IN THE PLAZA WHERE THE Boulevard Saint-Michel approaches the River Seine, water cascades down stone blocks of a vast monumental tribute to those who endured the four-year German occupation of Paris. The Archangel Michael stands guard above an old memorial that was rededicated after the Second World War, above all, to the civilians killed nearby when the people of Paris finally rose against their oppressors in the summer of 1944. Reading the inscriptions and looking at the stone lions beside the shallow pool, I used to imagine life during the fifty months from 14 June 1940, when the Germans marched proudly into Paris, and 25 August 1944, when they retreated in shame. I wondered how I would have behaved while the Wehrmacht ruled the cultural capital of Europe. Many books and films on the period depicted French behaviour that varied from self-sacrifice and heroism to treason and complicity in genocide. But what would I, as an American, have done? Was it possible to survive until liberation day, 26 August 1944, without compromising or collaborating? Would I have risked my life, or the lives of my family, by fighting for the Resistance? Or would I have waited patiently with the majority of Parisians for the German retreat?
Nearly 30,000 Americans lived in or near Paris before the Second World War. Those who refused to leave were, paraphrasing Dickens, the best and the worst of America. Like the French, some collaborated, others resisted. The Germans forced some into slave labour. At least one was taken back to the United States to face a trial for treason. Americans in Paris under the occupation were among the most eccentric, original and disparate collection of their countrymen anywhere–tested as few others have been before or since. This is their story.
When Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939, American Ambassador William Bullitt advised United States citizens without vital business to leave France immediately. At least 5,000 ignored him and stayed. While many had professional and family ties to Paris, the majority had a peculiarly American love for the city that had its origins in the debt the young United States owed to the Frenchmen who volunteered with the Marquis de Lafayette to fight for American independence after 1776. The American love affair with Paris, where the United States opened its first diplomatic mission, was shared by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (whose wife, Abigail, famously said, ‘No one leaves Paris without a feeling of tristesse’), Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Monroe and generations of writers, artists, musicians, diplomats, journalists, socialites and financiers. It was with a certain pride that Walt Whitman wrote, ‘I am a real Parisian.’ A year or two in Paris was a vital component in the education of any socially acceptable young American.
Where the rich led, poorer painters, writers, singers and vagabonds followed. An African-American soldier expressed this love better than most, as his troopship from France cruised into New York harbour after the First World War. An officer asked him why he was saluting the Statue of Liberty, and he answered, ‘Because France gave her to us.’ The thousands of Americans who stood with the French during the humiliation of German rule from 1940 to 1944 found their relationships to Paris and America expressed in the famed lyrics of Josephine Baker, the quintessential American Parisian, ‘J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.’(‘I have two loves, my country and Paris.’)
Among the few thousand Americans who remained in Paris throughout the war, four had pronounced reactions to the occupation that represented in relief the experiences of the rest of their countrymen. The French-born, naturalized American millionaire Charles Bedaux did business as he had before the war. If he compromised with the occupier, his rationale was that European industry had to be preserved for the post-war world. Sylvia Beach attempted to keep her English language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, functioning as it had in the 1920s when it was a beacon for American, British and French writers. She preserved her humanity by defying the Germans in small ways and giving moral support to French friends whose resistance was more open and violent. Clara Longworth de Chambrun, whose brother had been America’s Speaker of the House of Representatives and husband to Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, worked tirelessly for the benefit of the readers at the American Library of Paris–even when this meant dealing with German officials. For her, duty lay in holding firm, obeying a Vichy government that she believed was legitimate and waiting for D-Day to deliver France from its agony. Her relationship to the occupying power was complicated by the fact that her Franco-American son, Count René de Chambrun, was married to the daughter of Vichy France’s prime minister, Pierre Laval. Her husband, Count Aldebert de Chambrun, was a direct descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette and had been born in Washington, DC. The American Hospital of Paris, which the Germans coveted, was kept out of their hands through the deception and conscientious effort of this American citizen and former general of the French Army. The American Hospital’s chief surgeon, Dr Sumner Jackson, took the clearest decision of all: from the first day of the occupation, he resisted. Although he risked his life, and those of his wife and young son, the Yankee physician from Maine never doubted for a moment where duty lay: not in survival, not in cooperation, but in determined resistance to what he saw as the overriding evil of the age.
The Americans in inter-war Paris were young and old, black and white, rich and poor–as diverse a collection of opposed beliefs and backgrounds as in any American metropolis. Among them were communists and fascists, Democrats and Republicans, the apolitical and the apathetic, opportunists and idealists. They were writers, painters, musicians, businessmen, bankers, journalists, clergy, photographers, physicians, lawyers, teachers, diplomats, spies, conmen and gangsters. Until the Germans turned France into a version of their own prison-state, African-Americans, homosexuals, lesbians and bohemians felt freer in Paris than in the socially more repressive United States. German occupation was not enough to send all of them home.
