When Paris Went DarkExcerpted from the book When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom. Copyright © 2014 by Ronald Rosbottom. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and deserted Paris and The City of Light was occupied by the Third Reich for the next four years. Rosbottom illuminated the unforgettable history of both the important and minor challenges of day-to-day life under Nazi occupation, and of the myriad forms of resistance that took shape during that period.

This August marks the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, perfect timing for Ronald C. Rosbottom’s riveting history of the period: When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940–1944 (August, 2014; Little, Brown and Company). (Purchase)

Chapter One: A Nation Disintegrates (Part Two) (Part One)

Three Traumas

Before the Occupation of Paris per se, though, France experienced three almost simultaneous traumas that would thoroughly demoralize the capital’s population: the lightning defeat of the French and Allied armies in May and June of 1940; an ensuing massive civilian exodus southward from northern France and Paris; and, as a result, the collapse of the Third Republic. The effect of these events was to impart a sense of helplessness and confusion that would enable the Germans to occupy Paris even more efficiently and calmly than they had anticipated.

As we have seen, the period between the German attack on Poland in September of 1939 and the first Blitzkrieg incursions into the Low Countries in May of 1940 was defined by an irresponsible lack of preparation by the French high command, confident in their retrofitted First World War strategy — attack and defeat the Germans in Belgium, with the help of the British — and in the technical brilliance of the Maginot Line, they confidently waited for the Germans. Unfortunately for them, Hitler’s generals did not move their armies as the French had projected. The Wehrmacht skirted the Maginot Line, rolled unchallenged through the dense Ardennes forest into northeastern France, while at the same time invading the Netherlands, then Belgium, and moving south speedily. They thereby cut the Allied forces in half. Within seven days, the French army and the British Expeditionary Force, sent to help it in extremis, were thrown on their heels so quickly that a stunned world could barely keep up with the news reports of German advances. As early as May 18 (eight days after the German attack), French generals, to the stunned horror of their British allies, were seriously and openly stating that the Battle of France was over. It would actually last another grisly month, as a weakened French army retreated slowly southward. Rather than focus attention on the restaging of their still large army and adapt quickly to the new strategies of Blitzkrieg, Allied military leaders and politicians spent most of this period arguing over whether to continue fighting in France itself, fight from its colonies, or sign an armistice with Germany.

Within no time German troops had reached the English Channel, where the frantic evacuation at Dunkirk in late May and early June of 1940 managed to save the British Expeditionary Force as well as many French soldiers. The retreat by sea of almost half a million French and British troops rescued an army, but it demoralized two exhausted and weakened nations. Churchill, in office only a week, had tried everything to bolster the French government and its army. But the fact that the British did not evacuate more French citizens was one of the several events during this hectic period that would drive a wedge between England and France. Numerous French right-wing politicians opined: “The British want to fight to the last drop of French blood.”

By June 8, the Germans had crossed the Somme, north of Paris, and then the lower Seine, east of the capital. A German journalist exalted the pace of Hitler’s legions:

Incredibly, the campaign is playing out quite differently than in 1914: miracles are now on our side. Each milepost gives witness: Paris 70 km, Paris 60 km, Paris 58 km. . . . The horses of our Eastern Prussian cavalry are already drinking from the Seine. . . . I feel a hand on my shoulder. Turning, I look into the smiling face of . . . the commander in our section: “ ‘Do you want to go with me to Paris?’ ‘What?! Really?’ ‘Yes! To ask the city to surrender,’ he said with an air of triumph.”6

As the capital slipped into imminent danger of being surrounded, the confusion that settled in at French army headquarters at Vincennes, on the western edge of Paris, was startling. The absence of a radio (wireless) connection with their armies, even the lack of carrier pigeons (used with some success during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War), compounded the cluelessness of France’s general staff. Within five weeks of their first incursions into Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, German forces would reach the Loire, roughly halfway into France. Unable to duplicate the miraculous stands of 1914 and 1918 that had saved Paris, the French army would be swept away like chaff in a brisk spring wind.

Meanwhile, the Third Republic politicians were angrily divided; in varying degrees, their opinions were affected strongly by pacifism, a fear of communism, their hatred of the English, the fecklessness of their own military leadership, political ambition, and a stubborn admiration for Hitler’s National Socialist experiment. All these factors froze Prime Minister Paul Reynaud’s government. The interrogatories were endless: Does the army continue to defend French territory, eventually to the Pyrénées and the Mediterranean? Does the government leave France to lead the country from their African and Asian colonies? Or does it seek an armistice with Germany and save some French autonomy? Should Paris be defended in order to buy time for more English or eventual American intervention? Or does the army declare the city “open,” crossing its fingers that the Germans will treat the French capital with respect?

