Chapter One: An enormous toy full of subtleties
What surprised the Parisians, standing in little groups along the Champs-Elysées to watch the German soldiers take over their city in the early hours of 14 June 1940, was how youthful and healthy they looked. Tall, fair, clean shaven, the young men marching to the sounds of a military band to the Arc de Triomphe were observed to be wearing uniforms of good cloth and gleaming boots made of real leather. The coats of the horses pulling the cannons glowed. It seemed not an invasion but a spectacle. Paris itself was calm and almost totally silent. Other than the steady waves of tanks, motorised infantry and troops, nothing moved. Though it had rained hard on the 13th, the unseasonal great heat of early June had returned.
And when they had stopped staring, the Parisians returned to their homes and waited to see what would happen. A spirit of attentisme, of holding on, doing nothing, watching, settled over the city.
The speed of the German victory — the Panzers into Luxembourg on 10 May, the Dutch forces annihilated, the Meuse crossed on 13 May, the French army and airforce proved obsolete, ill-equipped, badly led and fossilised by tradition, the British Expeditionary Force obliged to fall back at Dunkirk, Paris bombed on 3 June — had been shocking. Few had been able to take in the fact that a nation whose military valour was epitomised by the battle of Verdun in the First World War and whose defences had been guaranteed by the supposedly impregnable Maginot line, had been reduced, in just six weeks, to a stage of vassalage. Just what the consequences would be were impossible to see; but they were not long in coming.
By midday on the 14th, General Sturnitz, military commandant of Paris, had set up his headquarters in the Hotel Crillon. Since Paris had been declared an open city there was no destruction. A German ﬂag was hoisted over the Arc de Triomphe, and swastikas raised over the Hôtel de Ville, the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the various ministries. Edith Thomas, a young Marxist historian and novelist, said they made her think of 'huge spiders, glutted with blood'. The Grand Palais was turned into a garage for German lorries, the École Polytechnique into a barracks. The Luftwaffe took over the Grand Hotel in the Place de l'Opéra. French signposts came down; German ones went up. French time was advanced by one hour, to bring it into line with Berlin. The German mark was ﬁxed at almost twice its pre-war level. In the hours after the arrival of the occupiers, sixteen people committed suicide, the best known of them Thierry de Martel, inventor in France of neurosurgery, who had fought at Gallipoli.
The ﬁrst signs of German behaviour were, however, reassuring. All property was to be respected, providing people were obedient to German demands for law and order. Germans were to take control of the telephone exchange and, in due course, of the railways, but the utilities would remain in French hands. The burning of sackfuls of state archives and papers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, carried out as the Germans arrived, was inconvenient, but not excessively so, as much had been salvaged. General von Brauchtisch, commander-in-chief of the German troops, ordered his men to behave with 'perfect correctness'. When it became apparent that the Parisians were planning no revolt, the curfew, originally set for forty-eight hours, was lifted. The French, who had feared the savagery that had accompanied the invasion of Poland, were relieved. They handed in their weapons, as instructed, accepted that they would henceforth only be able to hunt rabbits with terriers or stoats, and registered their much-loved carrier pigeons. The Germans, for their part, were astonished by the French passivity.
When, over the next days and weeks, those who had ﬂed south in a river of cars, bicycles, hay wagons, furniture vans, ice-cream carts, hearses and horse-drawn drays, dragging behind them prams, wheelbarrows and herds of animals, returned, they were amazed by how civilised the conquerors seemed to be. There was something a little shaming about this chain reaction of terror, so reminiscent of the Grand Peur that had driven the French from their homes in the early days of the revolution of 1797. In 1940 it was not, after all, so very terrible. The French were accustomed to occupation; they had endured it, after all, in 1814, 1870 and 1914, and then there had been chaos and looting. Now they found German soldiers in the newly reopened Galeries Lafayette, buying stockings and shoes and scent for which they scrupulously paid, sightseeing in Notre Dame, giving chocolates to small children and offering their seats to elderly women on the métro.
Soup kitchens had been set up by the Germans in various parts of Paris, and under the ﬂowering chestnut trees in the Jardin des Tuileries, military bands played Beethoven. Paris remained eerily silent, not least because the oily black cloud that had enveloped the city after the bombing of the huge petrol dumps in the Seine estuary had wiped out most of the bird population. Hitler, who paid a lightning visit on 28 June, was photographed slapping his knee in delight under the Eiffel Tower. As the painter and photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue remarked, the German conquerors were behaving as if they had just been presented with a wonderful new toy, 'an enormous toy full of subtleties which they do not suspect'.
On 16 June, Paul Reynaud, the Prime Minister who had presided over the French government's ﬂight from Paris to Tours and then to Bordeaux, resigned, handing power to the much-loved hero of Verdun, Marshal Pétain. At 12.30 on the 17th, Pétain, his thin, crackling voice reminding Arthur Koestler of a 'skeleton with a chill', announced over the radio that he had agreed to head a new government and that he was asking Germany for an armistice. The French people, he said, were to 'cease ﬁghting' and to co-operate with the German authorities. 'Have conﬁdence in the German soldier!' read posters that soon appeared on every wall.
From A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead. Copyright 2011 by Caroline Moorehead. Excerpted with permission by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.