Bronzes to Bullets: Vichy and the Destruction of French Public Statuary, 1941-1944.
Between October 1941 and August 1944, most of France's bronze public statuary was removed, smelted into its component metals and the resulting copper was subsequently used in German armaments production. Kirrily Freeman has produced an important study of this policy, designed initially a consequence of German economic demands on Vichy France after the 1940 armistice. Beginning with the economic rationale, but moving quickly to issues of sovereignty, the symbolic importance of public art, and the question of popular sentiment in favour of Vichy, Bronzes to Bullets consistently engages the reader in the details of this history while making an important argument about public opinion in wartime France. The result is a work that goes a long way to further complicating our understanding of the regime and the French public under its rule.
German authorities began the process of seizing bronze statues and church bells in occupied France in May 1940 as Nazi copper resources were almost completely exhausted in the early days of the war; similar seizure campaigns occurred across occupied Europe. Beginning in October 1941, the Vichy regime took over the seizure process just as it was engaged bi other scrap metal campaigns, all of which it claimed were for French use only. In terms of copper, however, Vichy had agreements with Germany to transfer from 24,000 to 34,000 tons of copper to the Nazis from 1941 through 1944. Freeman has examined in detail the records of the Vichy bureaucracy involved in carrying out these agreements; unlike with other scrap metal campaigns, the bronze campaign involved not just economic entities, but also the General Secretariat of Fine Arts within the Ministry of National Education and Youth. From this central authority, departmental representatives were ordered to inventory all bronze statuary, create a list of those exempt from destruction (war memorials and church property, for the most part), and then submit lists to a committee, chaired by Louis Hautecoeur, general secretary of the Fine Arts Secretariat, who issued final orders for destruction.
What was established as a bureaucratic procedure brought forth a wave of protest and opposition, and Freeman's most important arguments are based on her analysis of this response and an incredible amount of research in departmental and municipal archives across France. Most significantly, Freeman demonstrates that the protests were not primarily motivated by a belief that Nazi Germany was behind the seizures, or that Vichy was being overly centralist, although these elements were present. Rather, opposition to the removal of local statuary was grounded in a sense that regionalism and the importance of the petite patrie was vital to the National Revolution promoted by Petain and that the seizure of local monuments was a clear violation of this. In short, the protests emerging from across France were meant to hold Vichy accountable for its own ideals. The gap between these beliefs and Vichy's actions concerning local monuments, for Freeman, helps to explain the growing disenchantment with Vichy on the part of the public, giving us a more nuanced sense of the relationship between the regime and the public. That most bronze statuary was destroyed in 1942 and 1943, as the economy weakened and German occupation of the entire nation imposed even greater demands on the populace, did hOt help.
Freeman's analysis of regionalism as a key component of Vichy, and a cause of disappointment with Vichy, is further supported by the fact that in Paris there was little opposition to the bronze campaign. Support for the removal of statues in Paris was seen as a response to the "statuemania" of the Third Republic, and this sentiment was only partly ideological. By contrast the removal of statues in the provinces whether of local figures or of national ones like Joan of Arc, was seen as an effort to deny local identity. The removal of the statue of the poet Frederic Mistral in Arles, for example, was portrayed by those in the community as an attack on the very idea of Provence. Consequently, bureaucrats who ordered the removal of statues were cast as Parisian elites without the true respect for "the soil" that was meant to be a celebrated part of the National Revolution. As support for Vichy declined, many local resistance groups took up the cause of the defense of monuments, and in the Auvergne six statues were, in fact, hidden by resistance groups in August 1943 prior to their official removal. Building on H.R. Kedward's argument about the significance of rural identity to the growth of the maquis in southern France, Freeman makes a strong case that Vichy's own rhetoric about regionalism and rural idealism came back to haunt it when it attempted to impose from above, as in the case of the bronze campaign.
This did not mean that the removal of statuary drove people to join the resistance. Freeman makes clear that the main locus of opposition was from mayors, and in some cases prefects, although in many places what started at the administrative level became popular. Citizens were engaged enough to send letters and petitions to higher levels of government and some even organized themselves into public protests or ceremonies of mourning at the sites of destroyed monuments. Whether a mayor or just a town resident, these individuals interpreted the Vichy campaign to destroy bronze statuary as an attack on local identity, with the monuments being seen as the preserve of the community, not as a national resource. As an initiative from Vichy carried out by those who claimed to represent the rural population best, the bronze campaign provoked a response that in hindsight seems natural. Kirrily Freeman's book is very readable, clear, and concise, and is an important addition to the literature on Vichy's economic and political policies; most significantly, it adds to the story of public opinion towards Vichy, and demonstrates that for most of France, the years of the war are best characterized neither as revolutionary nor as black, but as "grey."
David A. Messenger
University of Wyoming