During the afternoon of May 16, 1940, flames rose from the block of Foreign Office buildings on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. Earlier that morning the alarming news that the Germans were approaching Laon, less than 100 miles northeast of the French capital, had sent the government into a panic; by 11 am all ministers and staff were told to ready themselves for departure at any time.
Part of these preparations lay in the destruction of the archives, and Alexis Léger, secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, began immediately. After the orders were given, the windows of the Foreign Office overlooking the Left Bank of the Seine were flung wide open, and thousands of files were thrown onto the lawn, gathered in piles, and set alight.
While the order to prepare for imminent departure was rescinded later that evening, what the average citizen of Paris had seen could not be undone. The smoke and flames were so thick that those on the other side of the city thought the Germans had arrived, and they became aware of the more alarming likelihood that their own government would abandon the city. By the time most government officials were on the roads, nearly two million Parisians, and millions more who had fled northern France and the Low Countries, were following behind.
Inevitably associated with France’s astonishingly rapid military defeat, the exodus from Paris is not given nearly the attention of the later Resistance. Even claims that the exodus lit the fuse of Resistance—if only by showing the French people’s instinctual aversion to living under occupation—convinces very few. Nevertheless, it remains one of the great human dramas of World War II.
The citizens of Paris who left the city in June 1940, and who came to feel like refugees in their own country, were preceded in May by more than two million refugees from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Like those who fled Paris, many of them left their homes ahead of the German advance, and they experienced in miniature the larger exodus of June and afterward—roads crowded with refugees traveling on foot or in loaded-down horse carts, all of them heading south into France while the French military headed north. This confluence of civilian and military people and machines clogging the roads became all too easy targets for German planes.
The refugees experienced an exhausted arrival in Paris, where they camped out in train stations, desperately trying to find family and friends they had become separated from along the way. They felt that they were either welcomed, pitied, or looked upon with suspicion by the Parisians, who continued on with their daily lives. Slowly, however, and especially after the Germans entered France on May 13 and the refugee numbers started to include fellow French people, the citizens of Paris began to suspect that they too might be among these fleeing crowds.
It was another month before the Nazis entered Paris, and up to then Parisians were caught in a situation that seems unbelievable today. With the media censored (and with what was allowed only being broadcast sporadically throughout the day), the government and military and the general populace clinging to a simple French pride that saw defeat as impossible, and with officials downplaying or attempting to keep the experiences of the refugees quiet, the majority of those in Paris remained ignorant as to how dire the situation already was.
“They will see we are not Poles or Norwegians!” the American journalist A.J. Liebling overheard one citizen saying, remarking himself, “Confidence was a duty.” Initial suggestions to evacuate the city were condemned as defeatist and part of some fifth column plot to demoralize the people. After the war, the writer Léon Werth recalled seeing that the grass on the Champs Élysées was still being tended to and thinking, “If the situation was serious they would not bother to water the grass.”
But as May turned into June, as the disaster at Dunkirk unfolded, and despite a May 19 order explicitly forbidding civilian evacuation of the city, people came around to the inevitable. “While we were talking, sadly and quietly, among the trees,” one remembered, “the French were losing the war.” Georgette Guillot, a secretary at the Ministry of the Interior, wrote of the moment when she and her colleagues began to feel ashamed “to be negligently sitting at the terrace of a café.”
Historian Marc Bloch, who was later executed in 1944 for his part in the Resistance, wrote of those early days: “Had we not had the atrocious images of the ruins of Spain [the aerial bombings of Guernica and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War] frequently put before our eyes in cinemas? Had we not been repeatedly exposed to report after report on the martyred Polish villages?”
It was naïve to assume that Paris would not be next, and on June 3 the Renault and Citroën factories in the 15th and 16th Arrondissements were bombed; hundreds of civilians were killed and their homes destroyed. Three days later a second French defensive line collapsed, sending into Paris new waves of French refugees, who were now joined by French troops. Liebling wrote of “garbage trucks parked in the middle of the street to balk airplane landings,” and on June 8 all schools in Paris were closed. The wave of departures already emanating from the city began to swell. That day, a confident German journalist wrote with glee, “The horses of our Eastern Prussian cavalry are already drinking from the Seine,” as they were now less than 40 miles away.
