When Paris Went Dark

Parisians seemed to be going thought the motions of life without living at all.

Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, is a rich, detailed, account of the German Occupation of Paris during World War II.

Rosbottom drew upon an extensive collection of materials-- diaries, memoirs, essays, newspaper articles, histories, letters, films, archives interviews, photographs, maps, etc.—all of which helped him to understand Paris during the Occupation.

Much of this is well known. However, like so many other readers, my appetite for reading about World War II seems inexhaustible. Some say it was the greatest event in human history, a saga about the collision between good and evil and the remarkable courage so many displayed.

During those days in Paris, food was scarce, heat was rare, gas for automobiles was unavailable, long lines were pervasive, air raid drills were common and the presence of the Germans created a quiet, almost eerie city that was dangerous and often frightening to those who remained.

“The silence caught you by the throat, made sadness press into your thoughts."

In time, it became extremely dangerous for Jews, many of whom left the city if they could, others tried to find a place to hide, but thousands were rounded up, virtually imprisoned for days and then shipped to concentration camps where most did not survive.

In spite of the risks, the French Resistance was a constant threat to the Germans. Rosbottom writes that the German troops “were more and more demoralized as they watched safe Paris become a site for both discriminate and indiscriminate attacks against the Occupier.”

Rosbottom marvels at the fact that Paris managed to survive the War almost unscathed. Hitler had ordered its destruction when the advancing allied armies forced the Germans to leave. How this was avoided is another remarkable tale. In contrast, most of the other large cities in Europe were virtually destroyed by the destructive power of seemingly constant allied bombing.

That is what was seen. But Rosbottom notes, “What the world did not see was the economic, social, and psychological damage wrought by the Occupation, which would take years to repair.”

Eventually this would be clearly seen as the surviving Jews, political prisoners, captured soldiers and others who had hidden in the country began returning to Paris. Rosbottom says, they were unrecognizable as the trauma they had endured lasted so very long.

He concludes, “There are, in the life of a nation, moments that wound its memory as well as the idea that one has of one’s country. This was one of those moments for France and from all accounts still is, more than 70 years after the Occupation ended."