- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2011

By Alan Riding
Knopf, $28.95, 399 pages, illustrated

On June 13, 1940, following a series of stunning military defeats at the hands of Hitler’s army, the government of France declared its capital an open city; German forces entered Paris the next day. The city had lost more than half of its prewar population, and the only vehicles on the road were German.

The five years of German occupation that followed are described in riveting detail by Alan Riding, a resident of Paris and a longtime correspondent for the New York Times. “In the face of defeat and occupation,” Mr. Riding observes, “the French responded successively with anger, despair, resignation and accommodation.”

They also responded, on occasion, with resistance.

It was a time for questioning. While Hitler rebuilt Germany, France had struggled with the effects of the Depression and had gone through no fewer than 34 governments. Even before Paris fell, leftist writer Jean-Paul Sartre asked rhetorically why France was fighting. “To defend democracy? There is no such thing anymore. To preserve things as they were before the war? But it was the most complete disorder … social discontent everywhere.”

What were the objectives of the German occupiers? Militarily, they had achieved the objective denied to them in World War I: capture of the enemy’s capital. But as occupiers, the Germans were conflicted. Notwithstanding their military might, the Nazis felt vaguely uneasy about their relationship with the city that epitomized European culture. “Germanic culture had produced its share of great artists, writers, and, above all, musicians,” Mr. Riding notes, “yet it was Paris - not London, not Rome, not Vienna and certainly not Berlin - that defined style and taste for the region.”

There was soon a consensus for a revival of the city’s cultural life. “For musicians, dancers and actors, it was a matter of necessity. They needed to work and saw no reason not to. They bore no responsibility for the country’s disaster, and they had no power to redress the situation.” The Germans were amenable. The collaborationist government they established in Vichy to administer France’s unoccupied south was eager to showcase French culture.

But anti-Semitism, never far below the surface in France, would flourish during the occupation years. Since Hitler’s rise to power, thousands of Jewish intellectuals had relocated to Paris. Overall, France’s Jewish population had tripled in four decades to a total of 300,000.

In October 1940, the Vichy government implemented a Statute on Jews, designed to exclude Jews from the government, the press and other professions. What interested Germans the most, however, was the great art collections in the hands of those Jewish collectors who had not already fled. To facilitate the pillaging of those collections, the Germans promulgated an order that all art was to be “safeguarded” pending a formal peace treaty. For whatever reason, the Parisian art market took off under the occupation. In the author’s words, “Parisians began selling off paintings and art objects as never before.”

With a few exceptions, French writers were eager to continue publishing, even though their work was subject to censorship. Most of the Paris press served as outlets for German propaganda in return for financial support from the occupiers.

Classical musicians were better off. Because music is the most abstract of the arts, there was no problem with censorship. In July 1940, composer Francis Poulenc wrote an exiled colleague, “Musical life is intense, and everyone finds in it a way of forgetting the present sadness.” When German bands or choirs performed outside the Paris Opera, crowds quickly gathered, drawn by the music. To some, such performances were dangerous, for they served to humanize the occupying army.

Music halls and cabarets had to clear their lyrics with German censors, but the censors employed a light hand, and songs poking fun at the occupation were approved sometimes.

Not every Frenchman could take the occupation in stride. Blue-collar workers, sometimes influenced by the communists, had little truck with the occupiers, and in August 1944, they staged an armed uprising in Paris. There were acts of quiet resistance as well. Singer Edith Piaf was so popular that she was allowed to take her show into camps for Allied POWs. There she would persuade the commandant to allow her to be photographed with some of the prisoners. The resulting photos were then used to create false documents for escapees.

One of the art world’s few heroes was Rose Valland, “a frumpy-looking forty-two-year-old spinster” employed by one of Paris’ great museums, the Jeu de Paume. Valland kept a record of all art entering or leaving the building, including art destined for the Hitler or Goering collections. She advised the resistance of which trains contained valuable art and therefore should not be attacked. After the war, Valland’s notes assisted Allied officers seeking to track down the looted art.

After Germany’s surrender, the government of Charles de Gaulle launched investigations into who had collaborated with the enemy. Defining who was a collaborator was not easy. The investigations led to a purging of books and to the jailing of many writers, one of whom complained of discrimination: “The engineers, entrepreneurs, and masons who built the Atlantic Wall walk among us undisturbed.”

The trials of collaborators continued until 1951 and came to include upscale call girls who had profited from their German clients. Not all were repentant. A movie actress, Arletty, was tried for having had a very public affair with a German officer. In her defense, she testified, “My heart is French but my [body] is international.”

In a footnote, Mr. Rider notes that between 100,000 and 200,000 Franco-German babies were born during the occupation. The story of the occupation has been dealt with elsewhere, but this fine book reminds the reader of the many shades of collaboration in an occupied country.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide