World War II and Occupied France
On May 10, 1940, German forces attacked the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. By June 9, the Germans had crossed the Somme River and effectively destroyed any hopes of French retaliation. In an attempt to appease the Germans and end the destruction they caused, Henri Philippe Petain (an eighty-four-year-old Marshal who had become the French premiere on June 16) asked the Germans for an armistice, which they formally granted on June 22. Petain offered the Germans the control of northern France (at France’s expense) and asked if the French could establish a government in the southern city of Vichy. The Germans agreed and on July 2 the Vichy government was established. At this time the Nazis held approximately two-thirds of France.
Petain was named chief of state of the Vichy government on July 10, 1940. As many suspected during its formation, the Vichy government proved to be a puppet regime for the Nazis. With his prime minister, Pierre Laval, Petain ruled the unoccupied area of France as a totalitarian dictator and operated in complete collusion with Hitler. Although Petain dismissed Laval for fear of his growing power, the Germans reinstated him in 1942.
Occupied France was essentially a war zone. French citizens were routinely interrogated, arrested by secret police, and forced into labor. Many Jews found in France were sent to concentration camps— a fate that Nabokov’s wife, Vera, escaped. During this period of occupation, however, the French general Charles de Gaulle, who had once been an aide to Petain and had escaped to London shortly after the fall of his country, drummed up Allied support for his besieged people and formed the Free French. The Free French was a committee established in London on June 28,1940, which sought to continue the fight against Germany until France was freed from Nazi terror. Eventually, the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), and France was liberated shortly thereafter. The Free French troops, with de Gaulle at their head, were the first to enter liberated Paris on August 25, 1944. Petain and Laval were tried for treason and collaborating with the enemy. Laval was executed and Petain died in prison, after having his death sentence commuted.
The events of “That in Aleppo Once …” reflect the nightmarish sense of life under the Vichy government. Any author who criticized the Germans in his or her work was arrested and punished, which explains why the narrator feared that “some helpful compatriot” of his would point out to “the interested party” the passages in his books where he argues that Germany will be “for ever and ever the laughing stock of the world.” On his long journey by rail, the narrator speaks to some fellow Russians in Nice, remarking that he “heard those among them who chanced to have Jewish blood talk of their doomed kinsmen crammed into hell-bound trains.” The narrator’s discovery of his wife at the end of a long line at a food store reflects the short supply of things as common as oranges during the occupation. Finally, the criss-crossing of trains and confusion endured by the narrator reflects the difficulties many refugees had in escaping the German menace. At the time Nabokov wrote this story (1943) in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, that menace was still very powerful.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Vladimir Nabokov, Published by Gale, 2002.