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Fourth International, June 1941


Terence Phelan

How Paris Fell


From Fourth International, Vol. II No. 5, June 1941, pp. 146–149.
Transcription & mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As bourgeois culture goes, it is indisputable that Paris was the heart of civilization. It was “the city of light,” the world’s artistic Mecca. In the amenities of daily living, in poetry, painting and music, it was unsurpassed. Lenin, no sentimentalist, loved Paris and called it “the capital of the world.”

For a rare once, then, we can agree with the petty-bourgeois intellectuals the world over to whom the fall of Paris symbolized the end of an era of civilization.

They mourn, they lament and they weep, but they refuse to face the question of greatest importance. Why was the foremost citadel of bourgeois culture abandoned to Nazi barbarism without a shot being fired in its defense? Let us try to answer it for them. This is how I saw Paris as it fell.

The Breakdown of the French Bourgeoisie

Paris as it fell was tragically beautiful. Late on the afternoon of Wednesday, the 12th of June, the petroleum and gasoline reserves in all the suburban refineries were set on fire by retreating French troops. Paris was ringed with monumental and sinister columns of jet, oily smoke. These, meeting at the zenith, far above the white cumulus clouds, slowly blotted out the sun, and spread a black pall over the doomed and deserted city. The blotting out of “the city of light” by that cloud was a sort of grim apocalypse.

Many bourgeois foreign correspondents have compared this to the black onrush of Nazis. It reminded me just as strongly of another obfuscatory cloud; that of the fleeing French censorship which, until the very last, characteristically refused to disclose the truth to its people. At the very moment that the surrender of Paris was being arranged at its own gate, the censor was still reporting that German troops were being held 40 kilometers away. Through that black, foreboding sky, Parisians who sat by their radios (newspapers having ceased publication) first came in contact with German technique. The German advance had left the French government without enough broadcasting stations to broadcast news itself or to continue its war-long practice of “jamming” German broadcasts. Thus, for the first time, the French heard the cold, accurate account of the Germans’ advance from the Germans themselves. It was a sobering shock.

No less characteristic was the behavior of the upper classes. The Paris correspondent of a Chicago paper, with a taste for statistics, calculated that 71% of the metropolitan Parisians and 68% of the suburban Parisians who fled southward were bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. The wealthy quarters were entirely empty as their inhabitants piled into their expensive cars and deserted their capital in panic. This same correspondent aptly called this flight “The Great Bugger-Out.”

Most characteristic of all was the indecision about Paris on the part of the government. Contradictory orders were piled on top of one another. An order that all men above 17 were to leave the city at once for the south was followed by a countermanding order whereby they must, under penalty of being considered deserters, remain with the factories in which they had been requisitioned. In a burst of heroic bombast, the government announced that Paris would be defended “street by street and house by house.” Three days later came the formal declaration that Paris was to be an open city.

The Nightmare of the Bourgeoisie

What lay behind such conflicting orders? Why was Paris not defended?

No modern city which is seriously defended can be taken until it is either razed to the ground or starved and thirsted out. Madrid was defended for two years against overwhelming odds. Why, then, was Paris, not only the capital, but the economic nerve center of all France, abandoned at the last minute without a semblance of struggle?

Was it because the French forces were, as they stated, so devoted to the artistic monument of Paris, so tender toward its populace? Nonsense! If that would have furthered its own ends, the French bourgeoisie of 1940 would have reduced Paris to rubble, as it came close to doing in 1871. Was it, as some Anglo-American editors suggested, that France had “degenerated,” and French soldiers were cowards? The British Ministry of Information may spread such an explanation, but the French bourgeoisie knew better. It knew that the ordinary poilu was, and remains, as good a fighting man as there is in the world, provided he had something to fight for. In fact, the contrary was the truth. The French rulers were not so much afraid that the poilu lacked courage; it was afraid that he would show it – in other ways than ordered.

The French government and the French bourgeoisie was plagued by a nightmare, a nightmare so terrifying that it thought anything, even the yielding of its capital, preferable. That nightmare was a second Paris Commune.

The heroic proletarian ghost of 1871 rose from the streets of its slaughter to make the French bosses jibber. A Commune! Anything, anything – rather than that!

