Americans in Wartime Paris

Americans in Wartime Paris
Summer 2011 marks 71 years since Nazi troops entered and occupied Paris on June 14, 1940 after France, a week earlier, had recognized defeat and agreed to an armistice with Germany in World War II. As the anniversary dates approach, reminiscences of that tragic period are certain to flourish. What seldom has been spotlighted so far, however, is the fate of Americans living then in the French capital who found themselves suddenly in a worrisome and unusual situation. When France and England, officially declared war on Germany in September, 1939, as a response to the Third Reich’s invasion of Poland, an estimated 30,000 Americans, artists, writers, businessmen, dual nationals and others lived in or near Paris. Although that declaration was followed by roughly nine-months of what often was called the “phony war” or “drôle de guerre,” a period of cautious immobility on both sides before serious fighting began, the inevitability of coming conflict led most of those expatriates to leave France while they could. The inevitable arrived, however, with massive German attacks in, June, 1940, and when, after scarcely three weeks of battle, Nazi troops marched uncontested through the gates of Paris, some 5,000 Americans still were in the French capital. For various reasons, such as family ties, professional obligations or simply a deep-seated love for France, they had chosen to remain in Paris. But none were unaware that their status was precarious and would become dangerous if America also entered the war against Germany as it appeared increasingly likely to do. At that moment, America was not at war, however, and not militarily allied with anyone. It was still a neutral nation. German occupying forces were legally obligated to treat U.S. citizens gingerly and cautiouslyeven though many were bi-nationals with French passports as well as American ones And so the Germans did to a certain extent.  Americans who stayed in the capital for one reason or another endured most of the shortages and hardships of their French neighbors but, by and large, for nearly a year and a half they were not imprisoned or molested by German occupying authorities. To say the least, however, their lives were not easy and often tragic, in particular for African-American or Jewish Americans frequently singled out by the Nazis for harsher than normal treatment. Initially after the Franco-German armistice, Germany occupied only the northern half of France.  The southern half, declared to be a “Free Zone,” nominally remained in the control of a reconstituted French government. Its capital  was in Vichy, a resort town roughly 400 kilometres south of Paris, and its new President was first world war hero, 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain. On June 10, shortly before German troops arrived, France’s former government, headed by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, had fled from Paris to the city of Tours in the Loire Valley. Before leaving, Reynaud declared Paris to be an “Open City” that would not resist occupation and officially left the responsibility of dealing with German occupying forces in the hands of America’s ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt. Bullitt accepted and recognized the arrangement and helped ensure that German troops did not destroy the capital. Quickly thereafter, however, on June 30, 1940, he moved the U.S. embassy and staff from Paris to Vichy. America thus, in principle retained its diplomatic relations with France, but with Vichy France’s Pétain government, not the exiled and now powerless one of Paul Reynaud. Because America still remained neutral, the German occupying forces at first allowed long-standing institutions in the French capital such as the American hospital, the American library, the American church, the American Chamber of Commerce plus various others of a commercial or charitable nature, to remain open. The hospital, in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine on Paris’ western border, continued to treat patients, including wounded French and British soldiers, although it’s chief surgeon, Dr. Sumner Jackson, studiously ensured that all the institution’s beds and facilities were constantly occupied. That manoeuvre allowed him, throughout the war, constantly to turn aside demands by Nazi officials to admit German patients. In fact, unknown to Paris’ German occupiers, Sumner spent the entire war using the hospital as a cover and escape network for French and British soldiers who had avoided capture by the Germans. Similarly, the American library continued to welcome readers and lend out books in English although German regulations prohibited them from being on certain subjects or being lent to Jews.  The library simply circumvented that latter restriction by sending books to non-Jewish clients who then passed them on to Jewish readers. As did numbers of French citizens, many of the Americans nominally living under German control still found myriad ways to express their defiance. Some whose professional lives involved frequent contact with German occupying forces, such as famed American singer and Paris resident Josephine Baker, often used those contacts to glean and transmit information useful to the Allies.  Others sheltered Jews who risked persecution, helped pass messages clandestinely to Allied intelligence or escorted would-be escapees to freedom across France’s borders with Spain and Switzerland. All that changed radically, however, in December, 1941, when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war against Japan and Germany and suddenly transformed all those Americans from neutrals to “enemy aliens.” That American entry into the war led quickly to a clamp down on U.S. citizens in German-occupied northern France. Many were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Those who were not still were obligated to report regularly to German occupying authorities or French police. Internments applied initially only to men although, in September, 1942, German authorities began to intern American women as well. Initially, before the Germans had sufficient internment facilities arranged, some of them were held temporarily in the cleaned-out monkey house of the zoo de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris. While visits were not allowed, their friends quickly figured out that they could at least come and wave to them by paying an admission fee to the zoo. The German grip on Americans in France and on France itself was tightened…

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  • JC Stephenson
    2019-11-01 05:46:35
    JC Stephenson
    It wasn't England that declared war on Germany - it was the United Kingdom. The name 'England'is not interchangeable with the United Kingdom, or Great Britain & Northern Ireland. This is highly offensive to the citizens of the other nations which make up the UK and denigrates the memory of the men and women who saw active service from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as England in the Second World War - and the men, women, and children of all the nations of the UK who died in the bombing raids in all the major cities and towns across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.