When Paris Went Dark; The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940 to 1944 by Ronald Rosbottom. Little, Brown & Company, 2014
The picture on the jacket of Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark shows a street, nearly abandoned. This was Paris under the German occupation. Rosbottom has included in his account the many atrocities committed by the Germans during those four long years. But he has also chosen to get beyond that story to describe a capital city that survived war, occupation, Allied bombing, and liberation. And if one looked around Europe at the end of World War II, Paris is the exception to the immense destruction of cities, and particularly capital cities.
The Wehrmacht invaded France in May of 1940 and six weeks later, France surrendered. The country became divided between occupied and unoccupied zones (until November 1942), both under the Vichy regime, so named because it was this small spa town to which Maréchal Phillipe Pétain had moved the French government.
Shortly after the occupation began, Adolf Hitler made his famous tour of Paris. He had a special regard for Paris; he thought it a model for European cities in the new world of Pax Germania. He hoped also to convince the French –and the British – that life during the German occupation would be tolerable for Parisians. And the German occupation force set to work to make it so – except for Jews, Communists, and anyone resisting the occupation authorities. While few Parisians openly welcomed German soldiers and Nazi bigwigs, many in the French army, the Roman Catholic Church, industrialists, and the conservative right welcomed the opportunity to deal with the French left.
Rosbottom tells with sympathy what it was like for young German soldiers endeavoring to enjoy their Paris but also not to offend. (The Wehrmacht put out Paris, Der Deutsche Wegleiter: Paris – The German Guide to Paris). These young soldiers had to deal with Parisians who pretended not to understand their German or their school-boy French
There needed, however, to be a “service sector” to deal with off-duty needs and particularly their entertainment. These Parisians – merchants, café owners, waiters, laundresses, others – did interact with the Germans. Were they collaborators?
The author has made use of diaries of those years by Parisians famous and otherwise. From them one gets the feeling of life being narrowed, confined to one’s neighborhood, to one’s apartment, to one room, usually the kitchen as keeping warm became a problem. Paris was dark, but also quiet; few pedestrians, fewer private automobiles. The city-wide night-time curfew was a cramped nightlife.
Parisians, particularly women, spent hours in queues to obtain food and other necessities. The queues were not generally opportunities for sociability; one could never be sure of what might be overheard and reported to the Paris police. The Gestapo and the Schutzstoffel (SS) generally had the co-operation of the city police.
There is an interesting account of the role of the apartment concierge, usually a woman. One had to be cautious; she knew about your comings and goings. She could act as a custodian of an apartment whose owners had fled. Or she could be the agent for its looting.
The German authorities started rounding up Jews soon after their occupation had begun. At first they targeted foreign Jews – Germans, Dutch, Belgians, and Eastern Europeans. Was this an effort to control immigration and the ‘terrorists’ amongst them? By the time of the Grand Rafle in July 1942, French Jews had become the target.
There is controversy about the effectiveness of the French resistance though a recognition of its importance as a morale booster during the Occupation. This was the golden age of the mimeograph and the underground tract. German officials and Vichy administrators were assassinated, but that provoked reprisals.
Ronald Rosbottom calls the liberation of Paris “a whodunit.” The American military leadership was determined to push rapidly to the Rhine frontier; Paris was not important to American strategy. But Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, was determined to liberate the city and with French army units. He wished not to allow the French resistance to claim this for themselves.
The commander of German forces in Paris, Dietrich von Choffitz, was, on the other hand, determined to avoid both an urban uprising as had happened in Warsaw or his forces being surrounded. He arranged for a brief truce that allowed Germans to make an orderly withdrawal. That accomplished, Von Choffitz surrendered the city on 25 August 1944. He has been given credit for having saved Paris from destruction at Hitler’s orders. His avoidance of a street-by-street retreat also saved both the lives of German soldiers and their equipment, later used against American and British forces in the Battle of the Bulge.
As a lad of six, I remember seeing newsreels of French women who had “played around” with the Germans having their heads shaved. Most male collaborators and many Vichy officials were summarily shot or hanged by the partisans. Scores were settled, many of them having nothing to do with collaboration. This was not a glorious end to the long, difficult four years when Parisians had shown both bravery and good judgment.