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Enlightenment: Ronald Rosbottom on 'When Paris Went Dark' (Q&A)

Ronald Rosbottom's 'When Paris Went Dark' is available today from Little, Brown and Company.

Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Ronald Rosbottom.

Mr. Rosbottom is the author of When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 (Little, Brown and Company, $28.00), which is out today. Currently, he is the Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities and Professor of French and European Studies at Amherst College; Rosbottom previously served as the Dean of the Faculty at Amherst, Chair of the Romance Languages Department at Ohio State University, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. He makes his home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Advance praise for When Paris Went Dark has been enthusiastic. Kirkus awarded the title a starred review and noted, "Rosbottom explains the interactions of the French and their occupiers in a way that illuminates their separate miseries … The author attentively includes German and French letters and journals that explain the loneliness, desperation, and the very French way of getting by … A profound historical portrait of Paris for anyone who loves the city." Further, Scott Turow (Presumes Innocent) praised, "When Paris Went Dark recounts, through countless compelling stories, how Nazi occupation drained the light from Paris and how many of its residents resisted in ways large and small. This is a rich work of history, a brilliant recounting of how hope can still flourish in the rituals of daily life."

From the publisher:

The spellbinding and revealing chronicle of Nazi-occupied Paris

On June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and nearly deserted Paris. Eight days later, France accepted a humiliating defeat and foreign occupation. Subsequently, an eerie sense of normalcy settled over the City of Light. Many Parisians keenly adapted themselves to the situation-even allied themselves with their Nazi overlords. At the same time, amidst this darkening gloom of German ruthlessness, shortages, and curfews, a resistance arose. Parisians of all stripes-Jews, immigrants, adolescents, communists, rightists, cultural icons such as Colette, de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre, as well as police officers, teachers, students, and store owners-rallied around a little known French military officer, Charles de Gaulle.

WHEN PARIS WENT DARK evokes with stunning precision the detail of daily life in a city under occupation, and the brave people who fought against the darkness. Relying on a range of resources---memoirs, diaries, letters, archives, interviews, personal histories, flyers and posters, fiction, photographs, film and historical studies---Rosbottom has forged a groundbreaking book that will forever influence how we understand those dark years in the City of Light.

Now, Ronald Rosbottom sheds new light on Paris under Occupation …

1) What inspired you to write WHEN PARIS WENT DARK – and how do you feel that your book differs from others that have been written on the subject?

I have loved Paris since I first lived there as a student. Once I became a professor of French, I revisited dozens of times. A few years ago I created a course at Amherst College on the history of modern Paris, and of course the four years of the Occupation marked and still marks the city. I wanted to know what it was like to have lived daily cheek-to-jowl with a dangerous enemy in the world’s most beautiful city.

2) How do you endeavor to bring history to life for the reader – and how have your experiences in education shaped this approach?

The best teachers are story-tellers, I have found. No matter what you are teaching, if you can structure it as a narrative, it will not only interest students, but help them remember what you are trying to inculcate. That’s what I try to do in my book: tell a collection of stories, loosely connected, from a variety of points of view—French, German, conservative, resistant, Jewish, Gentile, adolescent, adult, and so forth—to build a master narrative that will help my readers understand the complexity of living under military occupation in a metropolis.

3) Tell us about the resources that you drew upon to shape your narrative. How did these enhance your telling of the story?

I decided early not to limit myself to traditional historical and archival resources. If I was to reveal this “narrative,” I needed to explore all the sources I could find. I interviewed a couple of dozen persons who lived during that period, and sometimes their children. I read French accounts that were printed right after the Occupation, but that have gone unread for a half century. I read contemporary magazines and newspapers; I read memoirs of French, Germans, Americans and others who knew intimately the period. I sought the testimonies—videotaped, recorded, and written—of dozens of Jews who have left us their memories. I watched films of the periods, read novels and stories written during the Occupation, and many written since that have tried through fiction what I’m trying to do through non-fiction.

My “story” is their “stories,” and thus richer.

4) Paris and its people are at the heart of this story. How does setting become a character – and what do you believe your portrait may add to people’s perception of the iconic city?

This is an excellent question for it brings up the aspect of my book the most difficult to explain: how does a city, living in a city, determine who we are and how we act? Does the built environment really affect ethical choice? Paris was already a city with a strong history of freedom, independence, with a powerful tendency of revolt, with self-confidence about its place--because its builders had wanted it so--not only in France, not only in Europe, but in the world. This meant that many Parisians had, through osmosis, adopted those characteristics. Like New Yorkers today who are proud of being distinctive in behavior and language, so were Parisians in the 1940s (and today). This meant the city was difficult to “occupy,” that the Germans had to carefully walk through the minefield of a city that had given its denizens the confidence to face their tormentors.

5) Lastly, what do you believe are the most relevant lessons from the occupation as pertaining to contemporary world affairs?

Military occupation will inevitably weary both sides. Daily, it reminds the occupied, in every aspect of their lives, that they are not free to live as they want, love as they want, think as they want. And it weakens, eventually, the occupier, who finds it more and more difficult to justify restricting the emotional, affective lives of those it must keep watch over. An occupation, always based on force, reveals the limits of that force to ensure long-term safety, comity, and ethical certainty. The French after only four years of occupation are still, seven decades later, trying to reconcile their memories with what history reminds that they did in order to survive. And Germany is so reticent to show any suggestion of force against its neighbors that it has removed from its bag of weapons one of the essential tools of a powerful nation: the threat of force.


With thanks to Ronald Rosbottom for his generosity of time and thought and to Morgan Moroney, Publicist at Little, Brown and Company, for facilitating this interview.

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