Dr Nigel Perrin, French Resistance historian and Paris tour guide extraordinaire, told me about the other November 11 — November 11, 1940 — that many of you may not know about.
On November 11, 1918, France and its allies signed an armistice with Germany, bringing World War I to an end. For the French, who had lost nearly 1.4 million soldiers, Armistice Day became a national day of commemoration.
In May 1940, Hitler invaded France. Just six weeks later, Parisians were horrified to see German troops marching into their city. While the French government quickly threw in the towel, Charles de Gaulle, a little-known general at the time, fled to London to carry on the fight.
Swastikas replaced the tricolor flag and La Marseillaise was banned. An uneasy form of daily life slowly returned–people filtered back to work, kids were sent back to school. The French police continued to keep order, even though they were now expected to salute German servicemen in the street. Parisians went about their business, trying to ignore their unwelcome guests. One schoolteacher noted how Germans were treated like dogs or cats in the street, unworthy of attention.
But they were still there and made their presence known. Every day a German military band marched from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées. Paris-Soir, Le Matin and other French dailies on the newsstands were now all censored and competed for space with glossy German magazines.
The Nazi occupation was run from the Hotel Majestic near the Arc de Triomphe (today the Peninsula) and German officers moved into the best real estate in town, taking over palatial mansions along the Avenue Foch, the widest of Paris’s leafy boulevards leading off the Arc de Triomphe. Hundreds of thousands of soldier-tourists were soon flocking to the Eiffel Tower and joining sightseeing tours. They saluted the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc.
Hitler ordered his troops to play nice—to always wear a tie in public, not to plunder French stores, to be good neighbors. The reason was simple: a docile population would be easier to control. Even though new laws persecuted Jews, the worst horrors of deportation and the holocaust lay ahead, and obvious signs of Nazi brutality towards Parisians had yet to materialize.
Nevertheless, students began showing their opposition. They started posting little stickers around town, urging people to wake up and fight back. The ‘V’ symbol – for victory – could easily be chalked on a wall or even on a German officer’s back. They had heard of Charles de Gaulle’s June 18 speech on the BBC’s French Service, declaring that their country had lost a battle but not the war. The flame of resistance, he reminded them, must not and will not be extinguished.
The Germans declared that Armistice Day commemorations on November 11 were banned. Rather than remembering a day of victory for the French and defeat for the Germans, everybody was instead encouraged to observe November 2 – All Souls’ Day – to pay tribute to the dead from both sides. That stung. World War I was still a recent memory, and most French families had lost loved ones fighting the same enemy now parading in their streets.
Students started to pass around scribbled notes, urging classmates to march on the Champs-Elysées. November 11 was the day of a great victory — 11 November 1940 will signal an even greater one!
On November 11, students did what the French do so well: they protested.
Walking up the Champs-Elysees that morning, small groups laid flowers bound with tricolor ribbons at the foot of the statue of Georges Clemenceau. Clemenceau, the French prime minister who had led France to victory in 1918, was a powerful national symbol. For the Germans, he was a reminder of the humiliation and hardship suffered in defeat. As soon as French police removed the bouquets, more appeared. 750 were left there that day.
‘Most historians overlook it, but the spaces and places of Paris played an important role in shaping the course of the occupation’, says Dr. Perrin. ‘In many ways, Parisians felt much more connected to their city at that time, and landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe became supercharged symbols for them.’
During the afternoon, the situation became tense. As more people assembled, curious passers-by joined in. Some carried two fishing poles, deux gaules, as a shout-out to Charles de Gaulle. By late afternoon, between three and ten thousand protesters massed by the Arc de Triomphe. They had taken their fight not only to the Arc, symbolizing the pride of the French nation itself, but to the Nazis’ own doorstep. A punch-up with pro-fascist youths outside a nearby brasserie only raised the temperature. Something had to give. Around 5pm, the French police, trying to hold back the crowds, began to lose control.
German soldiers stationed nearby stepped in with rifles, bayonets fixed. Moments later, the shooting started. Hundreds of teenage protesters broke loose, crying Vive de Gaulle and throwing stones at German trucks attempting to block the sidewalks. Micheline Bood, a teenager caught up in the chaos, watched as a cowering German officer was beaten up in a sidestreet. ‘Too bad for him’, she wrote, ‘he was a Boche’ (a favorite French slang term for a German).
They arrested about 150 students, throwing them in the Cherche-Midi Military Prison in the sixth arrondissement (razed in 1966). After some rough handling, some were made to stand outside in the rain for hours and subjected to a mock execution. A few received short jail sentences.
Remarkably, no-one was killed that day. But the events of November 11, 1940 marked a turning point in the relationship between the occupier and the occupied. The Sorbonne was closed for a month. Then, on Christmas Eve, notices were pasted across the city announcing the execution of Jacques Bonsergent, a civilian engineer accused of hitting a German soldier (a metro station was later named in his honor). The veil had been lifted. The German occupation was going to be ugly.
Fueled by the events of November 11 and new clampdowns, resistance grew, slowly turning the streets of Paris into the battleground of a new, secret war. Only after four long years of occupation would Charles de Gaulle finally return to lead the victory procession from the Arc de Triomphe, cheered on by more than a million newly liberated Parisians. Although commemorated by a plaque by a metro exit on the Champs-Elysées, it’s easy to overlook the bravery of those ordinary, young Parisians and the stand they took for freedom.
It’s a secret worth remembering.
Dr Nigel Perrin is a British writer, lecturer and broadcaster on Nazi Paris, resistance and wartime secret agents. For information on his private tours, contact email@example.com
Yvonne Hazelton is an American (Texan-Californian) writer living in Paris. You can find her work at Secrets of Paris, HIP Paris, and Inspirelle, among other places. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading, cooking, or flaneuse-ng about Paris.