On June 10, the entire government left for Tours, and like the refugees these officials could not stay put, moving later to Bordeaux, Clermont Ferrand, and finally to the resort town of Vichy. The city’s gasoline reserves were set on fire on June 11, and those left behind, mostly the elderly and the very poor, thought the smoke was evidence of the German arrival. But it was merely another dark beacon for the advancing enemy army, which finally entered the city on Friday, June 14.
By then all roads out of Paris were filled with refugees from the city, the Low Countries, and northern France. Those who had left their homes in the city had done so in a rush. Writer Rupert Downing recalled steadfastly refusing “to look too long at my possessions, lest the temptation to try and take them prove too much for me,” while others had no idea what to do, packing and unpacking over and over. Those who could had boarded the last impossibly crowded trains west to Brittany, or south.
But for the rest, the later Resistance leader Marie-Madeleine Fourcade summed up their situation: “People loaded furniture and knick-knacks onto vehicles of all kinds, as houses were cleared of their contents and passengers, furniture and objects alike took shelter under pyramids of mattresses. Dog owners killed their pets so they would not have to feed them. In this sad frenzy of departure people rescued whatever possessions they could save…. Weeping women pushed old people who had been squashed into prams.”
The American journalist Virginia Cowles also recalled seeing a hearse overloaded with children.
After the war, one refugee was almost ashamed to admit that the initial few days on the road had the feeling of a “large countryside party” or some holiday adventure that included lucky good weather, the chance to sleep outdoors, and picnics along the way. Journalist Georges Sadoul especially remembered the teenagers: “The happiest of them all are these 18-year-olds who dash by in gangs on bikes, boys and girls traveling light who appear almost cheerful in their [newly gained] freedom heading toward the unknown.”
This was before broken axles, and then abandoned trucks and cars, and then abandoned belongings of all kinds littered the roadside. The slow discovery came that they had all either packed too much, packed sentimentally rather than practically, or simply overdressed in layers of clothes they ended up peeling away under the warm sun. Nearly everyone also ran out of food in only a few days.
Once the French military appeared on the roads and began picking up as many civilians as it could, Germans began attacking these now slow-moving columns, and parents with small children made various preparations. Identification papers were put into the children’s socks in case they lost their shoes. Mothers on foot allowed their children to be taken by military convoys or refugees who had trucks or cars, preferring the safety of a hopefully brief separation until the next village or town to the increasingly open risk of being on the road. And so almost immediately messages began to appear chalked on roadsides or left at official buildings, detailing where certain families were or begging for information on someone now lost. For the duration of the war, newspapers in the south would overflow with columns of “missing notices,” and from 1940 to 1942, the Red Cross reunited an astounding 90,000 children who had been separated from their parents.
As the journey was so sluggish and halting, sometimes as slow as eight miles an hour, cars either broke down or just ran out of gas. Léon Werth wrote of traveling 70 feet at a time and then stopping for six or seven hours while the more affluent who had set off comfortably with maps now hitched rides with peasants and their horse-drawn carts. The recollections of so many reached back into history for the right description. The streaming crowds were compared to those who had escaped Pompeii or to the barbarian migrations of the 4th century; they were something out of the Dark Ages or Middle Ages, something out of a medieval feast day procession, a medieval famine, or a Brueghel painting. Virginia Cowles wrote simply enough, “The great bridge over the Loire looked like a long thin breadcrust swarming with ants.”
The usual civilities slowly eroded. The aunt of Georgette Guillot’s friend died along the way, and with nowhere to bury her she was strapped to the roof of a car; after sleeping for a night in a barn, her family rose to find the car and the body with it was gone.
Journalist Gilles Perrault, only nine at the time of the exodus, remembered the sleepless nights on the road, disturbed by the screams of women being raped. The refugees were horrendously overcharged by the first farmers, shops, restaurants, or gas stations they came across, and as a result they became pillagers, using abandoned houses for shelter and gardens for food. In one instance they entered a village screaming, “The Germans are coming!” Once the villagers fled, their homes and stores were emptied at will. Shocked, Rupert Downing slowly came to the realization “that I had now joined the ranks of those who had fled from Poland, Belgium, Holland, and now France. We were refugees.”
By this time the Germans were continuing their push south, and the aftermath of their aerial attacks, the private scenes of such a public horror, were many and terrible. The body of a young girl was rolled up in some blankets, her father carrying the bundle and in search of a cemetery. A mother was barely able to drive, but now with her husband shot dead she made her way with their three children. One witness, only a child at the time, remembered thinking it was all a game. “We felt like we were playing at Robin Hood or Cowboys and Indians…. We didn’t realize how serious it was.”
Meanwhile, to avoid German air attacks some preferred to travel only at night, while trains carrying civilians did so in the evening with all the lights out. It is not hard to imagine the anxiety of an overcrowded, deafeningly silent train traveling through the French countryside in the summer darkness.
Perhaps most psychologically damaging of all, however, was the fact that many refugees had no ultimate destination in mind, and hardly any of them, those from the Low Countries or the north, or the working-class from Paris, knew exactly where they were, having never been south. One woman recalled that people simply “followed along in a line as if we were all going to the same place.” Writer Georges Adrey recalled, “Nothing is worse than walking straight ahead, on the off-chance, without being able to stop somewhere and say, ‘On such and such a day, at such and such a time, our ordeal will come to an end.’”
For some, this simply became their life during the war. Novelist Roland Dorgèles wandered from town to town for four years “camping here, renting elsewhere, moving further away, always seeking a safer place.”
Aside from those who branched off and headed west for Brittany, south was the only direction the refugees could go, to Chartres and Orleans, Nantes and Tours, over the River Loire where many mistakenly though the Germans would halt their advance, to Dijon and Limoges and Vichy, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Especially after the Atlantic coast was declared in the zone of German occupation, refugees flooded the handful of major towns on or near the Mediterranean. Marseilles was called the capital of the exodus, while the population of Cahors ballooned from 13,000 to nearly 70,000. Simone de Beauvoir described a village café, which must have been a good spot for a game of checkers or backgammon, as “a huge railroad station buffet.”
After the initial shock, local populations came to consider it their duty to the help the displaced. Many found jobs that made them reluctant to return home when the possibility arose, while others found themselves amusingly useless outside of an urban environment, grateful but astonished at the hospitality of those living in villages without electricity, and who still cooked over an open fire.
A little girl at the time of the exodus later recalled her family’s rural shock. “We were astonished to find that the house only had an earthen floor. My mother, father, and brother slept in the attic where there were five stacks of maize under the mattress. What seemed strange to us was that we were in our own country and we had discovered another world.” Others, the danger notwithstanding, continued to find a vacation experience in their journey. Some who made it south had never been to the sea, while the factory workers of Paris, who rarely left their stuffy apartment blocks, were not about to end what amounted to a cheap seaside holiday.
One large group that could not take even this solace was the Jews of France and the Low Countries. Many of the former had arrived in France from Russia and Eastern Europe in the years after World War I, and as the new war neared the population most vulnerable to German aggression was nevertheless suspected of being part of some fifth column seeking to defeat France from within. As a result, foreign Jews were interned in a handful of camps spread throughout the country, and after the Germans entered the north the French government had the decency to transfer Jews interned there to camps in the south.
Inevitably, though, just as the Belgian and other Low Country refugees had become objects of suspicion, the fleeing Parisians also found another scapegoat for their predicament. Cries of “We have been betrayed!” easily turned into “The Jews sold us out.” As the French military defeat came to pass, however, and as the armistice allowed the Nazis to extradite anyone they wanted, those interned rightly feared being handed over, and many (though far from all) camp officials allowed those Jews to escape and attempt to leave the country.
So much is told by the stories of two Jewish writers who attempted to flee France. Walter Benjamin, who had already left Germany a decade earlier, fled Paris and made it to Spain, hoping to immigrate to the United States through Portugal. On September 25, when it seemed the Spanish were about to return him to France, he took an overdose of morphine rather than face that future. A few months later, Hannah Arendt, with the help of an American diplomat who issued more than 2,000 illegal visas for Jews, was able to leave France, pass through Spain to Portugal, and arrive in New York. Chance, more than anything else, is what mattered. People died for no reason and survived for no reason.
