Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation – Book Review
Americans in Paris: Life & Death Under Nazi Occupation. Charles Glass. Penguin Books, 2010. 544 pp. with 16 pages of photographs. $18.00
When the French government signed a crushing agreement in their surrender to Germany in June 1940 (To add to France’s humiliation, German commanders held the signing in the same rail car where German commanders had signed the armistice of 1918.), it began four years of shameful occupation for the people of Paris. But it also began an added degree of removal for a small but significant population of Americans who had made Paris their home. About 2,000 American expatriates remained in the city after its occupation by Nazi forces. They stayed for a variety of reasons, and with varied lives within the terms created by the Germans. Some were trapped, but others chose to stay. Some worked to survive or help others, some worked to resist, and some collaborated.
Charles Glass, an award winning journalist (he was chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993) and author of Tribes With Flags and several other books, has written a stirring narrative of the American community in occupied Paris, Americans in Paris: Life & Death Under Nazi Occupation. Flowing like a novel, this is not a work of military history. Those wishing for descriptions of the war’s progress or the fighting over Paris should look elsewhere. Instead, it is an insular look at those caught by war in circumstances not of their making, of how they struggled and—in most cases studied in this book—survived.
Glass structures his narrative with in-depth portraits of a select group of people, many of whom he follows through to the liberation, though he does discuss some who did not stay throughout the war and deftly fills in back stories on even those who will play minor roles, such as William Bullitt, FDR’s ambassador to France. Quick, breezy sketches give interesting background information (for instance, I was unaware that Bullitt had married Louise Bryant, John Reed’s widow). And in his discussion of Bullitt, Glass describes Bullitt’s role in turning power in Paris over to the German Army.
Also before diving into the main characters, there is a fascinating portrait of Eugene Bullard, a black WWI fighter who had been a member of the Lafayette Escadrille. He returned to America but was not greeted like the whites on his ship and was refused a room at the hotel. "After twenty-seven years in France, the first black combat pilot and veteran of two wars against Germany was reminded why he had not come home before."
But the book provides more than just biographical snippets; there are also descriptions of key institutions that were both American in background and that catered to Americans, such as the American Hospital. This offered free medical care to any Americans in France (hard to imagine such a service today in the era of fear of "socialized" medicine). Glass provides a history of the institution through WWI and the interwar years and discusses how it was made to be ready for the outbreak of a Second World War. This institution, and the people directing and working at it, would be a major focus of the book as it stayed open throughout the war, helping the injured, and working for the Resistance. The reader is taken through various activities of the hospital, how it got around rationing and other German restrictions, boiling potatoes and sterilizing equipment over wood fires and using charcoal to run ambulances, to name only several.
Often the backstory is as interesting as the wartime account. For example, Glass describes Charles Bedaux’s career in the prewar era of "streamlining." Bedaux, an industrial efficiency expert, had devised a unit of measuring manpower and labor efficiency and had become wealthy before the war. As he gained wealth due to his success with manufacturers, Bedaux grew to be hated by workers. He, or someone modeled on him, was mocked in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times.
After Bedaux’s German businesses were nationalized, he developed contacts in Germany and Austria, with political, business and artistic people of influence, though he did not get his business back. He also was connected to the French Riviera social scene of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and became good friends with the former King of England Edward VIII, even hosting Edward’s marriage to the American Wallis Simpson at his chateau outside Paris. But after Bedaux’s sponsorship of the Windsors’ visit to Germany (where he hobnobbed with Nazi bigwigs, including Hitler), his promotion of a similar visit to America, and his personal scandals, he became a hated man in America, especially in labor circles. Though hired by the French to improve war production, it was too little too late. He tried to advise the British military as well, but his ties to the Windsors led the British to ignore him, though his leasing of his Chateau to the American embassy helped him regain standing, and he was even granted diplomatic status.
But Bedaux "revealed complex, contradictory facets of character from the moment the occupation began." He comes off as an ambiguous example, collaborationist to an extent, at least in his maintenance of personal and business ties to other collaborationists and to Germans in high society and those that could help him. But such work, according to Glass was less with "an interest in the politics than in keeping their champagne glasses full and his eye open to business opportunities." Yet at the same time he made moves to circumvent German occupation forces and to help those harmed by occupation policies.