Whatever answers emerged became concretized in the personalities of two leaders. The best known was the revered though mentally diminished eighty-four-year-old Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who had been leader of all French forces in the Great War and the victor at Verdun, the fort in eastern France that had withstood all that the Kaiser’s armies could throw at it. The other was almost a nonentity, a young, recently promoted brigadier general, Charles de Gaulle, who flew back and forth between France and England at the behest of Prime Minister Reynaud to strategize about how to save France from defeat. But the pacifists and “dead-enders,” those who would fight until death, did not have the weight of the others, nor did they have Philippe Pétain. The last cabinet meeting of the Third Republic in Paris was on June 9; it had only a month of life left. And then on June 10, Italy belatedly attacked France from the southeast.

Winston Churchill, who had only become prime minister on May 10, had flown several times to Paris and then to the Loire Valley, where the government had retreated on June 10 and June 13 — five quite dangerous trips amid an already intense war in order to buck up the French resistance to the Blitzkrieg. He pleaded with Prime Minister Reynaud to keep the French fighting, even defending Paris, and then, as events cascaded, Churchill urged him not to sign an armistice with the Germans. Yet the British leader likely recognized the futility of his pleading. On his first visit to Paris, looking out a window of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay, Churchill had watched as dozens of diplomatic staff members collected papers that had been thrown into the courtyard; he stared fixedly as they managed a bonfire that fiercely burned the dossiers. As the smoke cast a pall over the Left Bank, Reynaud assured him that the government was not going to leave its capital, an affirmation the British prime minister, in office but a few days, saw only as bravado. His thoughts punctuated by the heavy thuds of files landing in the courtyard, Churchill must then have realized that only England now stood between Hitler and European domination. But he had to ask, even if he knew what the answer would be; he had to exhort, even though he knew the eventual result.

An exhausted Reynaud was persistent in his telegrams to President Roosevelt that he would not leave Paris to the Germans without a fight, sending a message through American ambassador William Bullitt as late as June 10: “Today the enemy is almost at the gates of Paris. We shall fight in front of Paris; we shall fight behind Paris; we shall close ourselves in one of our provinces to fight and should we be driven out of it we shall establish ourselves in North Africa to continue the fight, and if necessary in our American colonies.”7 On his last day in Paris, before leaving for Tours, where the government had retreated, Reynaud wrote one final pathetic letter to President Roosevelt, imploring him to come to his nation’s aid. The answer, as everyone knew, was that America would sit on the sidelines as France headed toward an armistice.

One of the major conundrums facing both the pro-armistice and the pro-resistance groups was what to do with the French capital. To let it go without a fight would be so disheartening, so humiliating to the French, not to mention the Allies, that France might take years to recover. Yet to defend it would mean bringing destruction upon the world’s best-known urban masterpiece. Some generals argued for the latter decision, saying that it was time the world saw how relentlessly uncivilized the Third Reich was. Let the French experience what the Poles and the Dutch have endured! But the Germans did not want to attack Paris, either; as early as May 26 or 27, Hitler had a discussion with his military leaders:

We must defer the decision to continue toward the west of Paris, the Führer firmly declared. A large city like Paris can hide a thousand dangers: the enemy can throw at us between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand men at any moment. Our tanks cannot carry on an intense combat in the streets. It’s a trap. . . . On the contrary, our armies east [of the city] must be ready for an important armored force to take Paris quickly, but only if necessary.8

And two weeks later, once he knew the Battle of France had been won, Hitler reiterated: “I have no intention of attacking the beautiful capital of France. Our war machine is operating in the vicinity of the city. Paris has nothing to fear, provided that, like Brussels, it remains an ‘open city.’ ”9

Taking Paris provided dilemmas for both sides. A small butdestructiveGerman air raid on Paris on June 3 had given a vision of what air bombardment could do to the City of Light. At the automobile factories of Renault and Citroën, near the fashionable neighborhoods of the 16th arrondissement, more than a thousand bombs had fallen,killing about forty-five civilians. Though this would be the last time until the Liberation that the Germans would bomb central Paris under Hitler’s orders, curious residents could, and did, see “the smoking debris of an apartment house on the [fashionable] Boulevard Suchet,bordering the Bois de Boulogne, a gutted mansion in the Rue Poussin, in Auteuil: spectators then knew directly the violated intimacy of a bedroom cut in two, with its armoires, its broken dressers and chests from which hung against the empty skies a bathrobe, a coat or a pair of curtains.”10

Recessed in the collective memory of the average Parisian was Guy de Maupassant’s story “Boule de suif ” (“Butterball”; 1880), about the Franco- Prussian conflict of 1870. Everyone who had attended the Third Republic’s schools during its great initiative to establish universal public education knew this tale. At the beginning of the story, Maupassant describes the retreat of the French army as it pulls back across the Seine at the Norman capital of Rouen, fleeing before a relentless Prussian enemy:

For several days in succession, remnants of a routed army had been passing through the town. They were not disciplined units but bands of stragglers. The men’s beards were unkempt and dirty, their uniforms in rags, and they slouched along without colors or regiments. All of them seemed crushed and exhausted, incapable of thought or resolve, marching only out of force of habit, and dropping with fatigue as soon as they stopped. . . . Their leaders — former drapers or corn merchants, or sometimes dealers in soap and tallow — were only temporary warriors. . . . They talked in loud voices about campaign plans, and boastfully declared that they alone were carrying their dying country on their shoulders. But they sometimes went in fear of their own men, thoroughgoing scoundrels who were often incredibly brave, though given to looting and debauchery.11

Such depictions of the uninspired being led by the incompetent, both marching under the empty platitudes of patriotism, succinctly reinforced what was happening before Parisian eyes in late May and June of 1940. The French fought courageously, with high casualties: the Battle of France lasted a bit more than six weeks, but between 55,000 and 65,000 French and colonial troops had met their deaths, and maybe as many as 120,000 were wounded.* Almost two million were taken prisoner. But the conscripts’ individual courage and sacrifice, and the resistance of some units, could not compensate for a paucity of planning and a lumbering, unimaginative battlefield response to the Blitzkrieg.

* Because a census of the dead was not taken immediately after the debacle, estimated numbers have bedeviled historians seeking certainty about the human cost of the Battle of France on the French army. Death figures have ranged between fifty thousand and ninety thousand. For details, see Jackson, The Fall of France, and Azéma, 1940: L’Année noire.

The departure of the central government left the capital bereft of political leadership. Overnight, Parisians realized that they had been comforted for weeks with misinformation and patriotic bombast. Spoken and unspoken questions permeated the city’s marketplaces and cafés. How had the Germans advanced so rapidly? Where are they now? Who is between them and Paris? Is there a “fifth column” now in the city?* It took a while for residents to believe that such a calamity, the collapse of their capital’s defenses, could be allowed to happen, despite intimations to the contrary. Most Parisians — white-and blue-collar workers, bureaucrats, small businessmen, students, and the elderly — still held to the narcissistic notion that they and their city were not part of the war. When the Communists organized an anti-Nazi propaganda campaign, the reaction had been ho‑hum. “What’s the use of defeating Hitler if we wind up with the Front populaire [the Socialists and Communists]?” was a common observation. Another: “Mieux vaut Hitler que Blum” (Better Hitler than Blum — a Socialist prime minister and a Jew). Nor did the weather help prepare Parisians for disaster: many observers mentioned the clear, blue skies and mild temperatures that had favored the capital during the last weeks of May and early June. At first quietly, then less and less so, reality began to pierce this veil of lassitude. French cinemas had been showing newsreels of the German air bombardments of Warsaw in the fall of 1939 and then their flattening of Rotterdam in May. Concerns had been heightened by scenes of deeply frightened civilians, especially women and children, fleeing burning buildings with a few belongings — still, after all, this was Paris, and the French army was reputed to be at least equal to anything the upstart Germans could put in the field.

* “Fifth column” was a term that had originated during the Spanish Civil War, when a rebel general remarked that when he took Madrid his four columns would be supported by a virtual fifth — civilian supporters and guerrillas inside the city.

