In Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949, Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper address the city of Paris, its people, and all concerned parties after Paris is liberated from the Nazi occupation of World War II. Much attention is paid to the divisions and tensions that develop as a result of the turbulent time of the occupation, and particular attention is given to the French Communist Party. Diaries and personal accounts were used as sources, which provide many intimate details but at the same time limit the breadth and focus of the work. There are also times when the authors assume too much of the reader’s knowledge of France and the French language. However, their style of writing means the work is very accessible to the general reader and makes for an interesting and informative read.
One recurring theme that emerges from the book is how various factions and conflict developed in the polarizing environment of post-liberation Paris. In the immediate aftermath of liberation, the struggle between resistance supporters and Nazi collaborators divided Parisians and created an atmosphere of both guilt and resentment that would take many years to overcome. Among the resistance also, antipathy existed between left and right wing factions which carried through into the developing political situation in Paris and forced many to choose sides. As Cold War tension materialized, the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as the two nations vying for superpower status. This tension became evident early in the diplomatic meetings of liberated Paris, as the conservatives and the French Communist Party used these nations to rally for more political power in Paris. Finally, the book addresses the influx of American culture and influence into Paris and how a feeling of ambivalence developed among Parisians who both welcomed and disliked the intrusion. In their work, Beevor and Cooper deal intimately with these conflicted emotions and tensions and provide a unique insight into the role the occupation would play in developing modern Parisian history.
Out of these various issues, a significant portion of time was devoted to the Communist party and leftist followers in Paris. The authors appear to have gained access to and effectively utilized sources related to the French Communist Party that were only discovered after the fall of the Soviet Union. The reader is transported into the complex and convoluted world of French Communists, focusing on various characters such as Maurice Thorez who was the leader of the party and spent much of World War II in the USSR. The book chronicles the journey and changeable role of the Communist Party as aggressive resistance fighters, a serious political party in France, a haven for leftist intellectuals, and internal conflict between pro-Stalinist supporters and those skeptical of the Soviet Red Army. The sources that were accessed expose a rich and detailed history of one group that is less discussed in studies of post-liberation Parisian history.
While personal accounts and diary entries provide a very exclusive and intimate side of the history that Beevor and Cooper deal with, their choice of primary sources should be examined carefully in the context of an historical study. One of the main sources that is drawn from when discussing the diplomatic dealings in Paris between the Allies and France is the diaries of Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to France in liberated Paris. In the “About the Authors” section of the book it is noted that the ambassador was the grandfather of the author Cooper and although her unique access to his diary reveals very private details of this period, the reader should be attentive to any bias that may interfere with the retelling of history.
The other disadvantage of using Cooper’s diary is that it presents a rather unbalanced and focused view of Parisian history. His account is told from a completely British point of view and therefore lacks French perspective on specific events. One can only imagine how different the perspectives of a wealthy British ambassador would be from a French resistance fighter in the meetings following the liberation of Paris, and so this work should be read with this knowledge in mind. Of course, the other disadvantage in drawing from his diaries is that his account focuses on the diplomatic circles of Paris and as a consequence fails to reveal much about the everyday Parisian who was struggling as a result of the war. In the Chapter 23 “A Tale of Two Cities”, the authors begin to divulge the lives of the less fortunate of Paris but fail to devote much time to the poor, instead deciding to focus on the gossip and trivial details of both occupied and liberated France. The reader learns much about such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Beach, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell. While the authors did well to uncover very intimate details regarding these people, one wonders at the usefulness of learning of a drunken binge between Hemingway and Sartre while most Parisians were struggling even to obtain food and water.
The discussion of these figures throughout the book tends to isolate any reader who is unfamiliar with famous intellectuals who thrived in Paris. While Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre may be well-known names to those familiar with modern French history, the authors insert these people into their work with little introduction and slowly elaborate as the book progresses. The reader is further isolated through the use of purely French phrases that are presented with no translation. Although the meaning of the French is not always necessary for understanding, there are times when translation is essential in comprehending the true message of the author. For instance, the phrase “Le Roi . . . Pourquoi pas?” was inserted when discussing elections in post-liberation Paris and without translation it is difficult for a non-French speaking reader to appreciate the importance of using this phrase in the context. Added to this is the detailed description of Paris’ locations which are mentioned in fleeting detail and without any map for reference. Still it is interesting to hear of the daily happenings and development of theaters, accommodations, and multifarious establishments of Paris during this period and the authors do bring the city of Paris alive through their descriptive writing.
Although Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949 may at times be inaccessible and focus too much on the diplomats and French Communists at the expense of the lower classes, the authors have done well to shed new light on the history of Paris after liberation. Beevor and Cooper reveal much about the tension and conflict that existed in Paris between resistors and collaborators, the right and left-wing, and the internal struggle of Parisians coming to terms with an increasing American influence in their city. Their study provides an excellent background to understanding how modern Paris came to be and why there is underlying discontent in France’s relationship with the United States. While the writing on intellectuals in Paris is at times gossipy and trivial, the book does give an excellent account of how Paris came to be an international Mecca for intellectual and artistic talent. Perhaps the greatest strength of Paris After the Liberation is that it almost reads like a novel, making it accessible to the average history enthusiast and not just historians and scholars researching the subject matter. In a world where history often repeats itself, Beevor and Cooper should be commended for making their work accessible to more people and exposing how a city deals with the aftermath of a long and bitter war.