Book Review: Nazi Paris: The History of an Occupation 1940–1944

By Allan Mitchell

Research on occupied France in the Second World War has recently generated a large body of scholarly literature what with the gradual opening of French archives since the 1980s.
Yet, for this surprisingly concise book, Allan Mitchell has also revisited the most important archives in Germany and France to investigate the activities of the German authorities in Paris with regards to policing, economic exploitation, culture, propaganda and the persecution of the Jews.

Buy this book
Price: £21:00
Publication Date: April 2010
ISBN: 978-1845457860

The book opens with a focus on Paris, but the more the text progresses, the more it turns into a general history of German rule in France with only little attention paid to the specific situation of Paris under the swastika. The author's meticulous combing of the archives does not really reveal anything new about the structure, intentions, effectiveness and limits of German rule in France. Yet, he spices the text with many telling anecdotes, quotes and facts. The author argues that there was never any consistent German occupation policy with regards to France due to a lack of clear directives from Berlin, nor a smooth functioning of the German authorities in Paris. Unfortunately, the author makes no attempt to explain the reasons for these shortcomings on the German side. Were they a result of the particular situation of France in Nazi Europe or an outcome of the fundamentally polycratic and dysfunctional character of the Third Reich? According to the author, supervision of the French authorities and the pressure exerted on them by ruthless German leaders, such as SS officer Carl Oberg (Higher SS and police leader of France) was so intense that one cannot speak of a widespread willingness of the French to collaborate voluntarily with the enemy, as Robert Paxton claimed in his groundbreaking study Vichy France four decades ago. Rather, the author sees a lack of room for manoeuvre on the part of the French to evade or ignore totally German demands. Still, the Germans were constantly complaining about French inefficiency and their unwillingness to comply with their demands. For the author, the only notable exception where collaboration seemed to have worked smoothly was the relationship between French business elites and the occupiers, as the former benefited from commissions for the German economy.

The book divides the four years of German rule in France into three chronological parts. Part I covers the period from the establishment of the German occupation institutions – the military administration under General Otto von Stu¨ lpnagel and the German embassy under Otto Abetz were the most important agencies – in the summer of 1940 to the eve of the German attack on the Soviet Union. This first year of occupation was relatively quiet, due to the absence of any signs of serious French resistance, but it was marked right from the start by endless internal struggles among the German agencies over issues of competence in almost every area of the occupation. Apart from the military and the embassy, which quarrelled especially about who was supposed to direct propaganda and censorship in the cultural sphere, these agencies consisted of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, which was responsible for pillaging French museums and libraries; Herman Goring, who, as head of the Four Year Plan agency, was in charge of the economic mobilization of Germany; and the SS, whose representatives in Paris were responsible for the persecution of political enemies and the implementation of the Reich’s racial policy. The second part of the book follows developments from July 1941 to November 1942. These months saw considerably more violence and increased German pressure on the French authorities to comply with demands regarding security, access to economic resources, and the deportation of Jews. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, an active and violent communist resistance emerged. German retaliatory measures consisted mainly of executing hundreds of innocent French civilians taken hostage. The author adds from the archives some gruesome details on this slaughter.
Spring 1942 also saw the beginning of the deportation of Jews from France to the extermination camps in the East, for which the support of the French police was paramount, but which was, as the author argues, often not given to the extent the Germans had expected. Finally, the year 1942 quashed German hopes of another Blitzkrieg victory on the Eastern front so that the German economy had to be geared to a war of attrition for which French labour was desperately needed.

The third part of the book covers the period from the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 and the ensuing occupation of the Southern part of France by the Wehrmacht, to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. In this last phase, even the most optimistic German could not conceal the fact that the French hated the occupation, not least as a result of Sauckel’s ever increasing demands for French forced labour to be sent to Germany. Thus, the propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the French was definitely lost after November 1942. Nevertheless, the embassy continued to stage well into the summer of 1944 exquisite cultural events in Paris in order to reassure the French (and possibly themselves too) that the final victory would still be on Germany’s side.