As a matter of fact, the possessing classes need not have worried so much. Stalinism and reformist socialism had done their dirty work only too well, during the Popular Front period. The workers of Paris were comparatively apathetic, virtually leaderless, wholly disorganized. There was no revolutionary party of mass strength to evoke and direct a proletarian defense. Under the prevailing circumstances, a Commune would have been an almost impossible improvisation. But even that extremely remote possibility was too much for the French bourgeoisie to bear; they were determined that no interlude should intervene long enough to permit the creation of any proletarian defense of their capital. To avoid that greater evil, they raced against time to deliver their city to the “lesser evil” – the oncoming Nazis.

The Transfer of Power

No aspect of the collapse of France has been more obscured than this, in the official report. The reason is not hard to find. The cowardly betrayal strips from the French ruling class its masquerade costume of classless “national patriotism,” which helped it deceive the nation. Its voluntary gift of Paris to the Nazis reveals in all its foul class nakedness the bourgeoisie’s preference for an enemy imperialism to defense by its own people.

The delivery of the capital, the transfer of power, was accomplished with a smoothness beyond the French bosses’ most optimistic expectations. They were really frightened of their own people. When the ministry fled southward, police began to disappear from the streets, and to be concentrated in barracks in genuine fear of their lives. For 20 years they had snarled at the Paris populace unchecked, ridden it down, arrested it and smashed it over the head. They had good reason to fear that, in any interregnum between the government’s flight and the Germans’ arrival, the long-abused masses might hunt them down like rats. It was both comical and dream-like to see how few “flics” still showed their ugly mugs as they stood in timid pairs at a good distance from and in obvious terror of groups of discussing Parisians, especially workers massed around closed factory doors. Even those most vicious of professional strike-breakers, the black helmeted and black-hearted “gardes mobiles” went into terrified hiding. I saw one of them, caught in the open, ostentatiously helping an old lady across a completely traffic-less street in a ridiculous attempt to make himself out as kind-hearted.

Meanwhile, the French army emissaries were engaged in hasty parleys with a German Army commission in a villa outside Paris. Working against time, against the fear that the Parisians might take matters into their own hands, they were successful; the military arrangements were agreed to. At 6 p.m., the night before the occupation, the civil and police arrangements were likewise being completed at the eastern gates. When late-sleeping Parisians awoke on the morning of Paris’ fall, the first thing they saw was the Paris police out in full force again, hauling down the tricolor and running up the swastika on public buildings and boulevard flag-posts.

Within three days the comforting presence of their new masters restored the spirits of the police enough to bring forth their old bullying selves. They demanded “papers” for the purpose of catching, political refugees, turning over their archives to the Gestapo, and enforcing the new German regulations. The old blood-hounds who had hunted down revolutionaries and working class militants so long for the French bourgeoisie, went down on all fours before their new masters.

The heart of the French police system is the Prefecture on the Isle de la Cité. Essentially unchanged since the days of the sinister Fouche, this great gray building, grim and grimy, has been the French symbol of secret police terror. There each week went thousands of refugees, driven from their own countries because they struggled against reaction, each with a pathetic ragged purple paper informing him that he must leave France within one week. They came to have this lease on life extended for one week more. This is how the emigré workers and democrats really lived in the greatest and most cultured of bourgeois democracies, renowned for “political asylum.”

By the Monday before occupation, the Prefecture was unrecognizable. Amid an atmosphere of burning documents and impending disaster, I saw running about the corridors those powerful functionaries from secret inner offices whose special delight it had been to remain invisible and unapproachable, to condemn a helpless petitioner without ever permitting him to plead his case face to face with them. These formerly omnipotent individuals were scurrying about in a panic that swung between a speechless impatience to get away, and a propitiatory politeness for self-protection. The notorious purple papers, still humbly presented for extension were waved aside with a hasty but significant statement – “papers don’t matter any more, we are beyond the stage of papers.”

They spoke the simple truth. The Prefecture’s “paper” was worthless, like that of a bankrupt business or financial concern, because it had no material backing. The whole system of state repression had fallen to pieces, was powerless. Only a week before it had been sending men to death, to long imprisonment. It had the power of seizure, of holding incommunicado, of secret torture, of frameup. It had all the terrifying prestige of state power behind it. And now, here it was, dissolving like sugar in water.

The Hollow Shell

I had read about the breakdown of Czarism and the collapse of Kerensky’s regime. But the dissolution of the French State was a sight – and a lesson – never to be forgotten. Literary descriptions can give a theoretical understanding of the process and its significance, but it is quite a different thing to see the state structure crumble before your very eyes.

