Paris at War
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015, 592 pages
Book Review published on: March 30, 2017
In an excellent new work, David Drake makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the German occupation on the French home front during World War II. Similar in time, style, and purpose to Nicholas Stargardt’s noteworthy The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945, which describes the war’s effects on ordinary German citizens, Drake tells the story of Parisians during that period, inviting an interesting comparison between the two adversaries. Germany did not have the military manpower to occupy all of France and had to rely on a high degree of collaboration, a fact that greatly influenced the nature of the occupation and life in wartime Paris.
Like Stargardt, Drake tells his story effectively using the words of a cross-section of participants—primarily from their letters and diaries—and much previously available only in the French language. Most were neither active collaborators nor active resisters, but “ordinary Parisians” trying to survive under very trying conditions. The book’s greatest contribution is in relating what it was what like for Parisians to cope with the hardships of the German occupation, which initially began with shortages of food, fuel, and clothing; separation from loved ones; and fear of the unknown. As the war progressed, they dealt with increasingly harrowing circumstances including forced labor conscription, Nazi retribution killings, deportations of the (mostly foreign) Jewish population, as well as increasingly effective Allied bombings in and around Paris. Indeed, Drake is masterful in telling this story, effectively interlacing primary source material and concise historical context.
The author is also particularly strong at explaining the uniqueness of the French situation: “As people in the crowd raised their arms in a Hitler salute and sang the Marsellaise … .” Drake explains the apparent incongruence of such an observation, noting the complexity of actors that either actively supported or resisted the German occupiers, as well as the majority of uncommitted Parisians who did neither. While the role of the Vichy French collaborationist government is generally well known, the author reminds us that the French raised their own pro-German national militia, contributed a French division to the Waffen SS, and that a French fascist party recruited an armed force that fought alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front against the Russians—at that time a member of the Allies.
As for the opposition, the author paints a heroic portrayal of the initial heart of the resistance against the Germans, largely comprised of youth belonging to the multiple French Communist parties. This made it difficult for prodemocratic Free French Forces, who sought to incorporate the resistance forces in an eventual postwar national government. As a consequence, creating a uniform post-World War II narrative for France is highly complex; portraying everyone as either a collaborator or a resister is far too simplistic. Drake concludes with some exceptional comments on how the war years, with all of their nuances, are captured in the French national memory.
Paris at War is a superbly researched, well-produced volume with many extras, including a dramatis personae, a useful chronology, a list of acronyms, extensive notes and maps. It is sure to be appreciated by military professionals and general readers alike. Paris at War is exceptional in every way and is highly recommended.
Book Review written by: Mark V. Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia