Like so much else that happened in France during World War II, the Nazi occupation of Paris was something entirely more complex and ambiguous than has generally been understood. We tend to think of those four years as difficult but minimally destructive by comparison with the hell the Nazis wreaked elsewhere in the country. But just as Keith Lowe made plain in his magisterial “Savage Continent” (2012) that, in the years following Germany’s surrender in 1945, France was a place not of peace but of widespread hatred and violence, so Ronald C. Rosbottom leaves no doubt, in “When Paris Went Dark,” that the Nazi occupation was a terrible time for Paris, not just because the Nazis were there but because Paris itself was complicit in its own humiliation:
“Even today, the French endeavor both to remember and to find ways to forget their country’s trials during World War II; their ambivalence stems from the cunning and original arrangement they devised with the Nazis, which was approved by Hitler and assented to by Philipe Petain, the recently appointed head of the Third Republic, that had ended the Battle of France in June of 1940. This treaty — known by all as the Armistice — had entangled France and the French in a web of cooperation, resistance, accommodation, and, later, of defensiveness, forgetfulness, and guilt from which they are still trying to escape.”
Rosbottom, who teaches at Amherst College, has written an unconventional account of the Nazi occupation, focusing on its thematic aspects rather than providing a standard chronological history. His book “aims to give an account of how the Parisians viewed the Germans and vice versa; of how the Parisian citizen figured out a code of daily conduct toward his nemesis and effected it; of how the citizen of the Occupation handled his psychological and emotional responses to the presence of a powerful enemy; and of how each side perpetuated real and symbolic violence on the other.” It is almost certainly a unique event in human history, one in which a vicious and unscrupulous invader occupied a city known for its sophistication and liberality, declining to destroy it or even to exact physical damage on more than a minority of its citizens yet leaving it in a state of “embarrassment, self-abasement, guilt and a felt loss of masculine superiority that would mark the years of the Occupation” and that, Rosbottom persuasively argues, continued long thereafter.
To this day, he writes, one must be struck by “how sensitive Paris and Parisians remain about the role of the city and its citizens in its most humiliating moment of the twentieth century.” The history of Paris from 1940 to ’44 gives the lie to the old childhood taunt: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. The Germans for the most part spared Parisians sticks and stones (except, of course, Parisians who were Jewish), but the “names” they inflicted in the form of truncated freedoms, greatly reduced food and supplies, an unceasing fear of the unexpected and calamitous, and the simple fact of their inescapable, looming presence did deep damage of a different kind.
It is difficult to visit Paris today and conjure up much sense of the city in the early 1940s. It is indeed, as it is called throughout the world, the City of Light, but it was “a darker city — gray and brown, not to mention noir (black), were required adjectives to describe the absence of ambient light.” It was a quiet city as well: “The cacophony of daily urban engagement — passersby, hawkers, street minstrels and performers, construction work, and especially traffic noise — was severely diminished . . . writers of the period, such as Colette, emphasize how quiet Paris became during those years. Sometimes the silence brought benefits, when pleasant sounds — birdsong, music — were able to reach Parisians’ ears. . . . But mostly, the new silence in such a vital capital must have been confusing and intermittently frightening. Police sirens were more menacing, airplane engines meant danger, a shout or scream demanded a more nervous response.”
The sirens must have been especially terrifying because those who usually sounded them, the French police, were no friends to the ordinary citizens of the city: “Though the French police have spent years trying to dodge their reputation as enablers, there is no doubt, now that the archives are almost all freely open, that the French forces of order were active, not reluctant, collaborators with the Germans. Indeed, there is no way the Germans could have succeeded as well as they did in rounding up . . . ‘illegals’ if it had not been for the help of the local police forces. The Germans quite simply did not have enough personnel to track and keep files on Jews or plan and carry out raids, arrests, and incarcerations. Nor did they know as intimately the labyrinth that was the city of Paris.”
The city was dark, silent and constricted; “physical and psychological space seemed to progressively narrow.” Rosbottom continues: “The very term occupation connotes ‘taking a place,’ and the most compelling stories of this period concern how ‘places’ — apartments, shops, subway trains, bookstores, buses, parks, cafes, streets and sidewalks, restaurants, cabarets, even brothels — were taken over by foreign soldiers and bureaucrats as well as by smug French collaborators.” Perhaps the most useful way one can attempt today to get some sense of what Paris was like then is to imagine one’s own city occupied by a foreign power. It is easy enough for me, looking out my window onto Logan Circle in Washington, to see in my mind two armed men in uniform standing at the streetlight in front of our building, and armored vehicles crowding civilian vehicles to the side around the circle itself. Imagine that, and you should have little trouble imagining how Paris shrank into itself, how the life of the city was squeezed into a thin trickle of silent despair.
Eventually Paris did resist the Nazis, but the effects were limited — the most to be said is that the Resistance there “did keep the Reich and their Vichy allies on the alert and did send a message to the world that Paris was not being benignly held prisoner” — and the myths the French have derived from it are only tangentially related to reality. “French resistance against the Nazis has been asked to serve critical functions in that nation’s collective memory,” Rosbottom writes. The myth “served to postpone for a quarter of a century deeper analyses of how easily France had been beaten and how feckless had been the nation’s reaction to German authority, especially between 1940 and 1943. Finally, the myth of a universal resistance was important to France’s idea of itself as a beacon for human liberty and as an example of the courage one needed in the face of hideous political ideologies.”
Paris in those years was “a city where many, many young and middle-aged men were in prison, concentration camps, in hiding, or in the underground,” so almost by default the Resistance became in significant measure a movement of the young and of women and girls, without whom “the Parisian resistance, no matter its ideology, could not have been as successful as it was.” It did keep the Germans and their henchmen in the police force on the qui vive, but there remained “the ethical questions that would haunt France for decades: Which actions, exactly, constitute collaboration and which constitute resistance?”
The unhappy truth, about France generally and Paris specifically, is that there were more overt acts of collaboration than of resistance, though that began to change as German resources were challenged elsewhere from 1943 onward, leaving weak and vulnerable occupation forces in the city. The French have been eager to present themselves as far more important to the fight for freedom than they actually were, and the Resistance mythology has been essential to maintaining what is largely a fiction, if not a fantasy. As this fine book makes clear, there is little to celebrate in the story of Paris in the occupation and much to lament.
WHEN PARIS WENT DARK
The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944
By Ronald C. Rosbottom
Little, Brown. 447 pp. $28