Paris ’44: The Shame and the Glory
Patrick Bishop
Viking, £25

When in September 1939 World War II broke out, France - and Paris in particular - reacted as if nothing much had happened. This may seem an odd thing to say, given that the French and the British had actually declared war on Germany, but it is true nonetheless.

A month later, the American writer A.J. Liebling arrived in Paris to cover the conflict for the New Yorker and found that “there were few indications that it was on”, adding: “When people thought of the war it was with cold exasperation; there was a self-conscious distrust of phrases like ‘heroic poilu’, ‘sacred soil’, and ‘accursed ‘Boche’, but it had become clear that as long as Germany was free to mess up Europe every twenty years life would be barely supportable. Not quite everybody realised that life would not be supportable at all.”

But it was not long before France was overrun and the Germans assumed the tenancy of its smug capital. France’s leaders, political and military, had been caught napping and in the summer of 1940 Hitler took time off from finessing the Final Solution to pay Paris a visit. Like a retiree ticking off places on his bucket list, he was entranced, drooling over its architecture and boring his fawning entourage with facts he’d crammed for the trip. The short tour through largely deserted streets ended at Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur.

American soldiers after the liberation of ParisAmerican soldiers after the liberation of Paris (Image: free)

“I thank the destiny that has allowed me to see this great city which has always fascinated me,” he rhapsodised. “It is absolutely essential that this marvel of western culture that flourishes below us should be preserved intact for posterity.”

As Patrick Bishop recounts in Paris ’44, Hitler was as good as his word. While other European cities felt the full force of Messerschmitts and Panzers, Paris emerged from the war virtually physically unscathed. Mentally, though, many of its inhabitants were beset with shame. As Bishop writes, “Paris had fallen with contemptible ease.”

To some, such as the octogenarian Marshall Pétain, who ran the collaborationist government in Vichy, it was little more than the French - complacent, somnambulant, lazy, hedonistic - deserved.  “The spirit of pleasure has triumphed over the spirit of sacrifice,” he declared. “We have demanded more than we have been prepared to give and chosen the easy life.”

Paris, the symbol of the republic and the nation’s historical core, fell with the loss of just half a dozen Frenchmen. Stalingrad it was not.

The unavoidable word to describe France’s capitulation is humiliation. While elsewhere in Europe people stood, fought and sacrificed their lives, the French ran, surrendered and, in many cases, cosied up to the enemy.

Bishop, a former Paris bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph, follows the often inglorious story from invasion to liberation. Here be heroes and villains, chancers and ego-trippers, Nazi stooges and selfless resisters, anti-semites and aristocrats whose raison d’être was to protect their own fortunes and save their own skins. “Anti-semitism isn’t a German invention,” argued Robert Brasillach, a Nazi apologist and propagandist, “it’s a French tradition.”

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Initially, though, Paris was still gay Paree. For the Germans it offered welcome respite from the front line. Life carried on pretty much as normal; theatres, music halls and nightclubs stayed open, capitalising on the influx of tourist invaders.

As Bishop, a colourful, well-informed chronicler, notes, “stars who exemplified Frenchness”, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Django Reinhardt, “were soon delighting occupiers and occupied alike at the Folies Bergère and the Gaîté.”

Meanwhile top restaurants “barely missed a beat in adapting to the new clientele”, among them Göring, whom they welcomed with open arms. Unsurprisingly, business in brothels boomed: “Fabienne James, the madame of 122 on the rue de Provence, would sigh later that she had ‘never been so happy’ as when the Germans were in town.”

At times, it seemed that the French were less at war with the Germans than with themselves. By 1943, Bishop writes, “There were now more French collaborators dedicated to hunting down resisters than there were Germans”. But as the war turned in the Allies’ favour, the resisters grew in confidence and daring.  

By the end of 1943, the hitherto fractious Resistance, led by London-based Charles de Gaulle, had coalesced and was capable of causing the Nazis considerable pain. In Paris, where formerly the Germans had flâneured as if on a city break, urban guerrillas of both sexes were emboldened to exact revenge. Anyone in uniform, recalled one German soldier, was a target: “Paris is increasingly becoming a trap for us Germans…Our enemies are invisible. They’re lurking, waiting to ambush.”

Among the celebrity participants involved in Paris’s liberation were JD Salinger and Ernest Hemingway. The former was there as a soldier and witnessed stomach-churning acts of revenge. Bishop interviewed Salinger’s son Matt who told him that, after fighting for months in arctic conditions in Belgium, his father always kept his house at seventy-two degrees.

French resistance fighters ended up in German concentration campsFrench resistance fighters ended up in German concentration camps (Image: free)

As for Hemingway, he was ostensibly a reporter but saw himself as a fighter. Paris was where he had made his name and written some of his best work. War, to him, was “a sort of carnival, where norms were junked and violent appetites satisfied”. When Paris was ultimately freed there could be no show without Punch. 

With the war coming to its inevitable end, its fate hung in the balance. Now Hitler, increasingly unhinged, no longer wanted to see it preserved. On the contrary, he was determined to have it obliterated and issued instructions to that effect.

But General Choltitz, self-mythologized as “the Man Who Saved Paris”, did not act on a “field of ruins” order and the city and thousands of its inhabitants were spared. As, incredibly, were many of those who betrayed their fellow countryfolk.

Writing shortly after its liberation, Liebling (conspicuous by his absence in Paris ’44) watched children play in a park. For them, he wrote, the Germans were already forgotten. “The rest of us will forget too soon.”