In the late spring of 1940, Paris, France — a city holding a unique place in the imagination of the world — was occupied by the army of Nazi Germany.
The occupation would last more than four years, until August 1944, when the Germans abandoned the French city in the face of oncoming Allied armies.
It was a significant subplot of the Second World War; its tense, often sordid story is recounted by Ronald Rosbottom in this persistently interesting work of popular narrative history.
Rosbottom is an American professor of French and European studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Rosbottom has written a multifaceted account of the occupation. In particular, he is concerned with its physical and psychological effects on both occupiers and occupied.
He argues, somewhat abstrusely, that the Nazis sought to "freeze" Paris, to make this dynamic city static, in order to control it more effectively.
At least one contemporary, writing in 1945, has said it would be impossible for someone who did not live through it to evoke the atmosphere of the occupation. This assertion challenges the legitimacy of Rosbottom's project.
Rosbottom acknowledges the difficulty of attempting to fathom and convey ineffable conditions occasioned by the Nazi-Parisian encounter. But he has invoked a wide array of sources to understand the dark years in Paris of 1940 to 1944: "diaries, memoirs, essays, newspaper articles, histories, letters, films, archives, interviews, photographs, maps, novels, songs, paintings, drawings and anything else that helped me understand what it was like to live the occupation."
Rosbottom chronicles the crimes of the occupiers, crimes in which the French authorities were complicit. But the liberation of Paris in 1944 did not immediately usher in an era of sweetness and light. Mob justice prevailed, innocent people were killed, and many women were abused.
As Rosbottom writes, "almost like a mirror reflection, behavior was the same, only the objects of punishment had changed."
A couple of stylistic points: Rosbottom has an annoying penchant for double negatives: "not uncommon," "not unhelpful," "not unlike."
He has a prodigious vocabulary, and his narrative is peppered with unfamiliar words: patronym, porphyry, parvis, subtend, distaff, mufti, ukase and numerous others.
Rosbottom's study details the interactions between Parisians and their Nazi occupiers in a grim period of history.
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.