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BOOKS: David Drake's tale of Paris living with the enemy

Paris at War: 1939-44. By David Drake.

Published: 4 February, 2016

IT was March 1944 when police officers saw thick, foul-smelling smoke coming from the chimney of a boarded-up house in a small back street near the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. 

It was the height of the German Occupation of the city during the Second World War, and the curious patrol decided to investigate. 

As a new history of the French capital during the years of 1939 to 1944 by academic David Drake reveals, what they found inside shocked them – even against the backdrop of the daily reality of Paris under Nazi rule. 

“There were so many chopped-up limbs and bones forensic experts failed to agree how many people had been killed,” writes Drake. 

“To add to the mystery, they also discovered a room with metal rings set into the walls and a spy hole in the door.”

The house was owned by a Dr Marcel Petoit, an apparently respectable physician. As Drake, who lives in Highgate Newtown, says, Dr Petoit had used the cover of war to commit a series of shocking crimes. 

“Petoit had created an ‘escape line’ for Jews, Allied pilots who had been shot down, deserters from the German army and anyone else who wanted to leave the city,” he says.

But it did not exist. The doctor had been killing those he had duped and enriched himself with the valuables and cash they had with them to help them build a new life. While the population were subjected to the daily, state-sponsored barbarity of the Nazi regime, the Penny Dreadful nature of the crimes still had the capacity to shock. 

Drake’s story of the turbulent events covers everything from the struggle to keep warm, find food and get clothing to the political machinations of how Paris reacted to the presence of German soldiers – from resisters to collaborators, through to the vast majority who simply wanted to find a way to survive.
Using eye-witness reports never before published in English, he tells of four years under Nazi rule.

Drake’s love affair with French history started after an exchange trip to a family in Lyon as a 15-year-old. The parents had been in the Resistance, and a trip to Fréjus on the south coast, where the Allies had landed in August 1944, provided further inspiration.

“I remember swimming in the sea and seeing craft that had lain in the waters since 1944,” he says.

Drake studied French and politics at university and then, in 1970, spent three years working for the Agence de Presse Libération, a news agency created by Jean-Paul Sartre, in Paris. 

Sartre would become the focus of Drake’s PhD, which chronicled the philosopher’s political evolution.  

“I decided to write in a chronological way rather than thematically. I wanted to show how life changed and the reasons it evolved,” he said.

A queue outside a baker’s shop on the Rue Lepic photo:musee de la resistance nationale

A queue outside a baker’s shop on the Rue Lepic. Photo:musee de la resistance nationale.

In 1940, as the Germans advanced, Drake notes that around three million people fled the city. The wealthy went first: A metalworker cycling through richer areas noted he saw “...not a soul. All windows were locked and bolted.”

On June 14, 1940, Parisian Peter de Polnay recalled “a grey stream” of German troops, followed two weeks later by a flying visit by Adolf Hitler.

Hitler, joined by his architect Albert Speer, went on a sightseeing tour at the crack of dawn. As Drake notes, the Nazi chief visited the Opera, where the janitor switched the lights on for the guests. “They were struck by his dignity as the janitor refused a tip,” writes Drake. The janitor did not recognise Hitler, and when he was later told of his visitor’s identity, he fainted. 

Drake creates an image of a city packed with German soldiers seeing the sights, walls decked with proclamations, and huge queues as German bureaucracy set up a rationing system for the limited food stock available – unless you had the funds to access the black market.

The black market is a constant theme – from French gangsters who worked with the Gestapo to make fortunes, to the desperate attempts by the poor to stave off hunger by relying on relatives in rural areas sending food parcels that may or may not reach them.

And Paris bears physical evidence. 

“It is now more than 70 years since the swastika flew from the top of the Eiffel Tower and German soldiers mingled with crowds on the Champs-Élysées – and yet visitors will find plenty of reminders,” he writes.

These range from bullet and bomb marks on buildings, streets and Metro stations named in honour of resisters, to plaques marking where Jewish people were arrested. 

The book tells of dangers and the ways people devised to cope. 

“Eighty per cent did what they could to get by, while 20 per cent supported or actively opposed. The majority tried to get on, making as few concessions as possible,” he says.

He covers the horror of the Nazi terror that resulted in a huge number of Paris’s 200,000 Jewish people murdered. Yet as his research reveals, the unfolding tragedy was coupled with small acts of humanity.

When Jewish people were ordered to wear a Yellow Star, sympathetic Parisians crafted their own and, where the word Jew would be, they identified their own religion, occupation, or even that they liked Swing music. 

“I was struck by the bravery and heroism of ordinary people who took massive risks,” he says.
“This ranged from printing news sheets to violence against the invader. Many said they had to do something in order to stay sane.”
Above all, he has created a social history that brings alive a unique moment in Europe’s recent past. 
• Paris at War: 1939-44. By David Drake. Harvard University Press, £25. 
• David Drake will be talking about his book at 7.30pm on Thursday, February 11, at the Highgate Library Civic and Cultural Centre, Croftdown Road, NW5 . Free


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