Among the numerous old and storied capitals of Europe, Paris was among the very few that came through World War II with little physical damage. Although France was attacked by Germany in early 1940 and much of the country, including Paris, was occupied by the Nazis for over four years, Paris remained an oasis of relative calm within the European devastation of the war. Indeed life, for many Parisians, went on with only some of the limitations and restrictions imposed by the occupiers. Further, some Parisians assisted the Nazi occupiers, either passively by nonresistance or actively, committing some heinous acts that continue to blacken the reputation of Paris to this day.
In his new book When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944, Ronald Rosbottom addresses, among other issues, the questions of how did Paris escape the devastation of WW II and how did the citizens of Paris react to the occupation of their city for four years by their historical enemies, the Germans? The answers are both interesting and chilling.
Paris, according to Rosbottom, escaped physical damage or destruction as a result of the French government’s decision to relocate the government to Tours, as well as Hitler’s decision to spare the city. Hitler’s motives were mixed: he wanted to preserve the beautiful French capital to demonstrate to the world that his Nazi regime was not brutal and thuggish as many perceived, and he wanted to use Paris as a model for the future capitals of the Third Reich, including Berlin.
The core of Rosbottom’s story is a detailed and well researched look at what happened in Paris during the occupation. While the government and about 3 million of Paris’ residents evacuated the city prior to the entry of the Germans, significant numbers of residents, including tens of thousands of Jews, remained and became unwilling hosts to, and then prisoners of, the Nazis. Initially, the Germans conducted themselves cordially, while systematically taking over all administrative and civil functions and offices. The citizens of Paris and the occupation troops tried to ignore each other, maintaining an awkward coexistence.
Over time however, the Nazis slowly but inexorably tightened the noose, imposing more and more restrictions on activities on Parisians, including their ability to move about the city. As the tide of war turned slowly against Germany, the occupiers continued to further ration food, fuel, and other commodities, and to virtually restrict inhabitants to their own small neighborhoods (as a way to minimize the ability of citizens to form or join the underground resistance).
Most horrifically, the Nazi occupation began the process to identify Jews, to restrict their activities beyond what was imposed on gentiles, and then to round them up for deportation to work camps or concentration camps. To the enduring shame of France, the metropolitan police force of Paris actively organized and conducted such roundups of Jews. In July 1943, the police conducted the largest roundup, herding an estimated 13,000 Jews (men, women and children) into a bicycling velodrome. They were later transported to the death camps.
The story of the collapse of France early in the war, the long occupation of Paris and much of the remainder of the country, and the eventual liberation of Paris raises a multitude of difficult questions. Why did France capitulate so quickly and easily to the Germans? What complicity did the government and ordinary citizens have in the occupation? What differentiates accommodation from collaboration? Why did the police submit so willingly to the Nazi’s deportation of the Paris Jews? Why were no responsible French officials prosecuted for their actions? When Paris Went Dark is a troubling examination of these questions, but provides no easy answers.