The war came inexorably closer to a Paris still locked in the false comfort of imagined protection. Irène Némirovsky describes how difficult it was for Paris to realize that it was itself part of the war and that it could be harmed:

An air raid. All the lights were out, but beneath the clear, golden June sky, every house, every street was visible. As for the Seine, the river seemed to absorb even the faintest glimmers of light and reflect them back a hundred times brighter, like some multifaceted mirror. Badly blacked-out windows, glistening rooftops, the metal hinges of doors all shone in the water. . . . From above, it could be seen flowing along, as white as a river of milk. It guided the enemy planes, some people thought.12

The little hill villages of Auteuil and Passy had only been part of Paris since 1860, when they became the city’s western 16th arrondissement. Then, as today, they included the most prestigious addresses, the sites of many embassies and consulates. By late May of 1940, the boulevards and streets of this cosseted area had become even quieter and certainly emptier than usual. Just two weeks after Hitler’s invasion of Belgium, on May 10, chauffeured limousines, trunks filled, had begun easing efficiently southward, toward the Porte d’Orléans, Paris’s gateway to the Loire Valley, where it was believed any German offensive would be stopped. How did these well- connected and affluent Parisians come to take to the roads even before the larger refugee lines would enter Paris from Flanders and northern France? Their highly placed connections had informed them that the city was in imminent danger and that, despite what the radio and newspapers were saying, the Battle of France was over. At the same time, in the eastern, working-class arrondissements of Paris, there was concern but not yet panic. After all, had not the government repeatedly promised that Paris would not fall, that the army would make the same ferocious stand it had made in 1914, when the taxicabs of Paris had brought reinforcements to the Marne to finally break the back of the German offensive? Besides, most of the working-class population of eastern Paris had no automobiles, little free time from work, and little money to buy train tickets. While one side of the city was quietly closing its shutters, locking its doors, emptying its safe-deposit boxes, and heading south out of town, the other was living daily in the expectation that everything would work out.

The massive and unanticipated defeat of its vaunted armed forces would have been enough to cause paralyzing anxiety in any besieged city. But hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France plodding relentlessly southward toward hoped-for sanctuary mesmerized the Parisians. These desperate northerners sharing roads with the remnants of a disorganized and dispirited French army drew a collective gasp from the theretofore complacent Parisians. It was not much longer before they too began joining that exodus, almost like metal filings pulled toward a strong magnet. This panicky act of running away would forge a profound sense of embarrassment, self-abasement, guilt, and a felt loss of masculine superiority that would mark the years of the Occupation.

Slowly, the news of military collapse spread to the middle-class and working-class neighborhoods as rumors flew about German paratroopers disguised as nuns and about Communists ready to take over the city hall. Newspapers warned of the ever-imagined “fifth column,” ready to turn Paris over to the Germans, and, at the other extreme, of the resisters, ready to fight the Wehrmacht down to the last alleyway of the invaded city. Public anger grew, and citizens became much more vocal about the government’s pusillanimity. The panic was more palpable because its cause was so unclear: Were Parisians supposed to stay and defend the city? Or hide? Or leave? Was the entire army retreating? Would there be a siege, as there was in 1870? Wrote a historian: “Those who leave are still making up excuses: the children, a sick relative, family business in the provinces. But, in the beaux quartiers especially [e.g., the 16th arrondissement], the streets are lined with building after building, shutters tightly closed, as if in the grip of a contagious illness.”13

Stunningly, almost four million inhabitants fled Paris and its environs in late May and early June rather than await the increasingly inevitable occupation of their precious capital.* Several memoirists mention that Parisian boulevards soon resembled empty movie sets — an ironic comment given the reputation of the city as a somewhat artificial but beautiful exemplum of urban life. Groceries and bakeries were closed, their entrances barricaded; automobiles had vanished; dogs ran unleashed (if they had not been poisoned by their owners); diplomats and ministries burned so much paper that a smoky pall unnerved the citizens who believed that the Germans were at their gates. Distilleries and oil storage farms added greasy clouds to the mix. Rumors outran attempts by the remaining authorities at calming fears; few citizens committed suicide. Everyone, it seemed, suddenly wanted to leave their city before it was attacked and invaded by a relentless foreign army.

* Again, estimates vary according to which historian is doing the figuring and whether or not Paris per se (ca. three million inhabitants) or the entire Paris region (ca. five to seven million inhabitants) is being considered. The point is that millions of families took to roads already crowded with a retreating army. For details, see Diamond, Fleeing Hitler, and Leleu, et al., La France pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale: Atlas Historique.

