Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s

"Women were doing things just as brave and dangerous as the men": Anne Sebba talks to Matt Elton about her book exploring the stories of 1940s Parisian women – resistance members, collaborators and those simply trying to survive in an occupied city...

Singer Germaine Lubin in conversation with officer Hans Speidel at the German Embassy in Paris, 1941. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In context

Following the defeat of France by German forces early in the Second World War, Paris was occupied from 1940–44. The absence of men from the city, many of whom had left to fight, meant that it was often women who had to make day-to-day decisions on how to respond to the occupiers. Some were involved in active resistance, some in minor acts of defiance and others in collaboration. After the liberation, many women accused of collaboration received demeaning punishments.

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Why do you think that this story has been under-served in previous books?

Women did not want to speak about their experiences after the war: they just wanted to get on with things and to try to construct as normal a life as possible. The liberation of Paris was in 1944, but the rest of Europe had another eight months to go, so by the time the war was over, Paris had got used to being free of its occupiers.

There was also a feeling that women hadn’t behaved in the resistance in the way that the men had. I argue strongly that they had, because they did all sorts of extraordinary things. I’ve met women who said “oh, I really did nothing, I just pushed a pram with a hand grenade in it” or “I delivered leaflets and had the Germans caught me, they would have treated me like a spy – but it was really nothing”. Because women weren’t regarded as having carried weapons, they weren’t judged after the war as combatants. That’s a really important word: ‘combatants’, those who had been part of an organised resistance group, were given more medals and honour. I argue that women did carry weapons, but that they also took part in other forms of resistance. It’s taken a long time for peopleto recognise that women were doing things just as brave and dangerous as the men were.

Was it evident early on that women would be central to the war?

Not at all. France thought that it would be a short war and that it would be victorious. So women thought that men would be away fighting for just a short period.

Things changed in 1940 once the Germans occupied Paris. People were terrified of the idea of the city being occupied and there was a great exodus when many tried to get out. But the Germans were so charming at the start: they sent their most cultured and handsome soldiers, who behaved incredibly well to the women. It was really only after the Germans occupied the whole of France in 1942 [taking over the Vichy controlled territory in the south], and following the reprisals to the resistance movement that happened, that women recognised they had a role to play. They had to decide how they were going to confront the occupiers: should they stay in a café if a German walked in, or leave? Should they carry on in their job, even if it was indirectly helping the Germans?

Do you think the Vichy government’s attitude towards women led some to become members of the resistance?

The exaggerated emphasis on glorifying mothers for staying at home, trusting in the Germans and going to school to learn things such as cookery certainly antagonised a lot of women who had fought hard for their freedoms. But don’t forget that women in France did not have the vote at this point. Married women couldn’t get jobs without permission from their husband or father. They weren’t, according to the law, allowed to wear trousers. So, of course, many women thought that these laws were so ridiculous that they just had to act.

They might not have joined what we know of as ‘the resistance’, but they resisted in some way. That’s what I’ve tried to make clear: that resistance took many forms, and could be anything from walking out of a café to hiding a Jewish friend. Many actions didn’t necessarily fall into the category of ‘the resistance’ but were definitely resisting.

Your book’s title, Les Parisiennes, is a phrase often linked to fashion –  but that’s not the whole story, is it?

It’s far from the whole story, but it is a thread that needs to be understood. Fashion kept a lot of women alive: there were thousands working in little attics around the city who wouldn’t have survived had Hitler succeeded in his ambition of moving the fashion industry to Germany.

French women were also determined to remain fashionable as a way of not giving into the Germans. Even when they couldn’t buy leather for shoes and had to wear cork-soled wedges, for instance, they covered them because they thought it was a way of showing the Germans they wouldn’t be humiliated. They thought it was terribly important for their sense of self-respect.

What was the atmosphere in Paris at the start of the occupation?

There were no cars, so people went everywhere on bikes. Food shortages started to bite, and there were daily queues, sometimes for up to four hours. On Sundays, people might go out to the countryside and come back with cabbages or black-market goods.

One interview that really brought home the atmosphere was with Jacqueline Marié, who delivered political posters. She told me that coming out of a train was terrifying, because you never knew if there was going to be a round-up at the top of the station. If there was, the worst thing to do would be to double-back on yourself because it would give the game away immediately. So you had to move on to the next station by walking through tunnels underground, sometimes for two or three stations. You have to remember that these were teenage kids, too. That visceral fear in the gut of your stomach is something that subsequent generations have thankfully grown up not knowing.

Paris became a significantly feminised city. There were a few men: if they were Jewish they were in hiding or perhaps in the resistance, but they weren’t out on the streets during the day. So it was women who had to interact with the Germans, to decide how they were going to feed their children and look after their elderly parents. These choices were constant and fell almost exclusively upon women.

So you would argue that women still had ‘choices’, then?

‘Choice’ was the word that I had in the foreground of my mind while I was writing the book. Some might argue that it’s all very well for me to have that idea in the comfort of my study, but I think that even though an evil regime such as the Nazis can take your food, your clothes and your identity, they can’t take your inner freedom, your decision of how you’re going to behave and respond.

I asked one of my Jewish interviewees about the choice that his mother had made to pay a woman to take her children to a place of safety. It struck me that this was the most courageous choice a mother could make, so I asked him if he had ever talked to her after the war about the ‘choice’ she had made. He looked at me as if I came from a different planet – that if I could use the word ‘choice’, I clearly had not understood.

I persuaded him that I wasn’t trying to be offensive, that I was trying to put myself into the mindset of his mother and thousands of others like her. He explained that, in his view, his mother had no choice because, by the time that she gave her children away, Jewish people were not allowed into certain parks or certain shops until late in the day: it was so impossible to be a Jew in Paris.

Yet even though I have begun to understand how impossible some of these choices were, I have clung to the idea that ultimately, even in an internment camp, one could find a choice about how to think and behave.

How then should we  understand women who collaborated?

The word ‘collaborate’ can mean several different things, and I’ve tried at every stage to show the light and the dark. For instance, one of the employees of the French national theatre resigned on the first day because she couldn’t bear to work in a theatre in which Jews were not allowed to perform. At the same time there were actors who continued acting, and I don’t think it’s for me to judge them as having ‘collaborated’. They did what they needed to do because that was their job.

At the opera, meanwhile, Germaine Lubin was a Wagnerian soloist who you could say collaborated because she performed to a specifically German audience. What else could she have done though? It’s difficult to imagine how she would have earned a living had she not performed on stage.

There was a very gendered response to how ‘collaborators’ were judged after the war. Girls who may have had a romantic entanglement with a German soldier had their heads shaved and were made to parade naked around town. There were a lot of such cases, too: by some accounts, between 70,000 and 100,000 Franco-German babies were born after the war. That’s a lot of collaboration horizontale, as it was called.

There’s no question that women paid an unequal price at the end of the war. Men involved in trading commodities or the black market did not always face the same punishments: they had a trial, whereas many women were judged guilty even without one.

How would you like this book to change readers’ views of the period and the role of women at the time?

I hope that people finally recognise that women played an extraordinary role in resisting. Of course there were collaborators, and I’m not trying to whitewash that, but how women behaved is very complex. Some women gave up marriage to loved ones because they had to stay and look after elderly parents; some risked everything in order to resist; others had no chance to resist because they were taken to the camps.

Women played a deeply significant role, which is finally being recognised. They wrote books, founded newspapers, acted to help victims of torture and organised friendship groups. Women did the most dangerous things that they were allowed to do in a society that did not value them: women who had no political power whatsoever rose above that and just took action wherever they possibly could.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 480 pages, £20).

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This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine