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When Paris Went Dark

Faux Paris

NACH PARIS! —“To Paris!” Signs plastering German railroad cars carrying the Kaiser’s troops to France, 1914–18

Paris is and always has been obsessed with itself—its place within France, within Europe, within the world, and within the imaginations of those who have visited it or who want to. As a consequence, even though the city has in modern times survived siege, civil disorder, and military occupation, the French, and especially the Parisians, retain a magical belief that the City of Light is impervious to destruction. Exceptions to this fantasy cause bewilderment and generally incoherent or confused responses. When, in the last year of the First World War, German artillery, in the guise of Krupp’s gigantic howitzer, Big Bertha, began dropping enormous shells on the city with considerable destructive force, the first reaction was outrage. Earlier, rather ineffectual bombing at night from zeppelins, and even from the more accurate Gotha aircraft, had inured the Parisians to occasional disruption from above. In the first quarter of 1918, when the Germans made their last great attempt at a breakthrough to reach the French capital, more than two hundred bombs had been dropped from aircraft on Paris in order to break the city’s morale.

But the most terrifying bombardments appeared out of nowhere and capriciously peppered the city beginning in late March of that year.

The 260-pound shells seemed to fall most often on the quiet streets of the comfortable 7th arrondissement: the Rue du Bac, the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy, and the Rue de Vaugirard. (It was later discovered that the Germans were using Notre-Dame Cathedral as their major orienting target; thus many of Big Bertha’s shells landed in the city’s center.) Where were they coming from? There were no airplanes, no air raid alarms; they were just falling from the sky. No artillery shell was known to travel more than twenty-five miles or so, and the German army was almost a hundred miles away.

The population was much more disoriented by these mysterious bombardments than they had been by the air raids; and when it was discovered that the shells were indeed coming from more than seventy miles away, Parisians suddenly felt a vulnerability they had not felt since the early days of the war. And then on Good Friday, one of the gigantic shells landed atop one of Paris’s oldest churches, Saint-Gervais, in the Marais. More than 150 worshippers, including foreign dignitaries, were killed or injured. A historian of Big Bertha’s late–World War I impact writes:

The place was crowded. It was just 4:30. Suddenly the hundreds of kneeling worshippers were startled by a terrific crash overhead, an explosion. A projectile had struck the roof. Those looking up quickly saw a stone pillar crumbling, beginning to fall. Scores of tons of stone, some blocks weighing a half ton, were pouring upon the mass of people.

Even after the cause was discovered, and the French were able to target the howitzer and the rail tracks needed to move it, Parisians would remember that distinct feeling of helplessness.

In fact, for some time before the war ended, French military leaders had begun planning how to dupe German reconnaissance airmen who, in a time without radar or any sort of sophisticated night vision equipment, had to use rail tracks, reflections off the river, and the lights of Paris to find their targets and guide their new and powerful artillery. By 1917 the French army had already begun looking for an area near Paris that, from the air, might be mistaken for the capital. They found one such site northwest of the city, near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the Seine makes a deep loop on its way to the English Channel, similar to the well-known curve that it creates as it passes through Paris. False train stations, tracks, and streetlights were constructed; plans were made to enhance this fauxParis, but the end of the war interrupted them and they were but desultorily continued for a few years afterward. Yet only two decades later, the fanciful idea of constructing another Paris as a protection for one of the world’s most famous cityscapes would be reborn. For in occupying the capital of France, the Germans themselves would try to invent a faux Paris, one that would serve as an example of Nazi benevolence while, behind the facade, they pillaged a grand treasure house.

Sequestering Medusa

On a clear morning, April 26, 1937, the citizens of a small Basque town in northern Spain and their neighbors from the countryside were doing what they habitually did on Mondays: shopping, bargaining, and exchanging gossip in an open-air market. When a low, droning sound first entered their consciousness, theirs was not the automatic response that would soon become common throughout Europe—to look toward the skies for danger. Rather, they looked around to find the source of that loud, unfamiliar mechanical noise. Before they could protect themselves, warplanes from the Luftwaffe and the Italian air force began indiscriminately dropping concussive firebombs and splinter bombs on the town. After five raids, the allies of Franco’s army had left Guernica three-quarters devastated and had killed between four hundred and one thousand civilians. (Historians still debate the final figures.) News of the event and its aftermath, thanks to a trenchant article by George Steer of the New York Times, flashed around the world. Steer’s piece made one especially salient point, unrecognized then as being predictive: the bombing was meant to demoralize the populace, for the little town had no military value. For the first time, indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations was a reality, whereas before it had been but a theoretical assumption. “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history.”

The Spanish Civil War, particularly the bombing of Madrid and Barcelona, along with the devastation of Guernica, forced museum curators and protectors of all cultural treasures to think about how to protect their patrimony from arbitrary destruction. It also warned military commanders that they should pay more attention to protecting their cities from the air. After Guernica, the bombing of Madrid, and with the destruction of two great cities in 1939 and 1940 (Warsaw and Rotterdam), Europeans were learning from relentlessly replayed newsreels that war was no longer a matter just between armies and that their historical confidence in the general impregnability of large metropolises had been misplaced. During the First World War, most of the casualties were soldiers; but it became clear this time around that civilians would not be spared the fury of combat. This new type of warfare was erasing the boundaries, as fragile as they had been, between the battlefield and the home. Indeed, the phrase “home front” would soon become a cliché.

The Occupation of Paris during the Second World War has provided us with a rich array of photographs, many of which have been repeatedly reproduced. Often, they provide unintentionally ironic commentary on the complexities of urban life when a foreign enemy threatens a familiar city. A photograph of curators emptying the Louvre in 1938 only two years before the Germans arrived does just that. A nation’s material culture has always been the target of opposing nations and peoples, and this period in French and German history was no exception.

The protection of national treasures had begun in Paris in the late 1930s: sandbags were used to surround public statues, monuments, churches, and other buildings; many public statues were dismantled and put in safe places; precious stained-glass windows were covered with wire or removed.

Found more often than not in the centers of its cities, Europe’s great museums—the National Gallery and Tate Gallery in London, Paris’s Louvre, Leningrad’s Hermitage, the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, to name only the best known—were like sitting ducks, vulnerable to bombardment, fire, and air attack, so they had to be emptied as thoroughly as possible. Soon their walls were denuded. And there was another threat: looting. It was an open secret that the Reich sought to repatriate any painting or sculpture that it felt belonged to Germany—any work that had been itself looted over centuries of war or even sold legally. Small groups of German curators and art historians had fanned out all over Europe in the late 1930s, using their academic credentials to discover what museums held that might be called Germanic. The Third Reich was primed to reveal what it believed to be the lies and fantasies of provenance.

A first glance at the photograph shows a group of men struggling to pull a very large canvas through a door of the museum. On closer investigation, we see that the painting is none other than Théodore Géricault’s mammoth Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa), painted in 1819 and exhibited in the Salon of that year. Much has been said about the relationship between this painting’s subject—a terrible shipwreck—and the dark, romantic style of its fabrication. It shocked many who saw it, both artists and the public, and amazed many as well because of its forthright depiction of communal solidarity at its weakest point. Some wrote then, and have argued since, that the painting was Géricault’s critique of the failure of the Napoleonic experiment, which was followed by the hasty reinstallation of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. Others have seen it as a dour commentary on the slave trade, which France did not abolish in its overseas colonies until 1849: “Much has been read into this painting: an allegory for a wounded France, the fatherland at the moment of its mortal failure, the disarray of a lost generation.… But aside from these political meanings, is not ‘The Raft’ above all a representation of horror?” This magnificent canvas, one of the largest in the Louvre, had hung on the museum’s walls for more than a hundred years as a reminder of moral, political, and personal despair and humiliation.

The photograph of the complicated attempt at removing the painting captures, predictively, what the next four years of the German Occupation of Paris would entail. Here we see the curators of France’s national museum methodically trying to remove and hide an artwork that had represented the French nation at another political low point. Themes of the Occupation are present in the painting: a sense of abandonment; false hope for succor; struggles among fellow sufferers; the implacability of the enemy (in this case, the ocean, thirst, and hunger); the betrayal of nature itself; death and humiliation. The Louvre’s curators would be more successful at protecting the nation’s patrimony (they moved Leonardo’s Mona Lisa all over France to keep it out of German hands) than would the Third Republic at protecting the nation’s geographical, military, and political integrity. Like the Parisians who would soon follow it in their exodus before the arrival of the Germans, Géricault’s canvas would seek refuge in unfamiliar and restricted spaces, in this case, some dusty room in an even dustier château. Yet more hauntingly, the sequestering of this great canvas was itself a terrifying revelation and prophecy of what was to come.

Paris Was Different

Paris’s arrogance made it a metropolis more difficult to “occupy” than any of the other European cities the Nazis controlled by force between 1939 and 1945. Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler brought German civilians and German soldiers by the thousands to the city, attempting to colonize it culturally, using it as a model for the greater Berlin that the Reich would soon begin building.

Parisians themselves tried to avoid as much as they could the fact of the Occupation, presenting a “city without a face,” accepting—some say too “collaboratively”—but not welcoming the presence of a confident enemy in their midst.

For four years, both sides—the Germans, with their French collaborators, and the average Parisian—lived in this faux Paris, attempting to create a lure for the other, a trap or decoy in which to snare an antagonist.

Der Deutsche Wegleiter für Paris: Wohin in Paris? (The German Guide to Paris: What to Do in Paris) began publication within a month of the Occupation (July 15, 1940). At first it was only sixteen pages long, but it would grow to more than one hundred pages by its last issue, two weeks before the Liberation. The purpose of the guide was to “offer” Paris to the thousands of soldiers who would be visiting the capital for the next four years.

For the majority of us, Paris is an unknown land. We approach her with mixed feelings: superiority, curiosity and nervous anticipation. The name of Paris evokes something special. Paris—our grandfathers saw it at the time of the war that offered the imperial crown to the kings of Prussia [the Franco-Prussian War of 1870]. And in their mouth, the word “Paris” had a mysterious, extraordinary sound. Now we are there and we can enjoy it at our liberty.

But the author of this little article also warns the soldier not to be seduced by this untrustworthy city. Remember, it intones, that there are many other beautiful places you will visit as a Wehrmacht soldier, so “in the middle of the sweet and easy life of the City of Lights… keep in your heart, as every German should, a motto: ‘Don’t fall into sentimentality; the strength of steel is what we need now; direct yourself to clear and sure goals; and be ready for combat.’ ”

Guardians of Nazi morality would remain concerned that the world’s most attractive city would turn its soldiers into the same decadent military that they had defeated during the Battle of France.

Hitler had several reasons for breathing a sigh of relief that Paris had fallen with nary a shot fired even before the Armistice had been signed. First he wanted to enhance the image of National Socialism worldwide—to show that he and his cohort were a sophisticated and cultured race, worthy of continental leadership. In addition, he sought to mollify the bellicose Winston Churchill, for Germany was still desperately seeking a cessation of hostilities with Great Britain now that France had been subdued. Perhaps allowing a retreating British Expeditionary Force to escape from the port of Dunkirk had been one of the Führer’s signals to the English; treating Paris with respect was definitely another. But a stubborn Churchill refused to read such signals favorably. And so the Occupation of Paris would last for more than fifteen hundred nights, much longer than any of the parties had foreseen.

We shall see how Nazi ideology was quite ambivalent about urban centers: they imagined building cleaner, more idealized city environments so as to reduce the filthy, the foreign, and the aberrant. When confronted with a site such as Paris they were truly befuddled. But had they not occupied other major metropolises, other centers of art and the gay life?

What was different about Paris? The difference resided in the place Paris had in the world’s imagination—that and the fact that it was the capital of one of Germany’s most powerful and traditional foes.

Now the German Occupation of Paris sought to freeze Paris, to make it static, less dynamic, and to reduce it to a banal tourist site. For a great lot of the Germans, the city remained a sort of El Dorado. Many had visited Paris as tourists before the war; a substantial number of the elite had studied there. Many of the upper echelons of the Occupying forces spoke excellent French. Those who only knew the city secondhand still recognized it as the ideal city of freedom, charm, and beauty. Nevertheless, Paris confronted Hitler with a conundrum that he and his acolytes would never completely solve. How does an occupier vigorously and efficiently control a city while maintaining the appearance of a benevolent trusteeship? By its very nature, a metropolis is difficult, if not impossible, to govern predictably. The Occupation authorities had organizational problems; these were evident from the day the first German motorcyclist entered the city. In his study of the period, the American historian Allan Mitchell explains that the administration of the Occupation never fully recovered from early mistakes, despite the myth of German precision and efficiency: “The basic problem was that the German command itself was in virtual chaos. The first phase of the Occupation was therefore characterized by a welter of titles, acronyms, ill-defined prerogatives, and overlapping duties as the German bureaucracy struggled to adapt itself to the particular circumstances of occupied France.” As France’s civic and cultural capital, Paris demanded a more flexible and entrepreneurial management than its occupiers were prepared to develop. Their administration of the capital was more layered and confusing than elsewhere in France, particularly because of German bureaucracies overlapping with their Vichy counterparts. The Nazi government’s concern for its image as the new custodian of the world’s most recognized city added further complications. The occupiers were organizing to take material advantage of a conquered city while ostensibly protecting an important part of the world’s patrimony. They also had to ensure that they not appear beguiled by Paris, for such lack of martial attention might encourage restless residents of other occupied cities.

The history of the Occupation is, in part, a melodrama about an often feckless bureaucracy attempting to remake an iconic city into a Potemkin-like hamlet. City planning, as any urban historian will confirm, is an oxymoron. There had been no greater example of planned urban reconstruction than that effected by Baron Haussmann, under the aegis of Napoleon III, between 1852 and 1870. Yet in 1871, the forces of the Paris Commune (the world’s first communist government), in retreating before the French army could crush it, would use the city’s modern accoutrements (fountains, cobblestones, lampposts, kiosks, benches, and other street furniture) to construct barricades across widened boulevards. They also set this new Paris afire. So the Nazis had occupied a city steeped in the blood of revolt and massacre, of civil strife, and had somehow convinced themselves that they could succeed where even the French themselves had failed. They were both seduced and apprehensive.

But they were not fools: they knew that to occupy was to establish relations with sympathetic and ambitious citizens as well as those who feared and loathed them, and they were quite adept at it. Cities under occupation demand new urban identities of their stressed inhabitants. Often those identities can take on attributes of the occupier; those individuals, for whatever reason, become integral to the confidence of the “foreign” visitor. In writing a history of this period, one needs regularly to remember that there are many less visible lines of demarcation between “occupier” and “occupied.” Language and uniforms are but the most obvious markers of “otherness”; the less obvious—the occasional, accidental, and coincidental acts of “cooperation” and “accommodation”—remind the student of this period that his effort can only suggest the complexity of human relations in such a stressed environment. Daily life was—is—always a matter of accommodation to unexpected and noxious events; the Occupation inflected the small and large decisions that constitute daily life in myriad ways. It imposed an attuned sensitivity on the French that raised moral issues that, to their credit, are still being debated.

A citizen of a city as robustly occupied as was Paris must “accommodate” himself continuously to an unpredictable reality. Just obeying Nazi and Vichy injunctions was an example of such accommodation; but was answering the occupiers’ innocuous questions or having affective or sexual relations with them or selling them bread or shoe polish also a form of collaboration? Is there a hierarchy of activities that makes one a collaborator rather than just an accommodator? Is a quick date or a one-night stand more “accommodating” than selling coffee to the same officer day after day and even occasionally offering him a free croissant? These are questions that demand thoughtful answers, and thoughtfulness, as we will see later, was not prevalent in the postliberation period. Jean Dutourd’s astutely satirical novel Au Bon Beurre (The Best Butter, 1952), written less than a decade after the events it describes, was a bestseller in France even though it satirized the compromises made by many Parisians. The owners of a dairy shop adapt themselves to every change that occurs in Paris during that period, but they do so to benefit from opportunities to make money, not for ideological reasons. “In exceptional times, exceptional actions,” reasons Monsieur Poissonnard, the grocer. Living under surveillance for four years stymied and disfigured earlier ethical certainties; all decisions demanded new justifications.

Paris during the Second World War survived many grievous injuries, but its most serious were not the visible wounds left behind by air raids, bombardments, fires, and disease. There were subtler marks, more difficult to evaluate, easier for history to ignore.

