NONFICTION: On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris comes a meticulously researched and riveting account of how the city’s inhabitants lived under their Nazi occupiers.
For Adolf Hitler, Paris was “one of the jewels of Europe.” When he appropriated it and incorporated it into the Third Reich he got it gleamingly intact. German tanks rolled in on June 14, 1940, and found the place almost deserted. Any notable resistance came much later and with a capital “R.” Ronald C. Rosbottom’s rigorously researched and deeply compelling book, “When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944,” examines the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied, specifically how the vanquished Parisians either fought against or adapted to the conditions imposed by their Nazi rulers.
The book begins with an account of the Blitzkrieg attacks and incursions in and around French borders followed by that effortless invasion — “as if by magic, Paris had become a suburb of Berlin.” However, Rosbottom really hits his stride when turning his attention to the changes within everyday life. While some Parisians actually benefited from the Nazi presence (from restaurateurs to prostitutes) the majority felt despoiled and humiliated and soon showed their dissatisfaction by means of sabotage, canvassed leaflets, violent reprisals or sheer rudeness.
By the time curfews were enforced, food and heating shortages commonplace and yellow stars for the city’s Jews mandatory, those previous forms of intermittent protest gave way to a better organized, more widespread and harder-hitting underground movement. Rosbottom’s sections on the brave and elaborate deeds of résistants are among the highlights of the book. In counterpoint to these tales of great fortitude and sacrifice are dastardly stories involving informers and collaborators, especially regarding the roundups of Jews — a reminder that it was not only Parisian resistance but also acquiescence which contributed to their city emerging from the war unscathed.
Rosbottom draws from a wealth of sources, including diaries, letters, newspaper articles and archives. On top of this we get interviews with those who lived through these “black years,” fruity excerpts from the memoir of the madam of one of Paris’ best-known bordellos, and choice cuts from key literature of the period, particularly Irène Némirovsky’s wonderful “Suite Française.” Such material yields a treasure trove of facts and statistics: Who knew, for example, that between 80,000 and 200,000 Franco-German babies were born in France during the Occupation, or that 80 percent of the resistance in France was the work of men under age 30?
At the outset, Rosbottom admits to being not a historian (he is a professor of French and European Studies at Amherst College) but a “storyteller and guide,” and this is apparent in his writing. Occasionally his language is a little too rich — “Teutons,” “pusillanimity” and “victuals” instead of their simpler equivalents — but otherwise he strikes a perfect tone that is neither too scholarly nor too familiar and produces a chronicle that edifies as it entertains.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.