The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser. Other Press, 2017 paper.
Charles Kaiser has told the story of a Parisian family who lived through the four years of German occupation, each member displaying various degrees of cooperation, resistance, and accommodation. The family was bourgeoisie, good Catholics, and good Republicans. The parents, Jacques and Hélène Boulloche watched – and worried – as their children lived out both their anger toward the German occupiers and their loyalty to the city of their birth. Jacques Boulloche had an important position as Director of the Bureau of Highways. A fourth son, Robert Boulloche, also had a good post as Inspector in the Ministry of Finance.
As much as possible, father and brother kept their distance from the German army of occupation. That response the Germans would more-or-less tolerate. But the active Resistance that sprang up almost immediately. (June 1940) was another matter. The two daughters, Jacqueline and Christiane, were active in the Resistance as was their youngest son, André.
Being active in the Parisian Resistance was dangerous business. There were numerous instances of individuals who betrayed their colleagues and neighbors in return for small favors from the Germans. The Resistance was a porous organization easily infiltrated by double agents. The chance was good that upon an arrest, you would either be shot or shipped off to the German Concentration camps designed for the Reich’s political opponents.
Christiane had made arrangements to meet her father and mother for a family dinner in the family’s spacious apartment. German agents knew that she would appear at their apartment. However, coming on a bike, she had been delayed by a flat tire. So the Germans arrived before her, and not able to arrest her, arrested her parents instead. Nazi criminal justice was capricious. The parents were subsequently shipped off to work camps in Germany, her father to a SS Camp at Flossenbürg, her mother to a camp for women political prisoners. Hélène was tortured (water-boarded) but never betrayed her daughters or any of their comrades.
Hélène soon died in the camp, miserable and alone. Jacques depended upon the allowed monthly letter that he received from her to brace himself for the conditions in work camp to which he had been sent. When the letters stopped coming, he realized Hélène was dead, and gave up as well.
The author has successfully woven the major events of the war in Europe into this family story. The course of the War had a bearing about “the costs of courage.” Parisians got most of their information about the War by listening to the BBC. London was the nerve center of French resistance movements. And French hope.
Though not always dependable, the network of Resistance fighters was also a good source of information. Resistance fighters like the Boulloche sisters often traveled outside of Paris and met up with individuals active in the Resistance in Provincial France and North Africa.
Most Parisians, certainly the Boulloche family, loathed Henri-Philippe Pétain and his government. He had signed the armistice and was Chief of State in the unoccupied portion of France during the Vichy period from 1940 to 1944. His surrender speech in June 1940 summarized what would become the rationale for French accommodation. Be practical!
The Allied leadership had mixed views about the French Resistance. Kaiser quotes General Eisenhower’s claim that the success of the Normandy invasion was as much the work of the Resistance as it was the bravery of the men who stormed the Normandy beaches. Their destruction of rail communications in Normandy and Northern France is always noted in any account of the invasion. Kaiser argues that perhaps the most important role that the Resistance played was in the French countryside, assisting downed Allied flyers. Many a Resistance fighter hid out in the countryside amongst those same rural folks until they could safely return to the Capital.
The author includes the interesting story of General Dietrich von Choltitz. Von Choltitz was the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, appointed in August 1944. He was ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris as he departed. German demolition squads mined the city’s infrastructure, its factories, and its famous landmarks in anticipation of the German army’s departure.
But before withdrawal Von Choltitz had a conversation with a Paris municipal councilor who apparently persuaded him to leave the city he admired unharmed. He realized that no advantage would come from its destruction. Also Von Choltitz had earlier met with Hitler and believed him to be insane. The demolition squads left with the last of the German occupation troops. And Paris remains much as the Germans found it.
As is true of many Europeans who survived this terrible war, Parisians view the liberation through a web of defensiveness, erasure, and guilt. The survivors of the Boulloche family rarely speak of the war years and their part in the Resistance. Von Choltitz is never hailed by Parisians as their city’s savior. He was later arrested and tried for his part in the deportation of French Jews during his command.