In the spring of 1940, after nine months of the drôle de guerre or phony war, normality was returning to Paris. Parisians of all nationalities had become accustomed to war without battles and shared the illusion that the Germans would never penetrate the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line. Most, apart from realists like General Charles de Gaulle and Ambassador William Bullitt, did not believe Germany would or could attack France. Restaurants were doing brisk business. Charles Bedaux was throwing lavish parties for European royalty. Josephine Baker reopened on the Champs Elysées with Maurice Chevalier in an extravagant song and dance revue. American Eugene Bullard’s Le Duc jazz club in Montmartre attracted sell-out audiences. Americans in the city led enchanted lives, discussing art and love affairs in cafés, some sending their children to the American school and most preparing for summer in the south. Even as the Germans were approaching in late May, the Runyonesque sports columnist of the Paris Herald Tribune, Sparrow Robinson, wrote, ‘Owing to unsettled conditions, the racing card scheduled for this afternoon at Longchamps has been called off.’
The ‘unsettled conditions’ referred to the Nazi blitzkrieg that conquered Denmark, Holland and Belgium. Refugees from the occupied countries escaped to France. Belgian cars and horse-drawn carts packed with clothing and furniture were the first omens that France would also fall. German Panzer divisions broke into France through the poorly defended Ardennes forest, beginning the Battle of France that Britain and France would lose in three short weeks. This engagement –a swift, merciless advance by Wehrmacht armour and Luftwaffe air power–suddenly altered the balance of power in Europe. The British Expeditionary Force retreated from Dunkirk, and the Germans captured more than a million French soldiers. The way to Paris lay open to Hitler’s armies. Most Parisians, French and foreigners alike, fled the city ahead of the Germans. Escape was a mistake. The Germans bombed refugee columns on the roads, but they did not bomb Paris itself. As fighting raged along the River Meuse, Ambassador Bullitt pleaded with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide the French and the British with aircraft to withstand the German invasion. Roosevelt promised surplus planes for shipment from Canada, but it was too late.
French Premier Paul Reynaud, preparing to flee to Tours with his government, declared Paris an open city and asked Bullitt to persuade the Wehrmacht not to destroy it. Bullitt, a one-time playboy and writer who co-authored with Sigmund Freud a psychological study of President Woodrow Wilson, spent the last nights of May 1940 in his wine cellar to avoid the Luftwaffe bombs. One nearly killed him. Bullitt was as close to France’s senior politicians, especially Prime Minister Reynaud, as he was to his old friend Roosevelt. Bullitt was the only ambassador still in Paris when the Germans arrived on 14 June 1940.
At first, Americans shared the French panic that the Germans would treat Paris as they had Warsaw–raping, killing and destroying as they entered. But the Nazis’ racist ideology accorded a higher place to the French than it did to the Poles. They did not target Americans, who were allowed to stay and work unhindered. The two most important American organizations, the American Hospital of Paris and the American Library of Paris, were open to Americans and French alike. A few courageous American consuls disobeyed State Department orders by issuing passports and visas to Jewish refugees and establishing safe routes to help them reach North and South America.
The African-Americans who stayed were not as lucky as their white countrymen. After Adolf Hitler’s only visit to Paris, on 24 June 1940, the Germans banned concerts by black American musicians. Proclamations published in the Officiel du Spectacle set out to eliminate what the Nazis called ‘degenerate Jewish-Negro jazz.’ A month later, the Germans ordered a census of all foreign nationals in Paris. Black Americans were ordered to report to the police, and the American consulate did not protect them. The famous American jazz trumpeter Arthur Briggs was sent in late June 1940 to a concentration camp at St. Denis, where he formed a classical orchestra with other black musicians from America, Britain and the West Indies. The Germans detained many other African-American performers, including Roberta Dodd Crawford from Chicago. She was a prominent singer, known as Princess Tovalou since her marriage in 1923 to Prince Tovalou of Benin. Another trumpeter, Harry Cooper, was sent to an internment camp. The African-American classical composer and musician Maceo Jefferson escaped Paris–only to be captured outside the city and interned at Frontslag 122. Henry Crowder, whose thirteen year affair with British shipping heiress Nancy Cunard shocked white America more than it did Paris society, was giving a concert in Belgium when the Nazis invaded. He escaped on the last train to Paris, but the Luftwaffe bombed it. Continuing to his beloved Paris on foot, he was taken by the Germans. Thus, the vibrant African-American community that thrived in the 1920s and 1930s was for the most part absent from Paris during the occupation.
Unlike other African-Americans, Josephine Baker was not interned, thanks to her fame in Paris and abroad. An entertainer who had captivated Paris in the 1920s with her topless Danse Sauvage, she was a much-married and much-loved social fixture. Her decision not to abandon France was moral: the Nazis represented an extreme version of the racial hatred she had escaped in the United States. She stayed at her chateau in the country at first and joined the new French Resistance. Her commander was Jacques Abtey, the police officer for whom she had worked spying on Germans in Paris before the war. Miss Baker smuggled documents out of France between the pages of her sheet music and took Resistance leaders disguised as band members to clandestine meetings in Portugal. She made her way to Morocco, where she entertained French and American troops after the North African invasion of November 1942.
The occupation threw up heroes and villains, but more often it produced in the people of Paris a determination to stand fast until the storm passed. In 1940, they did not know who would win the war. They doubted that the United States would give up its cherished neutrality to confront the Nazi menace. Choices were difficult, frequently involving alternatives that were less bad rather than clearly good or evil. When it was all over, the names of the Americans who stayed with their French neighbours for those fifty cruel months are invisibly etched alongside all the others honoured by the monument in the Place Saint-Michel.