Das deutsche Paris. Der Blick der Besatzer 1940–1944

Wegner, Bernd
Paderborn 2019: Ferdinand Schöningh
Anzahl Seiten
259 S.
€ 39,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Bertram Gordon, Mills College, Oakland CA

Bernd Wegner’s Das deutsche Paris: Der Blick der Besatzer 1940–1944 is an especially valuable contribution to the historical literature addressing occupied Paris during the Second World War. As Wegner writes, large numbers of Wehrmacht soldiers spent at least some time in the occupied French capital and for many, who were from small towns and rural areas in Germany and who had never traveled before, their experience in Paris was a real eye-opener. He has done extensive work seeking out the letters and diaries of individual soldiers and, as he writes in the Foreword, considering the “billions” sent home each year from the front, those that survive may be found in “uncounted archives.”

Wegner relies most heavily on collections of letters in the Berlin Museum Foundation for Post and Telecommunications and the Stuttgart Library for Contemporary History, as well as archival collections in Freiburg, Emmendingen, and Marbach. Diaries, he adds, were frequently even more revealing of the soldiers’ sentiments as they often contained comments that a soldier would not share with parents, siblings, or spouses.

Focusing on how German soldiers and civilian members of the occupation power saw Paris during the war years, Wegner is careful to emphasize the subjective nature of their accounts, based on their individual personal perceptions and experiences. Das deutsche Paris is organized thematically, with chapters on the soldiers’ comments about it not being “un-German” to love Paris, living like princes there, “painted women, dodgy men,” and “what a shopping spree,” to name only a few, in a rough chronological sequence. It is well-illustrated with photos from the time, enriching the description of the soldiers’ perceptions of the city.

Although many of the soldiers engaged in touristic activities, Wegner is careful to point out that they were different from peacetime tourists in that they did not choose Paris voluntarily and were there as soldiers in uniform representing an occupying power. While some delighted in the opportunity to become acquainted with Paris, others viewed the French as the hereditary enemy. Not surprisingly, the women of Paris were also the subjects of many of the soldiers’ comments and Wegner devotes considerable space to them. Many of the comments praised the Parisiennes, as did one by a lieutenant from Austria who called them “unbelievably elegant [schick],”1 adding that “every shop girl looked “absolutely good and pretty” (p. 93). Again, not all the German soldiers agreed. A teacher in civilian life wrote in his diary that the German women in general were prettier, cleaner, and more preppy than their French counterparts.

For many of the German soldiers, their experience in Paris was the first time they had seen black Africans. Jazz was also a new experience for a large number of the soldiers in Paris and while some condemned it, with one calling it “the highpoint of tastelessness,” others liked it and some socialized with Al Lirvat, a jazz musician originally from Guadeloupe. An illustration in the book shows Django Reinhardt and “colored musicians” posing with Dietrich Schulz-Köhn, a German officer.

The sentiments Wegner describes in late 1940 and early 1941, when it appeared to most that the Germans would be victorious, began to shift with their invasion of the Soviet Union, the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, and the turning of the tide at Stalingrad the following year, all of which also contributed to increasing Resistance activity in Paris. In February 1942, the SS was installed in Paris with Helmut Knochen placed in charge of the “Final Solution” in France. Soldiers were ordered not to buy goods in shops designated as “Jewish” but not all obeyed. By the beginning of May 1942, the order had gone out for the “Final Solution” relating to Europe’s Jews, including those in France. From that point, one of the officers in the military command noted, the personnel there had to have been aware of the policy. Ernst Jünger was one of the few German soldiers stationed in Paris to comment on Jews wearing the yellow star of David, the sight of whom, he wrote in his Journals, made him embarrassed to wear the German uniform. In some unobserved moments, he subsequently “demonstrably saluted” wearers of the Jewish star (p. 91).

Wegner also discusses what the diaries do not reveal, the sexual liaisons between German soldiers and Frenchwomen. Paris already had a reputation as a sensual “Babylon”, dating back at least to Heinrich Heine during the first half of the nineteenth century and enunciated by Friedrich Sieburg in the interwar years.2 The result was some 40,000 babies born during the occupation to French women and German soldiers in the Paris region and approximately 200,000 in France as a whole. Comments by at least some of the German soldiers described the women of France as all “for sale” and as Wegner notes, the increasing economic deprivation as the war went on induced local women into relationships with the occupying soldiers in order to survive.

He concludes by noting that to the Parisians during the occupation, the Germans may have appeared as a “faceless mass” who imposed a “leaden weight” threatening to suffocate their lives. Because the Wehrmacht incorporated the majority of German young men, however, it is, therefore, not surprising, he suggests, that its soldiers stationed in Paris reflected the many differing opinions of the German population in general. Whatever else they did, the Nazis had been unable to create a homogenous body of servicemen, though this does not appear to have greatly impacted their control over the city.

Wegner is correct in stating that the German soldiers did not come as tourists to Paris but he then categorizes them in a tourism typology, distinguishing five “types” of perspectives among the German soldiers there. He might have noted that tourism often takes place in the context of other activities, by visitors to a business convention, as part of one’s university education, or, indeed, by soldiers in wartime.

Das deutsche Paris is enriched by the many photographs included, which occasionally have the reader wishing for a bit more discussion of the photographers and the conditions under which they took their pictures and had them developed. The book, unfortunately, lacks an index, which might be added to a subsequent edition. Hopefully, Das deutsche Paris will also appear in an English translation as has been the case for some of Wegner’s earlier books on the „Waffen-SS“.

In summary, Das deutsche Paris is a significant and welcome addition to the literature on the German occupation of Paris during the Second World War. By ferreting out a broad array of private diaries and letters, Wegner has contributed to our understanding not only of differences among individuals in a military formation in wartime but also of the behavior of “ordinary” soldiers in the German occupation of Paris in particular and in the war in general.

1 All quotations in English are the reviewer’s translations from the German.
2 For Sieburg, see Bertram M. Gordon, Warfare and Tourism: Paris in World War II, in: Annals of Tourism Research 25 (1998), pp. 618–619.