking us to tend our own gardens while the world burns. But his writing reminds us of the human substrate beneath any political order, the individual lives and choices behind any moral progress. Here, then, is one final Werth to consider: humanist champion amidst catastrophe, a man who calls us, still, to the quotidian and ever-tenuous business of living together.