The experience is overwhelming. We do not realize how much we are hypnotized by the apparent power and permanence of the boss state. I thought of the hundreds of good American union members I knew, who were ready to fight any private corporation to a standstill, but who thought that the State was something quite different, something too big and too enduring to struggle against and overthrow. 1 wish they had been standing beside me and could see with their own eyes what a hollow shell the whole monumental-looking system of boss state repression really is, once it has been shaken to its foundations by a real blow.

It was tragic that in the case of France it had to be another imperialism – a rival bourgeois repression machine – that the French Prefecture was giving way to. But that nowise affected the fundamental lesson of the collapsibility of the decadent bourgeois state.

For the first time I then realized with my own eyes, ears and heart the profound meaning of the revolutionary cry: “we are so many; they are so few!” I then understood that once the determining sector of the working class takes the revolutionary road and moves against the capitalist state, that state will crumple with an ease that will surprise the workers. Under sufficient pressure, the entire apparatus – its cops, its sheriffs and deputies, its army officers, its governors and judges and cabinet ministers and presidents – will run like so many scared rabbits.

In an hour like this one really feels, in his own skin, the absolute Tightness of the Marxist analysis of the state as the executive committee of the ruling class, of government as an instrument of armed repression. One sees how the ruling class maintains itself by bribing a thin segment of the workers to act as mercenary police against its own class struggle; and realizes how thin that segment is.

The Unknown Soldier

Returning home at midnight, between Thursday the 13th and Friday June 14th, through a black and empty Paris, I noticed that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, was deserted. The French government had fled, the plutocrats had fled, even the paid guards of the Tomb had fled. There, yesterday, the French rulers had skillfully and shamelessly exploited the genuine popular mourning for the unknown dead of the last war. On the morrow the army of German imperialism, using the same skillful means of propaganda, were going with their ostentatious orders, to pick up where the French imperialists had left off.

But at the moment, between the regime of capitalist repression that had gone and the regime of imperialist oppression that was marching in on the morrow, the unknown soldier lay, as the perfect symbol of the completely forgotten man, the plain ordinary guy who gets killed so that one gang of exploiters rather than another can make his widow and children work for less pay and live in more misery. At that moment neither of the gangs had any real interest in him. For a brief hour, the unknown soldier was left alone, with only a stray foreign revolutionist standing by to honor him, with pity and vengeance in his heart.

The Entry of the German Troops

A vague terror pervaded the city before the German troops arrived. The people left in Paris would not have been surprised to see columns of mechanized men marching into the city, after the swift speed of the Nazis’ advance. Instead they saw battalion after battalion of robust farm boys on sleek, fat horses. The troops entered as though they expected to be received, not as conquerors but as deliverers. Every detail of the capture of Paris was executed with the calculated political aim of at least neutralizing the French, if not gaining them as allies.

The Parisians had had reason to be frightened. The colonial troops, who fell back to the region around Paris, had looted and destroyed in a terrifying manner. These troops were sacrificed by their French commanders with a brutal carelessness beyond belief, and it can well be imagined with what rage and hatred toward the French, these colonials had retreated, through northeastern France. French propaganda led the people to expect the same treatment from the Germans.

It can readily be imagined, then, what effect the agreeable occupation of the city by the Germans had upon the people. By passing their mechanized divisions around Paris to the south, the Nazis took over the city with the cheeriest, politest, most fraternizing of available troops. Contrasted with the looting of the French colonials, the behavior of the occupying Germans was almost comic in its correctness, so far did they lean over backward in observing legality. Reichswehr squads went about making inventories of damages, duly witnessed by French civil authorities. They, themselves, did no damage at all. Except for such big hotels and chateaux as were needed for officers’ quarters, there were very few requisitions. Rare occasions of illegal requisitions or thefts by German soldiers were punished by immediate and ostentatious execution of the soldier involved in the presence of the aggrieved French civilian. An acquaintance of mine witnessed such an execution for the theft of six cakes and 100 francs’ ($2.25 in American currency) worth from the woman proprietor of a bake-shop.

During the first week of the occupation, about as many German soldiers were executed for such misdeeds as were French civilians for their resistance to German repression: about 10 Frenchmen were executed; two of them, to give the devil his due, were policemen.

As soon as the parades needed for movie consumption at home in Germany were duly completed, the bulk of the occupying troops, given leave, started to visit artistic monuments and talk to the civilians. Most spoke French; all were polite. They were full of their own brand of anti-capitalism and they were perpetually apologizing to the French for being there at all.

