Most of France was hit hard by the German Occupation from 1940 to 1944, but down in Bordeaux the wine business was thriving. STEFANA WILLIAMS finds out how this happened.
Life in Bordeaux during the years of the Occupation is a period in history that many Bordelais would prefer not to discuss. Casual enquiries as to what life was like from the summer of 1940 at the beginning of the war, to the summer of 1944 are often met with a slow, furrow-browed headshake, accompanied by: ‘It was a difficult time’. Further entreaties to summon up specific events, places and people dredge up only vague fragments of the past.
If one were inclined toward conspiracy theories, the selective amnesia of the Bordeaux collective would raise more than mild suspicion. Exhibit A: Ask anyone in the wine trade – winegrower, cellar master, wine broker or merchant – what the climate was like in 1943. On the count of trois, they will all chorus: ‘Hot year. Not much rain. Flowering finished early, end of May. Harvest began 12 September.’ Exhibit B: Ask the head of a family-owned château what it was like to have his home lived in by Germans for four years, while he celebrated his fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth birthdays. He will politely respond that his memory of this time is, ‘close to zero’.
Persuading someone to conjure up the particulars about a ‘difficult time’ in their past is a fool’s errand. The fool in question (me) visited Bordeaux earlier this year to conduct some research for a film project. My feeble attempts to actually engage anyone in a meaningful conversation about the Occupation was a glorious exercise in futility. So I retreated to the familiarity of the bibliothèque. Thankfully, bits and pieces of what transpired in Bordeaux during those four years have found their way onto the printed page. I soon discovered that the four-year visit by the Third Reich doesn’t appear to have dampened the spirits of certain individuals in the Bordeaux wine trade. In fact, business boomed. In 1942 alone, the Germans made a single purchase of one million bottles of the most expensive wine from the area. By the end of the four years, many wine cellars were empty and several Bordelais bank accounts were flush. While it would be tempting to cry ‘collaboration’, it’s not that simple. To grasp what actually occurred in Bordeaux during the
Occupation, one would do well to follow the franc, the mark and most importantly the wine. What was going on with the wine trade at the time? Who sold wine? Who bought it, stole it, drank it and profited from it? Answers to these questions offer a fascinating look at the extraordinary circumstances surrounding life in Bordeaux during the Occupation. For, in the final analysis, friendship, bravery and a little luck may well have saved Bordeaux and its most prized commodity.