‘Paris at War’ Is a Definitive, Though Necessarily Incomplete, Monument

David Drake has revived the Nazi Occupation of France with an obsessive and impressive sense of detail.

David Drake’s Paris at War: 1939-1944 is a remarkable book.

Drake drew from diaries, letters, police reports, and photographs to compose this dense, illuminating and original account of everyday life during occupied Paris. The book is organised in chronological order, following step by step the arrival of the Germans in Paris (wherein the Nazis declared Paris an “open city”), the progressive implementation of German administration in occupied France, the tensions and struggles which animated the population, the collaboration and the resistance, the expulsions and deportations of Jews, the shortages in food, fuel, clothes, the final ambiguous liberation and its bitter aftertaste.

Rather than imposing a prearranged vision or reading, Drake lets the material guide the enquiry. The reader is invited to share in the entangled, yet autonomous, lives and world-views of Parisians as diverse as the schoolgirl Micheline Bood, the retired schoolmistress Berthe Auroy, the Jewish student Hélène Berr, the journalist and essayist Jean Galtier-Boissière, the Communist conscript Georges Sadoul or the young Groult sisters, whose diaries were never translated into English. The lives of many major figures of the era, including French and Nazi officials, resisters, intellectual and cultural figures (such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre) are also depicted.

Paris at War is an often demoralising and distressing. Drake has revived the Occupation period with an obsessive and impressive sense of detail. Sometimes the book feels almost too close, too vividly evocative not to hurt. I had previously encountered depictions of occupied Paris in memoirs: Man Ray’s Self-portrait (1963), for instance, describes at length a panicked exodus, and roads crammed with disorientated Parisians on the run, trailing along their belongings.

Postwar novels such as Jean Cayrol’s Je vivrai l’amour des autres (1947) and Elsa Triolet’s The Inspector of Ruins (L’inspecteur des ruines, 1948) have restituted, in a documentary tone, the desolate atmostphere of France during and after the occupation. The force of Paris at War is that it brings together all of these disparate scenes to realise (in the stronger sense of the verb) their full weight. The book is an accumulation of moments, facts, words – a sum of more than 400 pages which has the feel of a definitive, though necessarily incomplete, monument.

Parisians’ lives are carefully contextualised within the global war situation; personal anecdotes are recounted and relayed to create a broader sense of the collective. The author has used a great variety of sources (academic studies in French and English, novels, unpublished testimonies, filmed interviews, etc.) to reflect on (or inflect) the data collected from diaries and personal memorabilia. He skillfully plays with geographical and temporal scales, moving effortlessly from familiar and domestic scenes to utterly alien and barbarian episodes, thus showing the continuity between private and public realms of war.

The reader is – rightly, evidently – left with nowhere to escape, no comfortable sanctuary. To read about collaboration with the Nazi regime is a demanding and difficult task, especially as a French reader, yet Drake’s tone is never moralising. The sheer content of the book, delivered in a clear, factual tone, is enough to elicit many conflicting emotions (unease, unrest, sometimes even joy and relief). As Drake accurately points out in his conclusion, the Occupation is still a ‘sensitive’ period for the French. The existence of active collaboration often remains underplayed as the focus shifts to the flattering and appeasing image offered by De Gaulle’s resistance.

The historian sometimes flirts with the risk of novelisation and dramatisation. However, with his meticulous knowledge of the period, his rigourous and sober phrasing, Drake avoids the epic, gratuitous sensationalism which may have plagued the style of a less accomplished writer. Indeed, if Paris at War sometimes feels like a novel – and is certainly as tense and gripping as a piece of good literature — it’s not only due to the author’s alert, elegant style. It’s rather because the period he so expertly maps out was in itself extremely heterogeneous.

Trapped in wartime, life was condensed to a point of intensity; constant uncertainty about the future transformed day to day life into an adventure. Diarists welcomed every new year with a sense of anxious wonder. Paris, a city subjected to the particular rules, restrictions and demands of the occupier, became a microcosm, a self-enclosed world (its ‘open’ status being achieved only nominally), relying on pirate radio (and De Gaulle’s speeches on the BBC) and occasional unofficial, Resistance papers for alternative news from the outside world.

The material the author relies on – principally diaries, written for documentary purposes as well as personal catharsis – is itself heavily narrative, charged with drama, tension and fear. But the abundance of external sources guarantees the acuracy of the narrative, and I believe that the diaries and their authors are never instrumentalised or unfairly bent to the author’s fantasy. Indeed, every now and then, Drake refers to the many loose threads and loose ends built into the historical inquiry. He humbly reports what he found, only to draw attention to the many unresolved questions, the many shadows still huddling to the past; the book, as it were, cannot be finished.

To extract a few random facts from the pages of the book would sabotage its meaning. Paris at War should not be pieced out or transformed back into isolated, picturesque or arresting anecdotes. What matters, beyond isolated impressions or facts, is the way in which the author has tirelessly, patiently assembled them over a period of reflection which lasted for more than 50 years (Drake’s acute interest in France during World War II dates back to 1961). Paris at War should therefore be read attentively and in its entirety, for all its many nuances, its subtle patterns and motives, its skillful interpretation of Paris during an exceptionally traumatic period.

RATING 9 / 10