Again, one of the most compelling narratives that we have of this, the largest civilian exodus in modern times up to that point, comes from Némirovsky. We should remember that she wrote her novel while the events were still fresh in her mind, just a year or so afterward, and the vividness of her descriptions of the panic that took hold of northern France and Paris is incomparable. She describes a world turned upside down, where lost or abandoned children ran wild, mothers stole gasoline, the elderly were left behind, self-interest and greed were rampant, and class divisions were exacerbated; where the fear of strafing planes, marauding French soldiers, and other looters dominated life minute by minute. And no one knew exactly where he or she was heading — toward what or whom, or how far to run. When would times return to normal? The exodus, in Némirovsky’s hands, takes on an almost mythical cast for those who later heard of it:

Occasionally the road rose more steeply and they could see clearly the chaotic multitude trudging through the dust, stretching far into the distance. The luckiest ones had wheelbarrows, a pram, a cart made of four planks of wood set on top of crudely fashioned wheels, bowing down under the weight of bags, tattered clothes, sleeping children. . . . [Poor and rich] had suddenly been gripped by panic. . . . None of them knew why they were bothering to flee: all of France was burning; there was danger everywhere. . . . These great human migrations seemed to follow natural laws.14

And further on, one character likens his joining the exodus to those who escaped Pompeii under the ash of Vesuvius, leaving behind all that was important to them, not knowing when they would return or if their homes or possessions would be the same when they did.

French and foreign Jews felt especially vulnerable. Most just stayed put, praying somehow that the French government and its republican traditions would protect them from Nazi racism. But a few read the writing on the wall more astutely than others. One was a Jewish diamond merchant whose family had been French for generations and who was prescient enough to understand that not only was his business about to suffer, so were his wife and children if the Nazis instituted their racial policies in France. He had quietly procured exit visas for his family and had hired automobiles to drive them from Paris to the Spanish border and safety. One major problem remained. Border guards all over Europe had discovered how easy it was to demand bribes from fleeing Jews and other hunted persons, and the merchant knew that he would not be able to successfully carry his valuable stock of diamonds over the border. He had to leave them hidden in Paris — but where? Taking a rather risky chance, he decided to rely on a friend, a soccer buddy from his lycée years, a Gentile.

The plan he devised was audacious. Heating up a large amount of lardlike unguent, he poured the mixture into a tall, clear jar. Then he dribbled the clear, precious stones into the liquid, constantly stirring it as it cooled, so that the gems would not settle to the bottom. Soon the concoction congealed; from the outside, the suspended diamonds were invisible. He arrived at his friend’s home, holding the apparently innocuous bottle as if he were carrying a child.

His friend welcomed him with the warmth he had expected. After they worried together about the current state of Paris and France, the diamond trader said: “I must leave France, for obvious reasons. I am unsure about when I will be able to return, but I do know that I would like to have this jar of a family remedy, an unguent for all that ails you, waiting here for me. It means a lot to my family and to our memories. Could I ask you to keep it?” Bemused, his friend accepted the consignment, relieved that the request was as simple as storing a bottle in his house. The merchant left, unburdened but apprehensive. Had he outsmarted himself? Should he have told his friend what the jar contained? What if . . . ? But more immediate concerns dominated. Fortunately, the merchant’s escape with his family was a success. Making their way into and across Spain, they set sail from Portugal for the United States, where they remained for five long years. Around the dinner table, hundreds of times, the family wondered about that apparently innocuous bottle sitting in a dark cupboard back in occupied Paris. In early 1946, when our merchant could finally return to the city, he found himself once again in his friend’s kitchen. For a while they exchanged stories of the war years. After a bit, the Jewish friend broached the subject that had preoccupied him for half a decade: “Do you recall that jar of unguent I left with you in June of 1940?” At first, his friend looked puzzled. “Jar? Unguent?” Then he remembered what had not crossed his mind since his friend had left. Getting up from the table, he rummaged around in a remote cupboard, mumbling: “I hope we didn’t throw it out when we moved things around during the war.” The merchant politely waited, his guts in a knot. “Aha! I found it, I think. Is this the jar?” “Oh, yes,” the merchant answered, holding it, once again, as if it were a fragile Ming vase. “Now I have a story for you. Could you light up your stove and get me a sieve and a pan?”

Soon the contents of the jar were bubbling away over a low flame. Taking the sieve, the merchant poured the pot’s contents into another container, and there, nestled in the mesh, was his diamond reserve, the gems sparkling as if they had never been covered with animal fat and salve. The grateful merchant selected the brightest, largest diamond from the pile and handed it to his speechless host. “Take this one for your dear wife.”

