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When Paris Went Dark

When Nazi troops marched into Paris in June, 1940, the city surrendered without firing a shot.*

In When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 , historian Ronald C. Rosbottom explores face-to-face interactions between occupiers and occupied, the effect of the Occupation on daily life in Paris, its psychological and emotional impact on Parisians and its legacy of guilt and myth.

Drawing from official records, memoirs, interviews and ephemera, Rosbottom tells a story that is more complicated than simple opposition between courage and collaboration, though he offers examples of both. He discusses the fine line between survival and collaboration, the distinction between individual acts of resistance and the Resistance and how occupiers and occupied utilized the hide-and-seek possibilities of Parisian apartment buildings. He considers the act of waiting in line both as an illustration of the difficulties of everyday life and as a replacement for forbidden political gatherings. Above all, he describes the Occupation as gradual constriction of Parisian life within ever-narrowing boundaries.

Rosbottom does not limit his discussion to the Parisian perspective. Some of the most interesting sections of When Paris Went Dark deal with the German experience in the city, a complex mixture of tourism, conquest, envy and isolation. His account of Hitler’s early-morning tour of the capital soon after its surrender is particularly illuminating about the Nazi Party’s ambivalence toward cities in general and Paris in particular.

When Paris Went Dark is an important and readable addition to the social history of World War II.

*I will admit with only the slightest embarrassment that when I think “Nazi occupation of Paris” the images that come to mind are straight out of Casablanca. That will probably never change. Because putting pictures in our heads–accurate or not–is one of the things great art does.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

2 Comments

  1. Paracelse on September 20, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Rosbottom had perhaps a good grip on what happen in Paris, but France was never Paris only, German troops who occupied certain places in France were actually more understanding of the lower class than the local French police. For example, in Lorraine, mine and foundries workers were allowed to grow their own tobacco, grow their own vegetables, have chicken and other small animals for food, even make their own moonshine and some of those privileges were removed as soon as the Germans were pushed away by Allied troops. An other example would be the right to pick up dry wood for cooking and heating purpose. French police would shoot those who tried to do it, while Germans did let go. Taxes taxes.

    • pamela on September 21, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      Georges: Thanks for giving us a broader context for this. It’s easy to forget that Paris (or London, or Berlin…)isn’t the whole story.

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