By mid-1941, before the invasion of Russia, most Americans had fled Paris, including Dorothy Reeder, the director of the American library. Those who remained had varied reasons for staying. Some were unable to leave, others unwilling due to obligations either business or familial, and still others stayed to fight.
"The American community in Paris dwindled by the spring of 1941 to 2,000 men, women and children—no longer protected by an embassy in the city, but served by their own hospital, library, churches and charitable societies."
After December 7, 1941, Germany was soon at war with the US, and different rules applied. Many Americans were taken into custody, and Green discusses an internment camp near Paris with miserable conditions, though well-wishers with influence were able to improve those somewhat. The bombing of the camp by some unidentified Allied aircraft was deeply frustrating.
Much more pressure was applied to those helping the American institutions, though the library found a protector. Pressure increased until an eventual roundup of Americans at the end of September 1942, when Sumner Jackson, the director of the American Hospital and Charles Bedaux were both arrested, even in the face of Bedaux’s contacts and assurances of safety. He was eventually released and allowed to travel to North Africa to explore the possibility of mining operations for the Vichy government. This activity, as well as his contacts in Germany, made him a tremendously suspicious character to the Allies, and when he was arrested (along with his son, who had long been estranged from him) by the Americans in North Africa, it started a chain of events for him, poignant and tragic. It seems that Badaux was not so much a traitor as he was loyal only to his own cause or the cause of his business aims. It was this self-interest that blinded him to how he was being perceived and destroyed him in the end.
The class and other differences between the women are highlighted in Glass’ description of the Nazi roundup of women in Paris in September 1942, when many were interned in the zoo in the Bois de Boulougne. The monkey house was fixed up as a makeshift dormitory and women of all sorts (some 350) were crammed together in the small space, even viewable by ticket buyers to the zoo. Considerable resentment was evident when Mrs. Bedaux and some others were released the next day. They were eventually sent to a converted resort east of Paris.
Glass also discusses those who were either collaborationists or at least sympathizers of the Petain government and what they were trying to accomplish. People such as Clara and Adelbert Chambrun, who are main characters in the book, were close to Petain’s deputy, Pierre Laval (he was married to their daughter). The Chambruns are depicted as contemptuous of any who would question Laval’s motives, considering any such (including American diplomatic officers) as sympathetic to leftists. Clara is described as having sympathies lying "with Laval and Petain’s project for a new France of order, hierarchy and discipline."
This highlights a polarization of responses to the German occupation, represented by the main female characters. Glass has a very good discussion of the American women who stayed, including Sylvia Beech, who ran Shakespeare and Co.; Dorothy Reeder, the director of the American Library; and even Fern Bedaux, Charles’ wife. Sylvia Beach represents liberty and the need to maintain a spirit of personal freedom in the face of oppression. By contrast, Clara de Chambrun represents order and the desire to maintain an orderly society within the chaos of war.
Yet Glass’ handling of the Chambruns highlights one of the weaknesses of the book, as it is difficult for the reader to absorb the mostly positive portrayal of Laval. He has long been viewed (including during the war) as one of, if not the most, villainous members of Vichy. One such example is in William Shirer’s seminal account of the fall of France, The Collapse of the Third Republic, where he makes the case that Laval had always been an enemy of the Third Republic and fell quite readily into instituting fascism in France. To accept him in Glass’ portrayal as a sympathetic figure is difficult, to say the least. One feels it is due to his relationship with Chambruns. Though he touches upon some of the more nefarious doings (including deportations), these are handled in a comparatively light manner compared to the more heroic aspects of the Chambruns’ time under occupation. In addition, it is disappointing that Glass does not follow the story of Laval to explain how he came to his end, executed for treason following the war.
This is a well-written book that uncovers a little known chapter of World War II. Though at times a bit scattershot in focus, nevertheless I found it a compelling, powerful and, in the end, poignant work.
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. His articles for ArmchairGeneral.com include "Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat."