The Holocaust Historiography Project

Paris in the Third Reich: A history of the German occupation, 1940-1944

  • PARIS IN THE THIRD REICH: A HISTORY OF THE GERMAN OCCUPATION, 1940-1944 by David Pryce-Jones. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981, x + 294 pages, 116 photographs, $25.00, ISBN 0-03-045621-5.

reviewed by Charles Lutton

The claim that thousands of Parisians were members of the anti-Nazi “Resistance is an aspect of the Second World War that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. As British historian David Pryce-Jones explains in his study of Paris in the Third Reich, there was little actual resistance activity in the French capital. Indeed, during the German occupation life in Paris went on much as it had before the war.

A striking point is the contrast between the behavior of the victorious German occupiers of France in 1940 and that of the Allied troops who overran Germany in 1945. Unlike what happened in Germany and Central Europe in 1945, when the Germans took Paris there were no scenes of mass pillage, rape, and murder. The French mass circulation weekly L'Illustration described the German soldiers as “handsome boys, decent, helpful, above all correct.” Hitler even cancelled a huge victory parade that had been planned by the military, so as not to alienate the Parisians. Within a few days after the onset of the German occupation, the schools, restaurants, theaters, trains, newspapers, and other public services were back in operation on a near-normal basis. The Paris police, who outnumbered the Germans, remained on duty throughout the occupation.

Nor did the Germans round up large numbers of political opponents and suspects. Jean-Paul Sartre, Coco Chanel, Dior, Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Picasso, and Albert Camus were among those who lived and worked — very productively — in Paris during the German occupation. One French writer, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, expressed surprise that the Germans were “not shooting, hanging, exterminating the Jews … stupified that anyone with a bayonet would not be using it all the time. 'If the Bolsheviks were in Paris, they'd show you how to set about it, they'd show you how to purge a population, district by district, house by house. If I had a bayonet, I'd know my business.'”

As noted above, Pryce-Jones sheds additional light on the so-called “Resistance.” Many Frenchmen intensely disliked the Partisans, who did not go into action against the Germans until after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Communist Partisans, large numbers of whom were not native-born Frenchmen, hoped to provoke German reprisals which would then alienate the French populace. In this they succeeded. But Germans were not their only targets: throughout the occupation, other Communists, assorted leftists, and rightists were murdered by the Partisans.

Once the Germans were forced to withdraw from France in the summer of 1944, a new “Reign of Terror” commenced. PryceJones estimates that there were 105,000 summary executions in France between June 1944 and February 1945. “The number of Frenchmen killed by other Frenchmen, whether through summary execution or rigged tribunals akin to lynch mobs or court martials and High Court trials, equalled or even exceeded the number of those sent to their death by the Germans as hostages, deportees, and slave-laborers.” (The fullest treatment in English of the bloodbath that accompanied “liberation” is found in Sisley Huddleston’s 1955 book France: The Tragic Years, 1939-1947.)

Often, Frenchmen could not understand the logic involved in these reprisals. One women remarked at the time, after her daughter’s head was shaved: “My little Josiane, it’s too horrible. Her hair has been cut off, monsieur. Poor little Josiane! If she went to bed with Germans, it was because she’s seventeen, monsieur, you follow me? But why ever cut off her hair for it? It’s a crying shame, monsieur. She’s just as willing to go to bed with Americans!”

Paris in the Third Reich includes excerpts from some of the interviews the author conducted with former collaborators, German veterans, and other observers. Over a hundred photographs, some in color, supplement the text. Those interested in this chapter of contemporary history will find the book useful.