Office—Department of History, King's College, London WC2R 2LS, England. E-mail—[email protected]
University of London, Queen Mary-Westfield College, London, England, former lecturer; Cambridge University, Trinity College, Cambridge, England, former fellow; University of London, King's College, London, reader in modern European history, 1991—.
Bourgeois Politics in France, 1945-1951, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1995, new edition, 2002.
France, 1934-1970, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.
A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, Da Capo Press (Cambridge, MA), 2001.
Historian Richard Vinen is best known for his studies of life in France during and immediately after World War II. His books seek to dispel what he feels are the many myths that have survived, often at the hands of other historians, about this period. In The Politics of French Business: 1936-1945, for example, he argues against the popular belief that big businesses in France collaborated with the puppet Vichy government, while in The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation, he paints an unflattering picture of French citizens who, often starving, frequently cooperated with the Germans. Vinen's revisionist histories have been praised for their research and for illuminating neglected aspects of French history. Sometimes he has shown that the past was less noble than hoped, while in other cases he has explained that criticism of the French has been misguided.
In The Politics of French Business, Vinen counters charges that French businesses supported the collaborationist Vichy government and the German occupiers. "Vinen has produced a well written book, useful in demolishing certain myths," concluded David Johnson in Business History. Naomi Hyamson added in a History Today article that "scholars will welcome this detailed analysis of extensive documents that have recently become available." Moving on to the period just after World War II, Vinen wrote Bourgeois Politics in France, 1945-1951, which "challenges the perception that [the Fourth Republic's] … politics was synonymous with failure," reported Samir Saul in the Canadian Journal of History. Vinen shows that the bourgeoisie tried to preserve economic order and the status quo, and that these attempts should not be regarded as failures to reform the economy during the late 1940s. Saul considered Vinen's effort "well researched, tightly constructed and interspersed with profound insights, [while] the general thesis is more baffling than convincing." Martin Thomas, writing in the English Historical Review, felt the history fails somewhat in portraying the political context of the times, but asserted that the book is "a challenging and well-crafted piece of work. Vinen's awareness of the unique nature of multi-party politics in the early years of France's Fourth Republic is nicely combined with a refreshing willingness to evaluate this period on its own terms."
Vinen sought to dispel more myths with his The Unfree French. Rather than portraying the supposed glories of the French Resistance, the historian reveals that most French, demoralized by their devastating defeat in 1940, were mostly preoccupied with simply trying to go about their daily lives. This was a challenge, though, because the German occupiers either consumed or shipped out most of their food and other resources. French citizens, therefore, often cooperated with the enemy in sometimes horrible ways just to get enough food to eat. Vinen discusses how, with the exception of the Jewish French, most French were relatively well treated by the Germans; he details the "often surprisingly courteous relations that the Wehrmacht had with the conquered people," remarked Simon Heffer in the Literary Review, describing the history as an "immaculately researched, well-written and original book." Some critics, such as Independent contributor Kenneth O. Morgan, felt that the one-sidedness of a history that barely mentions the Resistance poses a problem, while still adding that "as a social history of wartime, this is a valuable work. It strips away the stereotypes and lays bare the painful choices for a nation defiantly singing the Marseillaise to cover its defeat." An Economist critic, however, called The Unfree French "eminently balanced," especially on such topics as the fate of the Jews, eighty percent of whom survived the occupation and many of whom found refuge in hilltop villages that the Germans could not reach. Atlantic Monthly contributor Benjamin Schwartz declared it an "exceptionally well-written book [that] looks at the lives of ordinary people throughout France during that low, dishonest half decade."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, October 1, 2006, Benjamin Schwarz, "Path of Least Resistance: What to Read This Month," review of The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation, p. 107.
Booklist, October 1, 2006, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Unfree French, p. 23.
Business History, October 1, 1992, David Johnson, The Politics of French Business: 1936-1945, p. 115.
Canadian Journal of History, August 1, 1996, Samir Saul, review of Bourgeois Politics in France, 1945-1951, p. 322.
Economist, April 15, 2006, "Not a Good Time to Be Hungry; France during the Second World War," review of The Unfree French, p. 84.
English Historical Review, November 1, 1994, Richard McAllister, review of The Politics of French Business, p. 1339; June 1, 1997, Martin Thomas, review of Bourgeois Politics in France, 1945-1951, p. 816.
History Today, December 1, 1993, Naomi Hyamson, review of The Politics of French Business, p. 58.
Library Journal, November 1, 2001, Robert J. Andrews, review of A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, p. 111; September 15, 2006, Marie Marmo Mullaney, review of The Unfree French, p. 74.
Spectator, April 29, 2006, Frederic Raphael, "Making the Best of Defeat," review of The Unfree French.
French Culture,http://www.frenchculture.org/ (May 15, 2007), review of The Unfree French.
Independent Online,http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/ (June 9, 2006), Kenneth O. Morgan, "Ordeals and Deals of a Land in Chains," review of The Unfree French.
King's College London Web site,http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ (May 15, 2007), faculty profile of Richard Vinen.
Literary Review Online,http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/ (May 15, 2007), Simon Heffer, "Swept under the Carpet," review of The Unfree French.
New York Books,http://www.nybooks.com/ (May 15, 2007), Robert O. Paxton, "The Jew Hater," review of The Unfree French.