Most stories of fast and permanent exits were not to have such happy endings. The great majority of those fleeing before the Blitzkrieg were women and children, for most men had been drafted; many were already in POW camps or in hiding. Those who had obtained leave from conscription because of important civilian jobs were advised to flee rather than be sent off to work in Germany. Scenes of babies, toddlers, and teenagers clinging to their parents, or of grandparents sitting on the family’s cart or in a packed automobile, filled the population with a self-perpetuating panic. A journalist wrote that “houses emptied themselves of women and children, burdened with luggage, who ran toward the Métro. Families piled in and on their automobiles packages, bags, luggage, and mattresses,* even birdcages . . . !”15

* Mattresses, always mattresses — the sight is so attached to images of refugee flight that we have become used to it. There is probably no action more symbolic of leaving home in distress. What prompts refugees, even today, to load themselves down with their bedding? Refugees in 1940 may have brought their mattresses with them as pitiful protection against strafing planes or, especially, as temporary bedding. But it also makes sense that when being forced to leave home, one clings to some symbol of the private life that has been upended. An uncertain future demands a secure place in which to wait for it. (See O. F. Bollnow, Human Space.)

With Germany not yet at war with the United States, the American ambassador to France, William Bullitt, and Roger Langeron, the prefect of police, became in effect “mayors” of the bewildered city during the few hectic days between the government’s retreat to the Loire Valley and the arrival of the Wehrmacht. Bullitt had already refused Roosevelt’s suggestion that he follow the government to Bordeaux. This loyalty (though it would freeze his own career in the diplomatic service) ensured trusted communication as the diplomat and the police chief tried to figure out how to keep peace in a city filled with leaderless and retreating French soldiers, savvy but worried Jewish citizens, frightened eastern European refugees, stubborn French patriots, and antsy looters. One of the best eyewitness accounts we have of those few days comes from Langeron’s diary, published in 1945. It gives a week‑by‑week account of the ways in which the French police “accommodated” themselves to the German presence. Strongly positive when it came to his department, the diary nevertheless reveals the frustration of not knowing how to turn over a major metropolis peacefully to a confident invader. Langeron opens his diary with a sardonic description of the government’s strained justifications for leaving Paris. It was June 10, 1940, only four days before the first German soldiers would enter the city. Across from his desk at headquarters sat a man he much admired, Georges Mandel, the recently named minister of the interior and thus his immediate superior. The sky over the city remained heavy with the acrid smoke from burning mountains of files and dossiers and from munitions and fuel depots. Ash could be seen floating in the mild winds that swept over a peaceful Île de la Cité, site of the Préfecture de police. A chagrined Mandel officially informed his friend that the country’s government was moving south toward the Loire, abandoning the capital. He reminded the police chief that his task was to “retain order” should the Germans arrive before either an armistice or an improbable French victory. Langeron respected, even admired, Mandel, but he observed in his journal, with a dab of black humor, that this was the twelfth minister of the interior under whom he had served since his appointment in 1934.

Having already taken careful notice from his office window of the thousands of refugees heading southward, like the government, Langeron recognized the possibility of urban chaos. The predictable environment that a police chief covets was disintegrating before his very eyes. The police were responsible for ensuring that the city was supplied with food, that its utility services and public and private transportation were maintained, that access to clinics and hospitals remained unencumbered, and that laws were enforced. Traffic, snarled by thousands of confused refugees and retreating French soldiers, must remain orderly; looting had to be controlled; those left behind had to be monitored. Though confident that he and his cohort were primed for these tasks, a nervous Langeron continued to resent that the government had abandoned Paris. It was one thing to lose a city in honorable battle; it was quite another to desert the nation’s capital in a panic. To forsake Paris was to forsake the whole French empire. He had received little intelligence about the German advance, even less about their plans for Paris, other than what he could glean from his own patrols and from information coming in from outposts in the near countryside. The military command of the city was as clueless as he. He could call on no precedent, no instructions, no guidance about how to prepare for transferring administrative and police powers to the Occupation authorities.

Confusion reigned at the highest military levels. Policemen were given rifles to carry; city buses were ordered to block main arteries; plans for bombing bridges were bruited about. General Pierre Héring, commander of Paris, told the police prefects of the region on June 11 that “the capital would be defended to the last,” but a day earlier, General Weygand, supreme military commander, had announced that “Paris [will be] an Open City. In order that Paris preserve its character as an Open City it is my intention to avoid any defensive organization around the city on the belt of the old fortifications or on that of the ancient forts.”* 16 We can only imagine how frustrating these contradictory messages from the military authority were for the average Parisian eager for usable information — not to mention for those responsible for civil order. Such confusion was amplified by the fact that posters informing Parisians of the proclamation of an “open city” would not appear on walls until June 13, only a few hours before the first Germans would appear on the arteries of the metropolis.

