Charting the daily life of Paris under Nazi rule

Paris at War author David Drake

Paris at War author David Drake - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to historian David Drake about taking the pulse of the French capital throughout the war years.

The daily life of Parisians under German occupation is detailed in a book by an Archway historian.

David Drake trawled contemporary diaries, letters, newspapers, and police reports to chart the shifting mood and raw emotions of city dwellers from all walks of life.

Paris At War (Harvard University Press £25) runs chronologically from the eight month ‘phoney war’ to the relief and recrimination that followed liberation.

Drake recounts how Parisians under occupation endured practical hardships including food shortages, allied bombing raids and labour conscription.

Jewish residents suffered under the race laws imposed by the collaborationist Vichy government, and ‘rafles’ (round-ups) to the transit camp on the outskirts at Drancy.

“When the Germans arrived they were met with boarded up shops and houses, most people were in a state of fear and shock,” says Drake, who is head of French and modern languages at Middlesex University until 2004.

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“The authorities were keen to get Paris back to normal so ordinary people wouldn’t get disgruntled and encouraged reopening of cinemas, restaurants and theatres. Ticket prices were frozen and Germans and French would mix. Those who could afford it could still splash out.”

In a Police station near Notre Dame Drake shuffled through original reports by plain clothes police ordered to “take the pulse of what was going on in the city, hang around in cafes, stations, queues and shops listening.”

Among the diarists he found “a 15-year-old schoolgirl from a well-to-do background with a fresh take on what was going on”.

He also includes concern from a Jewish Renault worker about how his colleagues would treat him wearing a yellow star, and reports by ordinary German soldiers.

“They were often from rural areas, hadn’t been off the farm and had a whale of a time with their spending money in cabarets and cafes.”

Although Drake discovered early incidents of German soldiers seeking out Yiddish speaking Jews because they shared a similar language, the Vichy government were early adopters of racial laws, ordering Jews in the media and education to resign by the end of 1940 – the year Hitler made his only visit to the city.

“Of course no one knew then what the outcome would be but later the sight of children wearing yellow stars did offend French sensibilities.”

It was the Gendarmerie who initially ran Drancy and the Paris police who conducted the rafles. Between 1941 and 1944, 67,400 Jews were detained there before being transported east for extermination.

“Some inmates got within yards of digging an escape tunnel before it was discovered,” says Drake. “The detailed accounts of deportations were grim and extremely hard to read.”

Food shortages for Parisians got progressively worse during the war.

“Intially they bought food from the countryside or depended on family members to send it, or grew their own, but it became more difficult as the war went on. There was the black market but people either couldn’t afford it or refused to use it.”

Allied bombing targeted industrial areas such as the Citroen and Renault factories, with one 10 day period in April 1944 killing over 1,500 Parisians. “The diarists I read were largely understanding and realised this was a fact of war,” says Drake. “There was little anti British feeling.”

When the Vichy government agreed to conscript Frenchmen to work in German farms and factories, some found a sympathetic doctor to sign them off, others went to rural areas and some joined the resistance.

The issue of resistance and collaboration is one that has haunted the country for 75 years.

“Post war the myth perpetuated by De Gaulle was that everyone resisted. In the 70s it was everyone collaborated. But it was more ambiguous than that,” says Drake

“There were a small number who were out and out collaborators and a few who resisted actively. Most people were in between trying to survive and make as few compromises as possible.”

Low level passive resistance started almost as soon as the German’s arrived.

“Women refused to take seats offered by Germans, people gave soldiers the wrong directions. The newsreels were subverted by audiences coughing and sneezing. They started showing them with the lights up to stop these disruptions. One mother was arrested for blowing her nose.”

And while there were those who denounced Jews to the authorities, others took them in or tipped them off about a rafle. One girl wore a mock yellow star in sympathy and was arrested.

The BBC played a part in boosting morale with Free French leader De Gaulle (then living at 99, Frognal, Hampstead) broadcasting from London.

“No-one knew who he was at first, they thought his name was a nom de guerre, but by November 1940 there was a big student demonstration at the Arc De Triomphe and Gaulliste signs such as the Cross of Lorraine started appearing on walls.

“The Germans tried unsuccessfully to jam the BBC signal but it became an alternative news source and a means of mobilising morale boosting campaigns. One was to make the sign of a V everywhere, another to stay indoors on New Years Day 1941 to isolate the Germans.”

Americans joined the Free French in taking the city in August 1944 but the occupiers didn’t give up easily. There was still street fighting with Germans sniping at civilians as De Gaulle attended mass at Notre Dame. A late bombing raid was sent as punishment.

After the euphoria can disappointment as rationaing continued and POWs and traumatised camp survivors returned.

“It was a difficult time. When the victory came it wasn’t a game changer but I was struck by people’s ingenuity, optimism and refusal to be beaten. Writing chronologically was to show how the situation evolved and create the sense that the people living through it did not know how long it would go on. That uncertainty, were they going to die or be deported? alongside ordinary elements of growing up and getting old is what struck me most of all.”

David Drake will talk about his book at Highgate Library in Croftdown Road N19 on February 11 at 7.30pm entry free.