Friday, December 17, 2004

At Least, the Stiff-Backed German Occupiers of Paris (Unlike the Big-Toothed GIs) Were "Correct"!

As we start commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge (between the big-toothed costumed civilians from l'Amérique, and the "correct" — the word that is always used — stiff-backed Germans), I thought it not inappropriate to dig out Mary Blume's full-page IHT article on the liberation of Paris
Was it really possible to be that happy and to believe you would be that happy again and again? In Paris, on the 25th day of a pleasantly hot August 60 years ago, the answer was an exuberant yes: the Germans were gone and the city was again free. "Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!" General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed that evening in the Hôtel de Ville.

… In the days following Aug. 25 the GIs arrived with their candies and cigarettes, but the Day of Liberation was strictly a French affair, the Allies having allowed French troops to enter the city first because — again accounts disagree — they were polite, because de Gaulle manipulated them, or because they knew that the Germans would not put up much of a fight, preferring to save their strength for the Battle of the Rhine, and the Allies needed to do the same.

… Years later, when questioned about the occupation Parisians seemed only to remember the food shortages as if they encapsulated and somehow eradicated the dreariness and shame. … Days before [Colonel Rol-Tanguy] called for an insurrection on Aug. 19, the German and collaborationist press had fled, and civil servants went on wildcat strikes. The major strike was by the Paris police, whom the Germans had just disarmed. Whether the strikers wanted their arms to fight the Germans or the Parisians who had suffered from the many collaborators among them is not clear. It was the police who had rounded up 13,000 Paris Jews, including 4,000 children whom even the Nazis were ready to spare, and sent them in open buses and trucks across Paris to the Vélodrome d'Hiver and death, a journey that no Parisian seems to have witnessed, though it occurred by day.

… No resistant, dead or alive, was mentioned by de Gaulle in his Aug. 25 speech at the Hôtel de Ville where, fearful of Communist takeover by Colonel Rol, he declared that the broken city had risen to free itself, sparked by la France éternelle. Throughout his career, de Gaulle's greatness would be bolstered by his useful gift for denial; he was a one-man show, and at that moment, as Alan Moorehead wrote, he filled an immense void.

The city was ready to move from a frozen present tense into the American optative mood, and when the GIs were allowed to arrive on Aug. 26 the welcome was so joyous that they quickly became rather choosy about whose embraces they sought, preferring the prettier girls. Jean Genet contempuously described them as big-toothed costumed civilians, and indeed they did not resemble the "correct" — the word that is always used — stiff-backed German occupants.

The French physicist Albert Libchaber, then a child hiding near Marseille, remembers that the GIs seemed more like children than soldiers — "they gave us oranges and played with us, we hadn't seen soldiers like that" — and his wife, Irene, saw them jumping into the fountain at the Place de la Concorde. When the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant came to Paris in 1950, she said you could still recognize Americans because they strode while the French shuffled.

Liberated Paris, with its morning-after blues, was gray, literally; its facades would be cleaned under Culture Minister André Malraux in the 1960s. Food shortages grew as the black market collapsed. People were vengeful and wary. "There was a terrible discretion between friends, after the years of separation, not knowing what the friends had thought or done, or where they had been," Martha Gellhorn wrote.

…That Paris survived mostly undamaged explains in part the immense importance given to the Liberation, an importance far outweighing its military significance. The weeklong battle of Paris was not as strategic as Stalingrad or as tragic as the hopeless Warsaw uprising, fiercely going on as Paris was freed. Some 20,000 members of the Polish underground died after holding out for 63 days, almost twice as long as the 1940 battle for France. …

There is more fun stuff towards the end on how Paris was/is viewed by foreigners, what the attitude of its inhabitants is towards them ("It cannot be claimed that Paris welcomes foreigners, distrusting the Other as it does, but in ignoring them it tolerates them; it is accommodating in its indifference"), and such matters as this:
Parisians, for the most part, don't think a lot about high-minded ideas, these having been resolved by the heavy thinkers memorized in the lycée. Americans trumpet moral views and find them, especially to their cost today, hard to enact. Americans want to do the right thing, not realizing it can be plural. Parisians want to do things the right way; that is, with precision and style …

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