* The concept of an “open city” has an ambiguous place in international jurisprudence. It relies on two opposing armies to agree that a major conurbation will not be defended and thus not bombarded. The agreement has a logic for both sides: the attackers will not have to waste time, materiel, and men to take a heavily fortified metropolis, and the retreating army saves its citizens, its nation’s patrimony, and leaves a potential thorn in the side of the occupying forces. Of course, delicate negotiations have to precede such an arrangement, and such situations are rife with the possibility of misunderstandings.

To finally declare Paris an open city was a political rather than a military decision. Such a decision made sense militarily; politically less so unless we understand the obsessive concerns of the army, the Catholic Church, the industrialist cadre, and the conservative right wing about the Communists (and the Socialists, whom they believed to be Communists in sheep’s wool). Should the city be left to its own defenses, even under army control, it could quickly institute another Commune-type government, as it had after the long Prussian siege in 1870, and could instigate thereby another civil war, making France even more vulnerable to German intervention. On June 12, Langeron learned from French military headquarters about the open-city declaration. Not having been notified in time to prepare his officers, he saw the pronouncement as yet another feckless decision made by a timorous government in order to cover its own retreat. The three conditions that the Germans had imposed so that Paris might remain “open” were blunt: no destruction of bridges, no looting, and the population must remain indoors for forty-eight hours. Easier said than done. How was Langeron supposed to control remnants of the French army that might want to resist, or angry Parisians, or agents provocateurs, or citizens who needed milk, bread, and other necessities? What if German units were fired, stoned, or spat on? What if Parisians took to the streets to form human barricades to forestall the military occupation of their city? What if civil war broke out between those who were satisfied with the Armistice and those who despised the Nazis? What about the tens of thousands of refugees from Nazi Germany and eastern Europe? How would they react? These thoughts kept Langeron nervously awake as he tried to make sense of an unprecedented event.

The government itself having decamped on June 10, the rest of the city was now in full flight. One historian has put it succinctly: “The entire social fabric to which people were accustomed, all the points of reference on which they had been socialized to depend, suddenly collapsed without warning in a way they could not understand.”17 The citizens would return, especially after the Armistice went into effect on June 25, but slowly, and they would return abashed. The hangover from this mass exit would affect the relationship between the Occupying forces and the Parisians for months to come. On returning to Paris, after having joined the exodus, the pro-German writer and publisher Jean de la Hire described what he saw, when, too late to venture into the streets after curfew, he had to spend the night in the train station:

A Paris prodigiously empty and silent appeared outside the closed gates of the station, guarded by two policemen in capes and képis. At 5:30 a.m., the gates open. And the crowd spreads out into Paris, or is swallowed up by the Métro. I wait in front of the station. . . . German motorized patrols. Not one civilian car, not a bistro open. What Paris is this? My heart sank. A sudden noise as a large black airplane appears and passes overhead, skimming the roofs. . . . French police, alone, watch over absent traffic.18

A number of small merchants who had not fled told him that they had had no option: they couldn’t leave their businesses or their families. They had lived through worse; this, too, would pass.

During the last two weeks of June, meeting in Bordeaux, with the German army closing in on that city, the French government watched as events unfolded almost surreally. The first stunner: Churchill and his cabinet offered, if France would not sign an armistice with the Germans, to form a political union between Great Britain and France. De Gaulle phoned Reynaud from Paris and read him the agreement proposed by Churchill’s government:

At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the Governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution in their common defense of justice and freedom. . . . The two Governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco- British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defense, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France.19

Reynaud was ecstatic, but by then the forces in favor of an armistice had taken control of the cabinet, and Maréchal Pétain was asked by President Albert Lebrun to form a new government on June 17. The next day the Maréchal inexplicably announced on national radio that an armistice was already in effect (though he had not yet negotiated with the Germans) and ordered French troops to lay down their arms. The result was even more chaos in the ranks, for although many French soldiers followed his instructions, many did not, unsure who was in charge of the government. The Germans, of course, were delighted, and they drove into towns waving white flags to broadcast that the Battle of France was over. One of my sources told me that the Germans would enter a town, call the next town’s city hall, and ask if they were going to defend it. If the answer was no, the German officer would respond: “Good. We’ll be there within the hour.” On June 18, a few days before the signing of an armistice, Hitler met in Rome with Mussolini about the next steps regarding France. Il Duce demanded that Italy be permitted to occupy the Rhône Valley, Marseille, even Corsica. But Hitler was firm, for he recognized that the French must be kept from falling into Britain’s arms and that the French Mediterranean fleet must not join the Royal Navy. He needed “to secure . . . a French government functioning on French territory. This would be far preferable to a situation in which the French might reject the German proposals and flee abroad to London [as de Gaulle had already done] to continue the war from there.”20

