tags: France, Paris, occupation, World War 2
Ronald C. Rosbottom, a professor at Amherst College, is the author of "When Paris Went Dark" and "Sudden Courage."
In June 1940, while scouting for the army following him, a young German lieutenant rode a BMW motorbike toward Montmartre, using the brilliant dome of Sacré-Coeur as his beacon. He found the streets empty, but upon reaching the center of the neighborhood, he saw his first Parisians, and they their first German occupier. The soldier quickly sped away, but the abashed citizens now realized that Paris was no longer theirs alone.
After a lightning-speed defeat by the Germans in May-June 1940, France, and especially Paris, confronted what was quickly named la peste brune (the brown plague, referring to the color of German uniforms), an epithet derived from la peste noire (the Black Plague, nestled in collective memory). Plagues—real and metaphorical—cross all lines, reduce to meaningless all worldly categories, confound the intelligent with the stupid, produce what the French economist Thomas Piketty identifies as the “violence of inequality.” Victims of plagues are confounded by the options offered them. They have to relearn, if not reimagine, what had been essentially automatic behavior. Soon, a smothering bureaucracy, devised by both the Germans and their fellow travelers, the right-wing French government in Vichy, would upend life in the city that had stood through centuries for liberty and tolerance.
One of the most intriguing aspects of what would be a 1,500-day conflict between the occupier and the occupied of Paris was not the military engagement but the manner in which daily life—social codes, family relations, public and private alliances—had to be altered for those who endured it. Suddenly, one’s sense of space, both intimate and public, had to be reconfigured. The familiar was frequently forbidden. Citizens were put under curfew, and to leave home was to take a nervous chance. Strangers became even more so; the question of whom to trust activated part of the lizard brain long dormant.
Living in this manner quickly became boring, as time seemed both to drag on and race ahead. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her diary that she lived her life “simultaneously in the infinite and in the moment. I had to fill the time minute by minute … but entirely without a tomorrow.” Boredom rejects the imagination, closing off one of the best remedies for those secluded and separated from others. It becomes more persistent when a person’s living space has been reduced. Parisian apartments became smaller during the winter as the cold could not be kept out and rooms were closed off. Cabin fever, imposed by inconsistent police manipulation of curfews and other restrictions, grew month by month. Unable to leave freely one’s immediate environment often meant that intra-familial relations became more difficult, and intensely intimate.
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