This occurred after French Jews, 90 percent of whom lived in Paris, had been among the first to flee the city. Many of them, including those who had served in World War I, were caught in an inconceivable situation. They felt they had proven their loyalty to France and considered it unpatriotic to leave. The Vichy government, which ended up rescinding the citizenship of many recently naturalized Jews and sent upward of 60,000 demobilized foreign Jewish soldiers to internment camps, had no illusions and openly encouraged the Jews of Bordeaux to leave the country. Countless stories were told of those who made it to a port and, tickets and all the necessary paperwork in hand, prevaricated in the overnight before their departure, boarding and disembarking their ship only to finally stay in the country. Léon Werth wrote, “They could not and would not leave their France.”
There were also those who refused to return home, and in time their presence in villages and towns did put a strain on the locals. Initially the government had offered aid to French refugees, and one way of forcing them to repatriate was to cancel the benefits. Even in this situation, however, people stayed, and they found living a little bit desperately or with families who kept them on and expected very little in return to be preferable.
This refusal to repatriate was understandable, after all, since so many felt their government had abandoned them. Virginia Cowles described the previous government as “leaders who had given them no directions, no information, no reassurances; who neither had arranged for their evacuation nor called on them to stay at their places and fight for Paris.”
By the time it was in a place to demand everyone’s orderly return, the Vichy government was merely assisting the Nazis. This sad conclusion had been arrived at slowly during the middle and end of June. On the 13th, the day before the Germans entered Paris, it was declared an open city to save it from the fighting. Three days later, upon the news that President Franklin Roosevelt would not help and after the French government also refused the extraordinary offer of uniting Great Britain and France into one Franco-British union, there was nothing left to do the next day but accept the German terms of surrender.
On June 17, at 11:30 in morning, the new prime minister and a hero of World War I, Marshal Philippe Pétain, addressed France over the radio, announcing he would seek an armistice. All towns with a population greater than 20,000 were declared open, and the disheartening sight began of French soldiers marching on their own toward Germany. Assuming that a British capitulation was imminent, many of them became prisoners so willingly under the belief that the war would be over soon enough and they would be demobilized and sent home. As it happened, a million and a half were sent to POW camps, and more than 900,000 were still there in 1944. Other soldiers simply wandered off or became part of the crowd of refugees.
One diarist wrote, “Unarmed soldiers are wandering around aimlessly. In our only local paper a long column publishes messages not just from families seeking one another, but even from officers who would like to find their companies or regiments! What have we come to?”
News of the impending armistice, which was signed on June 21, came as a shock to the refugees, and many only heard the June 17 broadcast in another’s home or through the open windows they were passing. They must have wondered why they had bothered to leave, since many would have stayed in Paris had they known it would be declared open. Instead, they were far from home and continued to be attacked until June 25, when the armistice went into effect. Those who saw no reason to continue wandering tried to return to Paris, but many found bridges and rail lines and stations destroyed. By early July, as the total number of refugees in France was estimated at close to eight million, of which 6.2 million were French, it was to the benefit of the Germans and the new Vichy government that they be returned.
This could only be done with the collaboration of the two forces, and as Hitler was actively planning an invasion of Great Britain he told Mussolini it was imperative the French government remain in the country. The implementation of Occupied and Unoccupied Zones in France was his way of achieving this, of appearing to give Pétain some sense of remaining in power, when all it actually did was allow the Vichy government to denigrate the failures of the previous regime and in turn allow the Germans to portray themselves as saviors. One widespread tract began: “Poor French people, see how your government and its prefects have abandoned you, how they have lied to you and presented us as barbarians, raping women and massacring men, when we are all ready to help you.”
