There was a time in my life when I thought I hated history. My irritation with the subject developed in high school. History classes were taught by athletic coaches, most of whom didn’t seem particularly interested in the subject matter and I found our textbooks to be completely devoid of relevance. My smug adolescent brain assigned little value to the required course load so that when completed, my attitude was “goodbye and good riddance”.
Notably, in my effort to take as few history classes as possible, I never took a course that covered the 20th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that for decades I persisted in the belief that I’d absorbed enough knowledge from family anecdotes, TV, and movies to be adequately informed on topics ranging from the Great Depression to the Cold War.
One period that seemed particularly well-covered in popular media was World War II. When choosing books to read or documentaries to watch, I routinely skipped over this era. Starting around 2010, however, this began to change. With each title I consumed came an increasing awareness that there exists an unlimited supply of angles and anecdotes to keep me enthralled. Just when I think I can move on from this genre, another WWII story piques my interest. Such was the case with Wine & War, by Don and Petie Kladstrup.
One Commodity Above All Others
Thanks to the book All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and the 2014 film, The Monuments Men, many Americans are aware of France’s attempts to save its fine arts and museum treasures from German clutches. But according the authors of Wine & War, the German effort to confiscate and control France’s wine production was an even higher priority for the Third Reich.
Historians are divided over the extent of Hitler’s teetotalism. Some claim he never drank. Others say his devotion to asceticism was invented by Goebbels, his chief propagandist. Whatever his proclivities with respect to alcohol, Hitler recognized the value of wine and he would stop at nothing to commandeer France’s internationally-renowned supply chain.
Through an impressive collection of personal anecdotes gathered from winegrowers who survived the fighting, Wine & War delivers a new and uplifting spin on the story of French Resistance.
Personal and Particular
Perhaps what I appreciated most about this book is the display of human ingenuity, rebellion, and determination that lies at its heart. Starting before German troops crossed into France and ending with the repossession of Hitler’s private wine stash after the war, French people often risked everything to save their precious vineyards and vintages.
In under 300 pages, the authors seem to cover nearly every way in which wine played a role during World War II.
- From compensatory caseloads sent to boost the spirits of a quickly defeated French army, to giant casks outfitted for smuggling members of the Resistance across the Line of Demarcation.
- From Germany’s efforts to prevent their own soldiers from pillaging and destroying France’s finest vines, to its appointment of weinführers—agents charged with buying as much French wine as possible and shipping it back to Germany where it could be resold at a huge markup.
- From French winegrowers that hid the “good stuff” while watering down the bottles they sold to their occupiers, to French wine merchants tried for treason after the war for having supplied the enemy.
- From captured and starved French officers planning a multi-day wine festival, to the race between French and American forces to reach Hitler’s secret wine vaults, hidden high in the Austrian Alps.
- From winegrowers drafted to fight for Germany and sent to the Russian front, to the French women who suddenly found themselves in charge of their family’s centuries-old wine business.
- From winegrowers that hid allied paratroopers in their cellars to those who begrudgingly housed German officers throughout the war—sometimes one and the same.
These are just some of the highlights that come to mind.
Bringing History to Life
Wine & War loosely follows the struggles of several of France’s prominent wine dynasties, interweaving personal anecdotes with interesting facts and figures about the war. There were times when I found the writing a bit choppy, but in general, I think the authors did an impressive job of organizing a sizeable assortment of information.
Books like this one bring history to life, an objective that most (if not all) school textbooks fail to achieve. Over the years, I’ve convinced myself that our education system should stop trying to get kids to regurgitate an abundance of dates and brief facts spanning centuries of our past. Instead, the goal should be to instill an appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of human history. Have students read one or two books per semester that take a broad look at a single subject like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, or the Dust Bowl, or the French Revolution. There is a wealth of wonderful books to choose from. It doesn’t matter where you start. The point is to set kids on a journey that will last a lifetime.
What’s your relationship to the study of human history? Did you perhaps have an excellent teacher or two that brought your high school texts to life? What are some of your favorite historical books? Please weigh in below.
- Sud Ouest, En images : c’était comment les vendanges en Gironde, avant la viticulture 2.0 ?