by Anne Sebba
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2016. Pp. xx, 480.
Illus., map, personae, notes, biblio., index. $27.99. ISBN: 1250048591
Women Coping with the Nazis
Sebba, author of well received biographies of Jennie Churchill, Mother Teresa, and others, takes up the question of how the women of Paris endured four years of Nazi occupation. This is a complex story, involving art and culture, high fashion, espionage, and more, as the people of Paris – men as well as women, foreigners as well as natives. Christians and Jews – and of France in general tried to live their normal lives in very unnormal times. Sebba makes clear that despite that postwar myth in which almost everyone, save for a few criminals and traitors, somehow had ties to the Resistance were many a forms of “resistance” and also of “collaboration”, and the two were not mutually exclusive It was, in her words, a world of “moral ambiguity”.
Most women – and men as well – were not Resistants, but neither were they necessarily “collaborators.” Rather, they were people caught upon a very dangerous web of law, loyalty, survival, patriotism, profit, and even love or hate. Many collaborated so long as the Vichy Regime – legally the legitimate government of France – was in power, while others resisted from the start, often paying with their lives. There were those who collaborated out of the need to survive, or because they profited, or because of ideological commitment.
In all three categories there were some of the great names of French public life and culture – such as fashionistas Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, philosopher Simon de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ukrainian novelist Irène Némirovsky, genuine Resistants such as Geneviève de Gaulle (niece of the general) and Denise du Fourniers, as well as many others. Some of those who spied for the Resistance, ran escape lines, or operated safe houses, died horribly, and some of those who collaborated – especially if they were already famous – got off easily during the Liberation, unlike the women who had their heads shaved, or worse, for sleeping with the enemy, some of whom had been gathering intelligence for the Underground.
Les Parisiennes will prove an enjoyable read for anyone interested in women in war, the Resistance, or World War II.