Poor Pétain thought he might still have some leverage with the Germans, but given his eagerness to stop the hemorrhaging of his own armed forces, in the end, on June 22, at Compiègne, only fifty miles northeast of Paris, the Third Republic signed an agreement that in effect divided France into multiple zones. Hitler was ecstatic; in one of the most frequently shown film clips of the war, he is seen doing a little jig outside the railcar where the Armistice had been signed — the same railcar where the Germans had acceeded to a similar armistice in November of 1918. Two days later, an Italian-French armistice was signed.

All fighting was declared to have ceased at 1:35 a.m. next morning. Hitler proclaimed the end of the war in the west and the “most glorious victory of all time.” He ordered bells to be rung in the Reich for a week, and flags to be flown for ten days. As the moment for the official conclusion of hostilities drew near, Hitler, sitting at the wooden table in his field headquarters [in Belgium], ordered the lights extinguished and the windows opened in order to hear, in the darkness, the trumpeter outside marking the historic moment.21

Less than three weeks later, France’s Third Republic cravenly voted itself out of existence and installed in its place yet another quasi-fascist regime in Europe, only twenty-two miles from Great Britain:

The National Assembly [of the Third Republic] gives all powers to the Government of the Republic under the authority and the signature of Maréchal Pétain to promulgate by one or several edicts a new constitution of the French State [henceforth, the socalled Vichy government would be officially known as the État français]. This constitution will guarantee the rights of Work, Family and [Nation]. It will be ratified by the nation and applied by the assemblies that it will create.22

The Armistice, as we have seen, divided France into several occupied and unoccupied regions and was unique in Nazi Germany’s relations with other occupied nations. No other conquered nation was permitted to have its own sovereign territory after a Nazi victory.

For rather mundane reasons — because it was a spa town that had a plethora of hotel rooms and superb rail connections with most of France — Vichy, almost at the geographical center of France, became the seat of the new État français, successor to the legislatively abolished Third Republic. The name of this dowager city would forever be associated with that new state, the word Vichy still evoking memories of national shame, guilt, and anger. It is difficult to explain to someonewho does not intimately know French culture how even such rathermundane terms as eau de Vichy and vichyssois still retain just a hint of theodor of a repellent government. But as France seemed to be dissolvingunder the German Blitzkrieg, the Armistice was welcomed by most asGod-sent, especially when incarnated in the person of the “victor of Verdun,” Maréchal Philippe Pétain. His reputation was impeccable.* He vigorously requested that his government be located in Paris, or at least in nearby Versailles, but Hitler refused this request, and the État français would remain in the backwater of Vichy for the duration. Thus did France begin its collaboration with the regime that had defeated it.

* It is hard to believe, but it was only in March of 2013 that the last street in France named for Pétain was “debaptized.” Christened Rue du Maréchal Pétain in the 1930s, before he became associated with the Vichy government, the little avenue is in Belrain, a village of about forty inhabitants in the northeast of France, about twenty-five miles from Verdun. The town will rename the avenue, most likely after someone who resisted the Vichy government.

Praise for When Paris Went Dark

When Paris Went Dark recounts, through countless compelling stories, how Nazi occupation drained the light from Paris and how many of its residents resisted in ways large and small. This is a rich work of history, a brilliant recounting of how hope can still flourish in the rituals of daily life.” —Scott Turow, author of Identical

“Ronald Rosbottom has re-created the Parisian world during the dark days of the German occupation like no previous writer I know. His secret is twofold: first, exhaustive research that allows him to recover what we might call the importance of the ordinary; and second, a shrewd grasp of how memory works, often in strange ways.” —Joseph J. Ellis, Ford Foundation Professor Emeritus at Mount Holyoke College, author of Founding Brothers, American Sphinx, and Revolutionary Summer

Ronald Rosbottom_credit Kane HaffeyRonald C. Rosbottom is the Winifred Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities and a professor of French and European Studies at Amherst College. Previously he was the dean of the faculty at Amherst and the chair of the Romance Languages Department at Ohio State University. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Ronald C. Rosbottom)

Photo credit: Kane Haffey

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Text copyright ©2014 Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, Inc. © 2014 Ronald C. Rosbottom. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.