Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wine and War

Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, & the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup offers a very readable history of France in World War II and immediately thereafter. The book is very focused: it sees events through the eyes of wine growers, wine merchants, and other French men and women in the wine trade, beginning in about 1939 and proceeding historically as the Nazis conquered France. Among many demands, the conquerors required the wine growers to provide them with the best of the wine on hand and the best that could be produced in wartime conditions.

First-hand accounts from letters and diaries, occasional newspaper articles, and interviews with survivors provide vivid evidence for the way that French people experienced the conquest and looting of their country and how they struggled against the occupying forces.  Deportations, confiscations of property like vineyards from Jews and others, and the appropriation of food and almost all other necessities to be sent back to Germany come to life in the authors' narrative. The memories of those who spent the war in POW or other camps were especially vivid.

As I read each chapter, I realized that the focus on wine was an effective starting point for the discussion of almost every issue of the war. I was especially interested in the slow and penetrating changes in the way that the French viewed Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government. At first, Pétain seemed capable and willing to save France by acceding to Nazi demands, but without much strength. Over time, his collaboration became more and more objectionable and odious. German demands for the best champagnes and wines were among the events that drove increasing numbers of French men and women into resistance.

Grape growing and wine production in 1939 was little changed from the 19th century. Horses drew plows to weed the rocky soil that grows the best wines. Most tasks were done by hand. Owners were already suffering after bad weather and bad economic times had affected their harvests, thought most chateaux had stores of wine from good years back as far as the 1890s. Labor was essential for pruning, cultivating, and picking; chemicals like copper sulfate and fertilizer ensured that grapes would grow. Once the grapes were harvested, winemaking and bottling required labor and many supplies including sugar, bottles, and corks.

Under the occupation, supplies were scarce or unobtainable, and large numbers of able-bodied laborers were conscripted and sent to work in Germany, or they resisted and were arrested or worse. The book has many interesting details about how the few remaining family members coped, and how they negotiated with the Nazis who demanded that production continue in order to supply their requirements. Of course many of those left to run the vineyards were women, adolescents, or old people, often wounded veterans of World War I.

Each family or chateau had cellars that were often complex labyrinths of underground rooms or which were in natural caves. Back doors might open into fields or on hillsides. This made them ideal for hiding weapons, downed British or American airmen, and at times Jewish refugees, and for supporting the emerging resistance network. When the Nazis requisitioned large supplies of wine they often gave its destination -- this was valuable information that could be passed on to British intelligence.

The appointment of many Germans who had been wine merchants in France before the war was the source of much drama in the book, as the Nazi agents made demands on behalf of their overlords. Many in the German high command were wine lovers, though not Hitler. Wine was also used to improve the morale of the troops. Over time, the French figured out ways to hide the best wine. Nevertheless, vast quantities of high-quality wine were confiscated and sent to the East. In Paris, the best restaurants were assured supplies -- only Nazis were allowed to eat there while the French were practically starving. The details of many of these interactions are depicted in a fascinating way.

The cruelty and rapaciousness of the conquerors makes this book a challenging read: it's just too depressing! Having recently spent a lovely vacation in Paris, I find it painful to recall such different times. The book is full of fascinating material and worth the effort. 

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