Berg on Glass, 'Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation'

Author: 
Charles Glass
Reviewer: 
Anne Berg

Charles Glass. Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Illustrations. xvi + 524 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59420-242-1.

Reviewed by Anne Berg (University of Michigan)
Published on H-TGS (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Josh Brown

These American Lives

Americans landed on the beach of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and slowly pushed the Nazi menace back across the Rhine, liberated France, linked up with the advancing Red Army just south of Berlin in late April, and presided over German unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. Charles Glass’s Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation tells an altogether different and refreshing story of American involvement in Europe during World War II. Unlike the title of the book suggests, this is a story of life and sometimes of love, a story of moderate privation but hardly one of death. It is also a story of negotiation, collaboration, and occasional resistance, and the binary juxtaposition of the latter two function as the main theoretical frame explicitly provided in the introduction.

The book reads like a novel and features an unusual cast of characters. Instead of soldiers and politicians, Glass recounts the experiences of war through the eyes of American expats who decided to stay in Paris after the city was occupied by Germany in the summer of 1940. There is Sylvia Beach who ran a bookshop and functioned as a central figure in literary circles in Paris. The countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun, connected to the high society of Vichy France and General Pétain by way of her son’s marriage and to the political aristocracy of America by virtue of her own marriage, maintained a particular dedication to her work at the American Library of Paris. At the American Hospital, the chief surgeon Dr. Sumner Jackson together with his wife Toquette worked tirelessly to thwart the occupiers. In contrast, the cast includes Charles Bedaux, the American businessman turned war profiteer and opportunistic collaborator, all the while continuing to play the role of the “unpolitical man.” Lastly, here is, of course, the “American mayor of Paris,” American ambassador William Bullitt, who found himself in charge of a city abandoned by the French government.

The Americans featured in this book were exclusively members of upper (middle) classes and part of a transnational intellectual bourgeoisie. They spoke with statesmen and presidents, they courted Nazi officials, and they befriended such renowned literary figures as Ernest Hemingway; one of them relied on forced labor and many found themselves in prison camps or under house arrest once the United States officially entered the war. Nonetheless, the protagonists, members of an odd elite, generally did not have to contend with excessive brutality, callousness, and whimsicality of the occupiers. Beach was able to move freely through Paris still in 1943 but allegedly her life in the city was more exhausting than in the internment camp she had escaped from at Vittel. Jackson and his wife were notable exceptions. After having actively assisted the organized French resistance, Sumner Jackson died in Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg, Germany. His son, imprisoned with him, and his wife, interned at Ravensbrück, survived the war.

There are additional though less prominently featured characters who enter and leave the narrative that Glass so skillfully constructs, but one in particular requires mention. Charles Anderson is not only left with the last word; his blackness literally bookends Glass’s cautiously celebratory tale. He was born in 1861 in Illinois, ran away from home, and fought with the U.S. Army “as it was completing the annihilation of the Indian tribes,” came to Europe in 1884, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, and fought in Africa during the Great War (p. 17). He and his French wife remained in Nazi-occupied Paris. When the U.S. Army liberated Paris and American troops marched through the city, Glass imagines Anderson to only notice “their white faces” (p. 411). But since his story does not intersect with those of the other Americans in this book, the details of his Parisian life remain shrouded in silence.

Having chosen to let the narrative drive the book, Glass misses the opportunity to forge connections between such glaring silences and the historical record in more explicitly analytical terms. Nonetheless, the author illustrates that Paris was less segregated than the United States, and that black Americans faced not only less outright racism but also fewer social barriers while abroad. The struggle of Eugene Bullard, an African American from Columbus, Georgia, is instructive in this regard. Bullard had traveled to Europe at the age of eleven and fought with the French against the Germans during the Great War at age nineteen. He remained in Paris where he later owned a nightclub, married, had two daughters, got divorced, and eventually worked for the French intelligence as a spy. When the Germans arrived in 1940, Bullard left Paris and joined the French Infantry in Orleans to fight the Germans. Wounded in battle and fleeing on a bicycle, he managed to secure a passport and escape to the United States. Bullard’s story, although hardly typical, nonetheless illustrates a central point that Glass wishes to make, namely, that Nazi racism made life exceedingly dangerous, if not impossible for black Americans in Paris. The survival of Anderson thus stands out even more starkly as an illustration of the questions the book raises but is unable to answer.

By virtue of his novelesque style, Glass makes two important interventions. First, he demonstrates through the different perspectives engaged that America played multiple, complicated, and at times conflicting roles in the European conflict. The book moreover demystifies (perhaps inadvertently) the concept of everyday life and ordinariness since hardly anything was ordinary in the lives of the Americans who remained in Nazi-occupied France. Secondly, the book illustrates how, different ideologies not withstanding, members of the international elite, whether businessmen, professionals, politicians, diplomats, bohemians, aristocrats, or intellectuals, maintained and forged connections across national and sometimes even frontlines. Beach’s literary circle, Bedaux’s business ventures, and Clara’s political connections are particularly revealing in this regard. Through such examples, the book suggests that personal histories and convictions rather than national sentiment determined the action and allegiances of Americans in ex-patria.

Glass claims at the outset that Americans in Paris “were among the most eccentric, original and disparate collection of their countrymen anywhere” (p. 1). By implication, and the narrative mode confirms this implication, their action or inaction and their collaboration or resistance (to keep with this problematic juxtaposition) are the logical result of their personal qualities and idiosyncracies, rather than the direct consequence of Nazi occupation and the harsh political, social, and racial realities that affected the lives of non-Americans in the city of Paris. Glass is obviously familiar with the important scholarship on German-occupied France. But only rarely does he allow this complex history to intrude on this American story. Parisians only enter the narrative in their relations with Americans. The city of Paris remains a backdrop to their lives and object of their desires. Similarly, the occupiers are relegated to the background, their villainous nature asserted but unexplored. Nazi practices, policies, and actions, as well as their views of Paris and Parisians and of America and American expats, are implied but seldom scrutinized. Americans are the sole actors in this story.

Thus the main weakness of Glass’s book—its narrow focus—also engenders the book’s main strength. The actors we do encounter are beautifully complex. They are far from unanimously good or steadfast in their anti-Nazism or their commitment to democratic principles. Thus their individual life stories collectively illustrate the slippery slope that links the spectrum of practice flattened by binaries of collaboration and resistance. In their daily pursuits, their desires, their relationships, and their occasional struggles, they appear entirely and wonderfully human. One might almost forget that for ordinary Parisians of different racial, social, and national characteristics, as for most of Europe, of course, the Nazis’ genocidal war was the only meaningful frame of reference.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=40476

Citation: Anne Berg. Review of Glass, Charles, Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. August, 2014.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40476

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