“Who knows what unites these phony men … It’s clear that the devil pushes these bandits.”
A touch of defiance. A touch of fear. Marie Dunat Iribarren, who lived in a small village in Basque country in the south of France, offers that blunt assessment of the Germans in the days leading up to their invasion and occupation of France in 1940.
It’s one of the hundreds of fascinating observations shared between family members, gleaned from 60 letters written during the time period and now in the possession of Roland J. Bain. The curator has created a vivid narrative of the period’s life and anxieties in his book Enter the Enemy: A French Family’s Life Under German Occupation (Lulu/CreateSpace).
Marianne Dunat, Marie’s sister and the author’s mother, is one of the central letter-writers in the book. “Once my mother took up residency in Los Angeles in 1919, she corresponded regularly with her sister [Marie] in the south of France,” Bain explains. “Following my mother’s death, my sister and I found 60 letters my mother had kept, the dates of the letters spanning the period before, during and following World War II — in particular, the period during which Germany occupied most of France, and its impact on a small village where Marie lived.”
The author points out how important it was for the sisters to maintain lines of communications once Germany conquered France, with the curtailing of mail service in the Occupied Zone of France having a direct impact.
“This intra-family correspondence offers unique insights into the family’s great anxiety over the powerful, invading German juggernaut as well as the fabric of daily life under the rigid domination of this foreign power,” Bain writes.
Central to the narrative are the exploits of Henri Dunat, Marie’s brother and a career officer in the French Army. His letter’s contents range from assessing the political world climate to the mundane details of being away from home.
Early on, Henri writes to Marianne, “We form the first serious bastion against Hitlerism, and it must be admitted that if the Germans were the sole master in Europe, its appetite would, without a doubt, extend around the world.”
“We can hope, but I admit that we don’t understand any of it, and that I have become an absolute fatalist.”
Contrast Henri’s thoughts above with his elation in another letter thanking his family for sending fresh socks, a new shirt and a box of chocolates; in another, he discusses organizing a Christmas party for the men.
THE PAINFUL REALITIES OF IMPENDING DOOM
He relates hearing from a woman that her husband, who owned a factory, was able to escape before the Germans arrived; but before he did he blew up his own business to prevent the Germans from using it.
The fear and frustration of trying to keep on top of Henri’s whereabouts and condition become a major theme of the narrative. Does an absence of communication from him imply something awful, or does it simply reflect the difficulty in getting correspondence through?
“You are probably asking yourselves what has happened, and what has happened to me … Very often we were surrounded either by enemy tanks or bombed by airplanes … Well, we can’t grieve. As long as there is life, there is hope, and everything will work out.”
Other highlights of the letter include Henri’s baptism while under fire at Dunkirk, Marie seeing spies around every corner, Henri’s lifesaving religious medal, Marie’s strange and stirring observation of German soldiers’ politeness, and lastly, the tongue-in-cheek note that despite many shortages of many essentials after occupation, there never seems to be a shortage of wine.
Enter the Enemy is a marvelous work, exposing today’s readers to what was a delicate lifeline during a treacherous time in history. Families had to adjust to the horrific times, managing to stay in touch as best they could while navigating a world without the convenience of checking email inboxes or Google for updated information.
This book is certainly a must for World War II history buffs. Everyone else will be captivated by its slip back in time, learning a valuable history lesson through letters — and hoping that history never has to repeat itself.