I overheard one soldier talk as follows:

“You Parisians are so polite; we have always heard you were. But we Germans know that you don’t like to have us here. We are embarrassed too, you know. How can you be expected to like us, when we had to destroy large sections of your country to the north and east and when we have to take over your capital? We don’t want to, but we have to, until we have beaten the capitalistic, imperialistic England, which starved and stifled Germany until National Socialism made us strong enough to fight back. But you French will administer Paris; we Germans will try to efface ourselves as much as possible.”

The Parisians had expected almost anything except this type of fraternization.

While this source of well-rehearsed and, it is not at all unlikely, sincere declarations, were being made by the German soldiers to the people of Paris, the British Broadcasting Co. was accusing the French of cowardice and betrayal, just after the British had scampered out of the Dunkerque pocket, abandoning therein the 84,000 French poilus who had covered their retreat. It can be readily understood why the French people didn’t become enthusiastically pro-British after the fall of Paris.

“Kill Them with Kindness”

On the road south of Paris, the humanitarianism of the German troops was as striking as their previous terrorism which had originally caused the chaos. The great columns of German trucks, rushing supplies to the fighting in the south became, as they sped northward again for further supplies, the surest transport for returning French refugees. Loaded with women and children, they could almost always spare a bit of food for the hungry or a litre of gasoline for a stalled car. They spread good-nature and puzzlement everywhere. Was this the Hun that the French radios and press had taught them to expect? the people asked. It was, but not at the moment. Mixing their methods, the clever Nazis outwitted the French by treating them in a totally different fashion than they had anticipated. By “killing them with kindness,” the Nazis succeeded in dumbfounding and immobilizing any potential resistance. The conduct of the Germans stood in particular contrast with the attitude of the British old-school-tie officers, who in the pre-Blitz days treated the French in the same lordly way as they were accustomed to treat Gold-Coast natives or Indians.

The sole exception was the fascist Italian residents in Paris, who emerged from hiding after the Germans came, and strutted about like pouter-pigeons, arousing great popular resentment.

Most skillful of all instruments were the news-broadcasting trucks which the Germans sent to every quarter of Paris. The Parisians had begun to discard as useless their home radios, from which they received either regular insults from the British or irregular lies from their own fleeing government. To their surprise and sorrow, they received from the German newscasting apparatus restrained and accurate information on the progress of the fighting and the French governmental crisis which ended in the Petain-Lavalle-Marquet coup d’etat. There is no weapon so strong as truth, even when it is pressed into the service of the worst reaction.

Newspapers were encouraged to resume publication; censorship was, in actual fact, milder than under the French regime. Typical was a new daily called La France au Travail. Its slogan was “national communism.” It was of course 200 per cent patriotic French. While “admitting” that the Germans, having beaten the French in fair fight, had a right to occupy the strategic north until the campaign against England was completed, it “pressed” for the retirement of the invader at “the earliest possible moment.” With obvious access to police archives, it ran a devastatingly documented series of attacks on the late Reynaud government, proving to the hilt its suppression of civil liberties, its graft, frameups, anti-labor policy, etc. It attacked capitalism savagely, and called for a French renaissance under nationalist slogans. It even discreetly criticized Germany. (The only place the German cloven hoof showed through was in the paper’s unremitting attacks against the Vichy government.)

The Failures of Fascist Propaganda

It is difficult to conceive a more accurately aimed, psychologically skillful kind of propaganda than La France au Travail. And how did the Paris workers react to this super-French press? To their eternal credit be it reported: they called it “the German press” and used it to wrap potatoes in when they could find potatoes.

One must report that the French working class has grown to some extent politically cynical; it has been sold but so many times by the socialists and Stalinists, that it tends to distrust all politics, including correct politics. But the vast political experience which the French working class has undergone has not been in vain as shown by its immediate hostility to such papers as La France au Travail.

The very first weeks of German occupation showed, too, that a successful invasion by a fascist power brought no prestige to native fascism. On the contrary. The main fascist group, the Doriot followers, failed to gain any adherents. Under Marchale (Doriot himself being still in the unoccupied territory) the French fascists rushed into print with a new weekly, La Vie Nationale and, under German protection, began a drive for membership. But they were soon chased out of workers’ districts and finally wandered miserably about in front of fashionable cafes, happy to sell a paper here and there.

Anti-Semitism looked menacing for just a moment, after the occupation, when “Aryans only” signs appeared on some cafes and restaurants and the kept press started a violent campaign of the most vulgar Jew-baiting. But Anti-Semitism won no converts, did not spread, and was by most people treated as a joke. Students of fascist methods were expecting some frameup, like planting a Jewish grocery full of foodstuffs and then spreading word in the neighborhood that the Jew was hoarding. But the contempt with which the ordinary Parisian treated the anti-Semitic campaign apparently made the Nazis and their French friends decide it was useless to attempt such a tactic.

As a matter of fact, the only propaganda campaign that had any success was that against the British. The ground it fell on was not barren. There was a widespread feeling among all classes that it was British imperialism which had dragged France into the war and that in military support the British had let them down badly. Still, it is to be doubted whether the anti-British campaign would have had the success it did have, had it not been for Churchill’s order to attack the French fleet at Oran. The French were sick of the war, they felt they were out of the war; they believed that preparations had been made to sink, the fleet rather than to turn it over to the Germans should the latter violate the armistice terms. It was simply too much then, they felt, when the British, alleging that Hitler was thinking of seizing the French fleet in violation of the armistice terms, tried to sink the semi-disarmed fleet, killing some 2,000 French sailors in the process. Fortunately for Churchill, not even the Oran murders could make the French proletariat agree to support of the German war against England. The workers want no more of the bloody and meaningless imperialist war on either side.

Hitler’s “New Order” Blossoms

In the defeated nation, class distinctions remained sharper than ever. Till at least as late as October, anyone who had the price of 100 francs ($2.25) per head, could stroll into, say, the Restaurant Chez Pierre and have himself a little snack consisting of caviar, langouste, chauteaubriand marchand de vins with pommes soufflés, salad, wild strawberries with thick creme d’Isigny, the whole washed down with Montrachet Goutte d’Or 1934 and Chambolles-Musigny Clos Comte de Vogue 1915, followed by plenteous coffee with accompanying Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge or a good 50-year-old fine-champagne. But in the workers’ suburbs hundreds of women stood in hundreds of interminable lines waiting to buy a single cabbage, swapping tips on where to get a tiny piece of laundry soap or trying to figure out how much truth there was in the rumor that such and such a market would sell one-half pound of potatoes per customer the following day. And those in these lines were the ones who still had some few pitiable savings; far more were standing in other long lines in front of soup-kitchens, waiting for their pint of weak and nearly meatless pot-au-feu. This was Hitler’s New Order.

Nearly two million unemployed haunted the closed factories of Paris. What work there was, was mostly at the Citroen plant – completely wiped out by astonishingly accurate German bombing during the one big air-raid on central Paris – helping in wrecking and salvaging operations, or loading immense quantities of heavy industrial machinery on flat-cars for Germany. Because, much more significant than the rather childish lies of British propaganda, it was not of food; that Germany was stripping France, but of all machinery for heavy industry, in accordance with the long-range Nazi plan of reducing France to an agricultural and light-conversion-industry economy.

The Nazis from the first showed little confidence of being; able to secure enthusiastic acceptance from the Parisian masses for a perspective of a vassal agricultural state. Even in the first days when the German troops were fraternizing with the population, arrests began. They were carried out in the skillful nibbling tactics of the Gestapo. Very secretly, a few at a time, so as not to arouse the masses, the Gestapo began rounding up revolutionists, Stalinists, and militant trade unionists.

No matter how many they may arrest, however, they cannot behead the growing movement against Hitler’s “New Order.” As the months have passed since the writer’s departure, he has had indications that the situation has sharpened still further. Nor should one believe the fabrications, about France in the American and British press: the resistance against the invader has nothing in common with the “Free France” movement of the segment of French imperialists led by De Gaulle. There is as little hope for France under a restoration of the old national capitalism as there is under Hitler. If Hitler is obliged to reverse the historic process and de-industrialize France, the De Gaullists would do no better. Two wars, the first of which ruined even a victorious France, and the second of which finally destroyed her as an independent nation, have amply proved that the nationalistic anarchy of a divided Europe cannot solve anything, even if it could be restored.

To avoid more such wars and to save and expand the productive forces – that can only be done by the Socialist United States of Europe. That is the only conceivable perspective for the French people. And small but significant beginnings in France today show that history is inevitably moving that way: as a national liberation movement arises, in the form of thousands of little isolated underground committees, they tend to slip over from national movements into social movements, for the reason that there is obviously no longer any economic base in French national capitalism.

(This is the second article by Comrade Phelan on the fall of France. The first, The End of French Democracy, appeared in the March 1941 FOURTH INTERNATIONAL.)

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