In Paris last month my wife Alice and I chanced to walk past the Paris Historical Library and discovered housed in its basement through July an exhibit ("Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation") of Nazi propaganda photos of Paris life. The exhibition is completely new because the photos of Vichy-era Paris were in the files of a Nazi magazine, Signal, that were only recently opened. The photos by André Zucca are uniquely in color because no one in Paris but the Nazis could get color film in the war years. Here are some sample pictures.
While the sight Nazi troops parading in the streets is chilling, even more upsetting are photos of Paris life seeming to go on as usual. The French Lottery continued under the Vichy government. Movies (with European stars - no Hollywood in sight) continued to run. The photos show, as the Nazis intended, a Paris largely going about its normal business except for swastikas flying over key buildings and lurid billboards warning Parisians of the Bolshevik menace. There were special movie theaters for soldiers with special propaganda movies.
The ubiquitous propaganda billboards have the following themes:
- Gibes at the U.S. and British troops for making little progress in Italy.
- Dying children accusing the allies of being assassins, with bombs being dropped on deliberately on civilians.
- Dramatizations portraying German troops as if they were heroes defending Paris against Bolshevik terrorists.
- Invitations to exhibits showing Bolshevik atrocities.
- Nazi recruitment ads for French workers. "They [the German soldiers] give their blood, so you should give your work."
- Appeals to self-interest: "If you want to get ahead," says a poster, "come work in Germany."
- A large "Office for Placement in Germany" promising "Jobs for All."
As the war went on, the photos show the propaganda becoming more desperate. Eventually Zucca shows the Allies marching into Paris where they were met with endless American flags draped from windows.
When we came home that evening and told our Parisian hostess Edith about the exhibit, she said she didn't know about it. But she told me a few days later that there were subsequently intense debates about it on the radio and television and in print, all through the second half of April.
The exhibit became a bone of contention between the French Red Guard Christophe Girard, the Deputy Mayor for Culture to Bertrand Delanoë, the openly gay Socialist Mayor of Paris. Mayor Delanoë ruled that it is inappropriate to show life as normal during the occupation. He required exhibit sponsors to take down their posters advertising the exhibit, while allowing the exhibit to remain open. The Mayor sees educational value in showing that at the same time as the Vichy police were cooperating in the deportation of Jews, and at the same time as most people in Paris were suffering, some Parisians were living pretty well.
"When I became aware of the problem," Mayor Delanoë said, "I asked the historian Jean-Pierre Azema to add needed explanations to the exhibit. Historians and associations advised me not to make things worse by shutting down the exhibit."
"It is difficult to forget," added Deputy Mayor Girard, "that many left-wing intellectuals lived well in Paris under the Nazis, and on good terms with the occupiers. The ultimate statement was that of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote (in The Republic of Silence) in 1944: 'Never have we been more free than under the German occupation.' This is perhaps the kind of 'memory' that we stir up at some risk."
Curious about Girard's characterization of Sartre, I queried my brother Randal Marlin, a philosophy professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of Propaganda and The Art of Persuasion. Randal says Girard takes Sartre's words out of context.
"What Sartre meant by those words was that those who were part of the resistance, knew that at any moment they could be arrested and tortured. They knew that with their freedom to choose as they did, came the price of possibly losing their lives. For that reason the meaning of freedom was more alive than before. They were never more free because the meaning of freedom had become clear. He's talking about ontological freedom, not political freedom. Sartre chose to resist through his writings, and his play The Flies, with its metaphorical reference to the Nazi occupiers as a plague of flies, would have imperiled his own safety."
The exhibit is worth bringing to New York City or other big cities. But for school children and others without a fully developed understanding of European history 65 years ago, the exhibit should be redesigned. Viewers should see each Zucca photo for the Nazi propaganda it is by having juxtaposed with it a black-and-white photo showing (with related facts) the grim reality of life and death for most Parisians, and especially Jewish Parisians, in the evil days of the occupation.