These effects were often deeper, more traumatic. An occupation numbs a city’s vitality, the vitality that makes urban life attractive. Soon the citizen begins to feel alienated, disconnected from a familiar environment; though he is still physically engaged with the city, his emotional attachment to it weakens. Previously confident of his urban sophistication, which had allowed him to navigate a complex environment, he becomes tentative, anxious, angry, and impatient as he wonders how long before “his” city returns to him. One of the ironies is that an occupied city brings its citizens closer together physically—in lines, in movie houses, in cafés for warmth, in smaller living spaces, in crowded buses and trains—but separates them emotionally and sentimentally. Suspicion becomes the norm; openness diminishes. Generosity turns to covetousness; racial and ethnic markers become clearer and thus more compelling; objects—things—take on almost ethical value: “If I can’t have my city, then at least I can grab part of it, find something to call mine.”

There are eloquent examples of French people who lived not in Paris or Marseille or Lyon but in small towns and villages accommodating themselves to the sudden proximity of those with power over their daily lives. In her stunningly prescient novel Suite Française (1942, but unpublished until 2004), the French-Russian novelist Irène Némirovsky gives us a view of how intimate the Occupation became in rural settings: “The Germans had moved into their lodgings and were getting to know the village. The officers walked about alone or in pairs, heads held high, boots striking the paving stones.… They inspired in the inhabitants of the occupied countries fear, respect, aversion, and the amusing desire to fleece them, to take advantage of them, to get hold of their money.”

Another book, the novella The Silence of the Sea, distributed clandestinely during 1942, was credited to a certain author named Vercors (in reality, Jean Bruller, a writer and member of the Resistance). A young woman and her uncle, who narrates, are forced to accept as a tenant a German officer who makes every effort to befriend them. Deciding early to resist the only way they can, they provide every courtesy to their tenant except to speak to him. Finally von Ebrennac, an anti-Nazi but proud German officer, decides that honor demands he ask to be transferred to the Eastern Front—in other words, to probable death. He announces this to the old man and his niece, and tells them:

“I wish you a good night.” I thought he was going to close the door and leave. But no. I was looking at my niece. I stared at her. He said—murmured: “Adieu.” He did not move. He remained completely still, and in his still and tense face, his eyes were even more still and tense, connected to the eyes—too open, too pale—of my niece. This lasted, lasted—how long?—lasted until finally, the girl moved her lips. Werner’s eyes shone. I heard: “Adieu.” You had to look for the word in order to hear it, but finally I heard it. Von Ebrennac heard it too, and he stood up straight, and his face and his whole body seemed to relax as if he had just had a restful bath. And he smiled, so that the last image that I had of him was a happy one. And the door closed and his steps disappeared into the depths of the house.

French programs on BBC Radio would read The Silence of the Sea on the air with touching enthusiasm. Those who had not signed on to the Vichy experiment believed that it presented a France that still had the wherewithal to struggle against apparently impossible odds. It boldly put forth the ethical questions that would haunt France for decades: Which actions, exactly, constitute collaboration and which constitute resistance?

Living in cities, where so many serendipitous encounters occur, is different from living in more intimate villages and towns. Knowing a city by maps alone cannot explain or contain the on-the-ground facts of that city; too much is unseen by the innocent visitor, even less by an occupier. Not only cul-de-sacs and alleys but also the daily lives of a city’s inhabitants are invisible to the mapmaker. Stadtluft macht frei (city air makes one free): a totalitarian regime can only partially rule a metropolis. Conquerors tend to forget this age-old belief.

Perhaps the most informative and moving accounts of the war in Europe came from the dispatches and journals of A. J. Liebling, correspondent for The New Yorker. Liebling stayed in Paris until forty-eight hours before the arrival of the Germans. Throughout the war, he traveled to the United States, to North Africa, and England; he landed at Normandy on D-day and was one of the first journalists to enter the liberated city. For four years, though, he had been frustrated about not knowing what was going on in his beloved Paris. His only information came from tales brought back by escaped prisoners and from the dozens of little newspapers published clandestinely in France during those years. Reading those scraps of information was as if “one were to try to piece together a theory of what is going on behind the familiar facade of a house across the street where a friend is held prisoner by a kidnap gang. These tiny newspapers are like messages scrawled on bits of paper and dropped from a window by the prisoner.” I know how he felt, for even though we have learned much about what was going on since the war, there remain so many contradictory stories and theories, so many attempts at explanation and exculpation, that unraveling them seems at times to be an exercise in frustration. But the stories themselves are worth remembering, for they speak of a period and a place—Paris—that still demand our sentimental and intellectual attention.

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Excerpted from When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom.

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