When in Paris, do as the Nazis did: the surrendering of a city

DURING the Nazi occupation of Europe, some cities were more unfortunate than others. 

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-44

Ronald Rosbottom

John Murray, €36.50; ebook, €16.99

In the siege of Leningrad, in Russia, the Third Reich sent 1,000000 of the city’s residents into a slow, submissive death via three years of starvation and hypothermia. Cannibalism was the last resort.

After the bombing of Warsaw, 84% of the city was destroyed: the Polish capital resembled a post-apocalyptic-dystopian-science-fiction novel by the time the Germans had razed it.

In comparison to Hitler’s treatment of these eastern cities, Paris, in France, got off very lightly during World War II.

The initial Nazi occupation of the most cultured and cosmopolitan of cities came almost without a fight.

The Luftwaffe sent a warning to Parisians in early June, 1940: killing 254 civilians with a bombing campaign that caused minimal structural damage.

Then, on June 10, General Maxime Weygand, a French military commander, declared that Paris was now officially an “open city”.

This meant that Paris had been surrendered to the Nazis in the hope of avoiding further casualties, and to preserve several centuries of magnificent architectural splendour and aesthetic artistic beauty.

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-44 analyses the complex social fabric that existed for ordinary Parisians during this period.

The book also hopes to unearth the myths from this deeply shameful moment in France’s history. But it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise.

Rosbottom begins with basic historical background, explaining how the French conceded Paris to the Germans so easily, following the Battle of France.

The Third Republic voted itself out of existence by signing an agreement at Compiègne, on June 22, 1940: thus creating yet another quasi-fascist state in Europe.

But as Rosbottom reminds us here, the ease with which the Vichy government — officially known as État français — came into existence is hardly surprising. There had been an appetite for far-right-reactionary politics in the country for some time.

Many people had long believed that France had lost much of her glory through moral decay, leftist politics, religious tolerance, and subservient acceptance of multiculturalism.

So Nazism, for disgruntled, conservative French citizens, the author suggests, offered a return to a strong autocratic state.

It’s a dangerous idea to treat Nazism as a serious intellectual concept.

But as Rosbottom continually says, when one does so it immediately collapses under the weight of its own stupidity.

Rosbottom also explains why the Nazi Party failed to really understand Paris, despite being in love with it.

While the Nazis praised its decadent qualities, they didn’t recognise that what made the city work so successfully— physically, aesthetically, and artistically — was its cultural radicalism and moral impurity.

Moments like these are a joy to read. They prove that hateful ideologies, such as Nazism, are not only held together by a blinded, misguided narcissism, but that they are empty of any intellectual capacity or reason.

As convincing as all this is, problems creep into the narrative nevertheless. Namely, when the book mixes cultural theory with history.

The author says that he wants to distinguish between myth and reality, when analysing subjects that are cloaked in collective national guilt and shame.

Among the questions the book asks are: who actually fought in the Resistance movement?; how many thousands of relationships existed between French men and women and Nazi soldiers?; and why did so many Parisians collaborate with Nazis to send thousands of Jews packing on death trains to Polish concentration camps?

As a cultural theorist, Rosbottom can’t help himself from constantly seeing two sides of his own argument, when seeking answers to those questions.

He almost excuses the actions of those who collaborated.

Rosbottom asks, without irony: “what other options did [Parisians] have but to follow the laws of their own government and powerful occupier?”

If history has one valuable function — as both an academic discipline, and as a genre of popular reading — surely it is this: to learn from the abhorrent mistakes of the past.

But a historical analysis that has more in common with philosophers Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida than it does with historians Simon Schama or Robert Service is one that fails to admit that there is such a thing as a moral compass in humanity: one that distinguishes between right and wrong.

In no way does Rosbottom excuse Nazi ideology. Clearly, he despises it.

But his academic background is better suited to critiquing culture, rather than the military, social, and political history he has tackled head on here. It’s this misguided application that makes When Paris Went Dark lack any real authority or consistency.

And while the book certainly shines in parts, I felt slightly short-changed at the end.


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