Another Kind of Horror: ‘When Paris Went Dark’

When Paris Went Dark is a penetrating history of the anxiety, confusion, claustrophobia, and uncertainty experienced by a city in the grip of an unpredictable menace.

If there’s a general observational truth that Professor Ronald C. Rosbottom foregrounds most explicitly in When Paris Went Dark, it’s that the Nazi occupation of the City of Light from 1940 to 1944 was a strange and bewildering episode of 20th century history. “Uncanny” is the description he revisits on several occasions. Rosbottom’s account isn’t lacking in scenes commonly associated with occupation and military conquest, but the curious nature of this particular occupation lends itself to a much different kind of narrative. Crowded Metro trains, long waiting lines, hidden crawl areas and the invader doubling as a tourist are the sights and spaces that recur again and again. Paris was darker, quieter, narrower, though essentially intact.

When Paris Went Dark is a penetrating history of the anxiety, confusion, claustrophobia, and uncertainty experienced by a city in the grip of an unpredictable menace. Incorporating a wide array of source materials – from memoirs, novels, and journals to films, Resistance fliers, and firsthand interviews – and drawing on the perspectives of celebrity Parisians like Albert Camus and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette as well as history’s lesser known, Rosbottom probes deep into the psychology of the occupied.

There’s much to probe, owing to circumstances and events that left Parisians exiled within their own city.

There was the lightning strike advance of the Nazis into Paris in the early summer of 1940. It took just six weeks, and not a single shot was fired in defense of the French capital. For all to see, France’s much-vaunted army unmasked itself as outmoded and feckless. The French populace, and Parisians in particular, responded with humiliated disbelief. What had just happened?

Consider also Hitler’s program to “keep Paris Paris” – a propaganda campaign intended to highlight the Nazis’ ostensibly enlightened and civilized stewardship of one of Europe’s cultural jewels. On the ground, the policy translated into a strange day-to-day reality. Nazi functionaries and military personnel carried on as residents of Paris, living and working among the occupied, patronizing restaurants, theaters, and bordellos, and feasting on the city’s famed tourist attractions.

Relations were tense, though not often openly hostile. Rosbottom likens the dynamic between occupier and occupied in the early going to dancing the minuet: “The Occupation involved two parties – the Parisian and the German – trying to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.” A sustained escalation of violence was in the offing – Jews being rounded up, mass deportations, execution of “terrorists” – but not before this peculiar routine was established and observed for some time.

Working underneath the German occupiers was the Vichy regime, headed by Philippe Petain, a French World War I hero. Here was another exceptional state of affairs and one that by the end of the occupation would deeply stain French historical memory with a sense of guilt that still pulses and writhes to this day. The term “Vichy”, of course, is now synonymous with “collaborator”. Because of things done and not done by both Petain’s puppet government and the French police force, France would emerge from World War II with far more than lost lives and a fractured economy to overcome, for example, “…members of the French, not the German, police performed more than 90 percent of the arrests of Jews during the Occupation.” Indeed, it wasn’t the occupying force that carried out the Grand Rafle in July 1942, a massive dragnet that ensnared 13,000 foreign and French Jews. Shame was both imposed on the French people and self-inflicted.

It speaks to the disorienting darkness of those times that Rosbottom can accurately observe: “The events that had immediately followed the departure of the Germans would mark the city and its residents as indelibly as had the black years of the Occupation itself.” Among various strands of the Resistance as well as regular Parisians, guilt and humiliation masqueraded as a righteous zeal for justice, spilling over into a bloody spectacle of mob vengeance against scapegoats and others speciously accused of collaboration. Even a judicious thinker like Albert Camus found himself temporarily caught up in the cathartic pull of this spree.

The victims best remembered by posterity are the thousands of “shorn” women, those who were guilty (or hastily judged guilty) of “collaboration horizontale with members of the German forces.” Their shaved heads are still darkly iconic. Rosbottom writes that, in total, some ten thousand Parisians are estimated to have suffered the effects, often fatal, of this retributive, ad hoc brand of justice.

Expressing pained confusion over the many failings of the French people during this time, Rosbottom unfurls a litany of questions:

Why did not more (French Gentiles) complain to their religious leaders or the government about what they could no longer avoid seeing as the deportations begun in 1942 and after children were separated from their parents? … Why were more than a million letters written to authorities … denouncing neighbors, especially Jewish neighbors? … When the French saw the first edicts targeting Jews, why was there not more of an uproar?

These are inevitable questions, and I’m certain some version of each has been asked countless times over the years. It’s natural and healthy to try to grapple with historical wrongs, especially those committed by groups that we wouldn’t assign to the category of evil. Tragically weak, perhaps, or blind and craven, but it can be hazardous to venture more sweeping condemnations.

I bring this up because reading a book like When Paris Went Dark is its own kind of moral exercise. It demands humility and care. When arriving at judgments against others for their sins, it’s exceedingly easy to assume a position of unearned moral courage. The lurking subtext of each outraged question – “How could they have?” – often seems to be “I never would have.”

Woe to the virgin hero, comfortably ensconced away from the fight. I’m not suggesting that Rosbottom falls into this trap. He addresses the matter to a certain extent, and he frames his questions appropriately. But it’s something that each reader should vigilantly guard against as they consider the harrowing and complex history detailed in When Paris Went Dark.

RATING 7 / 10