Paris Abandoned: The Realities of Armistice During World War II

by Anne Sebba

Slowly, the terms of the armistice began to sink in. The French had to pay for the 300,000-strong German Army of Occupation, amounting to twenty million Reichsmarks per day, paid at the artificial exchange rate. This was fifty times the actual costs of the occupation garrison. The French government was also made responsible for preventing citizens from fleeing into exile. Germany took almost two million French soldiers as prisoners of war – one of whom was Jean Herz, son of Bernard – and sent them to work in Germany. In Paris itself it took little time for new, bold black German signage to appear, with enormous swastikas displayed on the grand boulevards as well as flying from key public buildings such as the Chambre des Députés and the Sénat. On the streets German soldiers patrolling with bulldogs replaced elegant ladies window-shopping with poodles, while the best hotels and houses were swiftly requisitioned and thousands of hotel and restaurant staff were suddenly required to serve Germans.

The Musée du Louvre, which had closed in September 1939 after transporting 3,691 paintings to pre-arranged destinations (mostly chateaux in the Loire), for fear that they might be destroyed by bombs, was now ordered to reopen to give a semblance of normality to the city. But it was only a partial reopening, as few treasures remained and many galleries were entirely empty. Nonetheless the Germans produced itineraries which occasionally led the new visitors to stare at blank walls.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt seen with a plaster model of the Venus de Milo,[40] while visiting the Louvre with the curator Alfred Merlin on 7 October 1940. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L15196 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In June 1940, when Hitler made his one and only visit to Paris, flying in suddenly and secretly the day after the armistice agreement had been signed, he briefly visited the mighty art gallery. He is pictured standing among some of the enormous sculptures considered too big or too dangerous to move, all that remained. But the visit was intended to make a statement, because one of Hitler’s key war aims was to expropriate French culture, proving the superiority of German culture in every possible way from music to fashion. He wanted to create his own art gallery in Linz, his home town, and this required the expropriation of Jewish-owned art on a massive scale. Later, the Louvre served as a temporary warehouse for artwork stolen from Jewish collectors. A 1943 image shows 170 canvases stacked against a wall, while another shows a hall cluttered with crates containing sculptures and other large pieces. Expropriation, or spoliation, was both an economic necessity – the objects could be sold – but also an essential part of the procedure of dehumanization preceding extermination. It was part of the mechanism of genocide, to disorientate, slowly destroying any sense of belonging by depriving Jews of what they owned. Removing the art was a stage in the process of sucking the lifeblood from Jews, most of whom saw themselves as French first, French above all else, so entrenched in French soil that many of them had fought in the French army or given their sons to the country or even bequeathed their homes to the state.

French ration tickets used during the German Occupation. Image is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

But nowhere were the effects of the Occupation felt more acutely by Parisians than in their stomachs. After August 1940, when stringent food rationing was introduced, people had to register first with the authorities, then again with an individual baker and butcher, and then had to collect coloured stamps, which the French called tickets, from the local Mairie. During the phoney war several restaurants still seemed to offer, as one American journalist reported, ‘a choice between seven kinds of oyster and six or seven kinds of fish, including bouillabaisse followed by rabbit, chicken or curry and fruit salad, pineapple with kirsch or soufflé à la liqueur’. And even in 1940 a select number of Parisian restaurants such as Maxim’s, La Tour d’Argent and Le Boeuf sur le Toit seemed able to offer menus that offered similarly fine dining on a grand scale for those in power.

But for the bulk of the population, already suffering the effects of a poor harvest made worse by the invasion, once the Germans started to requisition food along with everything else, daily life for those not willing or able to enter the black market involved a painful mixture of hunger and queues. From the outset, the products that were rationed included bread, sugar, milk, butter, cheese, eggs, fats, oil, coffee and fish, and the list lengthened as the war dragged on. And of course the rich, with access to country cousins or the black market, not only did not suffer in the same way but made light of the difficulties. One customer commissioned from Boucheron, the Place Vendôme jewellers, a charm bracelet comprising small cars, each one engraved with the name of a rationed foodstuff. Janet Teissier du Cros, the Scotswoman married to a French soldier, described long queues for food, full of grumbling women often standing unprotected in the rain as they inched forward. ‘We all spoke our opinion without restraint,’ she wrote, ‘and I never even attempted to conceal my origins for it only made them more friendly. When at last my turn came and I was inside the building, going from counter to counter, from queue to queue, for the various cards, I was always in a fever lest some mistake be made and I come away with less than my due.’ Those whom Janet resented above all were the women behind the counters, women no doubt as underfed and overworked as the rest. ‘They were most of them tasting power for the first time in their lives.’

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