What this meant for the refugees was a fairly surprising series of logistical feats. By July 20, enough railway lines and bridges had been repaired to allow for regular train service from the Unoccupied Zone into Paris, and from August 11 service was spread to the rest of the country. By October and November, the majority of the refugees had been returned home one way or another. Of course, there were the expected nightmares. Pierre Girard wrote of the eight days it took to travel less than 300 miles, from Clermont Ferrand to Paris. Much of the repatriation occurred before the Germans could consistently monitor the demarcation line so that travelers in some areas passed back and forth easily, while others faced Germans who ruthlessly followed protocol on paperwork, identification, and luggage restrictions. Other times, the demarcation line was closed suddenly and seemingly arbitrarily, and sometimes trains or cars could not run due to a shortage of fuel. One French official wrote of the sad situation he and his friends endured, remembering a discussion about gasoline that sounded “as if we were connoisseurs talking about our wine cellars and our most precious wines in better days.”
Many refugees, however, returned to a Paris that was quite different from the city they had evacuated. The clocks had been set ahead an hour to match Berlin, and the city was under curfew with major roads in and out blocked with sandbags. To some, it took time for reality to set in, and so for a moment it was merely amusing to note that most of the German soldiers were carrying cameras and acting like tourists. Parisians said things like, “We were told they were so terrible! But they are so very nice,” and some could grin at the relationships budding between German soldiers and French women, the horrible retributive violence those women would undergo still years away.
The day the Germans entered Paris, the official newspaper of the Nazi party, the Völkischer Beobachter, gloated, “Paris was a city of frivolity and corruption, of democracy and capitalism, where Jews had entry to the court, and niggers to the salons. That Paris will never rise again.”
Soon enough, the occupying forces dropped the veneer of soldierly decency and lived up to these words. In September it was announced that civilians would be imprisoned or executed if Germans were attacked, and the writer Maurice Sachs called occupied Paris “a rather lovely spectacle like that of a destroyed civilization.”
Simone de Beauvoir, who had fled Paris and returned by the beginning of July, wrote later that month with astonishing clarity about what had already happened to her city and her country. She said of the exodus that for three weeks she had been nowhere, and had been no one, everyone caught in a kind of collective anguish that robbed them of their individuality. “Nowhere did I get a better feel for what victory must have meant for the Germans,” she said, than by their obvious self-satisfaction, adding, “There was not a French face that wasn’t a living defeat.”
This defeat seems best illustrated not by the shoddy French government or by fleeing soldiers, but by the terrified exodus of ordinary people at their most powerless and desperate. One woman de Beauvoir met “lived in terror of being abandoned by everyone and shot.” While the later Resistance had its share of executed French men and women, it was also backed up with a collective strength embodied in the words of an anonymous pamphlet, which appeared as early as late 1940: “Don’t be under any illusion: these people aren’t tourists. Take your time, ignore what they say, shun their concerts and their parades.”
The exodus produced no words like these and was merely millions of people unmoored from their civilian lives and utterly helpless in the face of the advancing enemy. The entirety is all there in a scene Virginia Cowles witnessed during one of the early days on the road. A van had run out of gas halfway up a hill, and its occupants, a mother and her four children, were blocking the way, desperately begging for someone to give them gasoline. After no one did, Cowles wrote, “Three men climbed out of a truck and in spite of her agonized protests, shoved the car into the ditch. It fell with a crash. The rear axle broke and the household possessions piled on top sprawled across the field. She screamed out a frenzy of abuse, then flung herself on the ground and sobbed. Once again the procession moved on.”
That was not the France anyone wanted to remember, made selfish and brutal by the terror of this new life. Nearly all the voices from the exodus are silent, the few surviving either those of writers or those reluctantly interviewed in old age. A huge silence of mostly women and children remains, their men off fighting or interned, and there is mostly silence from those of the Low Countries whose homes were destroyed.
This silence is impossible to sum up, but grief beside a grave is as good an image to use as any. Novelist Irene Nemirovsky, who later died in Auschwitz, concluded the following about her government’s collapse, and in doing so perhaps speaks for the exodus as well. “The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realize that she is dead, their Republic, their freedom. They are mourning her.”
First-time contributor Tim Miller resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This article by Tim Miller first appeared in the Warfare History Network on January 13, 2019.
Image: Wrecked vehicles at Calais railway station. May 1940. German Federal Archive.