“It is not for the rest of us to judge, but with imagination, we can try to understand.”
Ok, so let us imagine that it’s June 1940. You are a young Frenchwoman living in the heart of Paris. The battle for France’s liberty and freedom is being waged by the French army, yet news travels that they are losing the fight – (and their lives) – against the might of Nazi Germany. The German enemy is practically on your doorstep.
Before you know it, France admits a humiliating defeat and hands control to the German victors. The Germans plan to integrate themselves into French society and enjoy their spoils – in other words, they turn everything that you previously knew upside-down! You have to face this much-feared enemy in your streets, in your theatres and in your restaurants. They demand respect and acknowledgement as the victors, yet many Frenchwomen know that although the Germans have won the battle, they hope and pray that they do not win the war. Well… certainly some of them do!
What would you do?
‘Les Parisiennes’ by Anne Sebba is a powerful book, because it forces its readers to answer that very question. If you had to decide between collaborating with the enemy who had the upper hand, or resisting their conquest in the face of brutal persecution… what would you decide?
I had such high expectations for this book, and I’m glad to say that Anne Sebba did not disappoint! I absolutely adored Anne’s biography on ‘That Woman’ Wallis Simpson, and the history of Occupied France is a subject which has fascinated me for many years. So an amazing author + intriguing subject… what more could I possibly wish for in a book?!
Anne does an astounding job in dismissing the beauty of hindsight. As soon as I read the first page and immersed myself in wartime France, I became temporarily unaware that Nazi Germany eventually lost the Second World War and that France’s liberty would be restored. Instead, you follow the stories of many brave, determined and by-all-accounts ordinary women, who all faced the terrifying realisation that they would confront the enemy. Although they didn’t fight the enemy on the battlefield like their menfolk, these women confronted an internal struggle everyday throughout the occupation. Do I resist, or do I collaborate?
This book is so well-researched and so incredibly detailed. Various women from all walks of life were interviewed and unearthed, in order that they could tell their incredible stories. Readers will encounter rich women; poor women, female celebrities and unknown heroines. Ordinary women like you and I, share their astonishing tales of collaboration, resistance or persecution.
By acknowledging that these women could not predict the future, I found myself almost sympathising with the ladies who accepted the Germans into French society. How were they to know that it wasn’t to last? Some of them fell head-over-heels in love with a German, whilst others sought an easier life in order to escape the hardships of war. Undeniably they pale in comparison to the stories of other women, who faced imprisonment -or even death! – in order to aid the French resistance. You are inspired by the accounts of those who defied the horrific Nazi ideology, and are incredibly moved by the lives of those who fell victim to it.
The passion which Anne Sebba had for this subject just shines through every page. You cannot help but be swept up by it! By immersing yourself in the everyday lives of these extraordinary women, you develop an immense feeling of admiration and respect. They all had difficult decisions to make during France’s defeat. Ok, so the paths which some women chose to take will leave you horrified and dismayed… yet there is inevitably an element of understanding there as well.
‘Les Parisiennes’ is a great social history book, which is utterly enthralling, exhilarating and educational. If you are a fan of Suite Francaise – which is also mentioned in the book – then this is the true history behind the story. Anne does an incredible job in transporting you back to wartime France, where women fought their own battles. ‘Les Parisienne’ does a great job in shedding some light on this fascinating period of history, and brings much-needed recognition to these ladies’ efforts and achievements. Collaborators, resistors or victims – after reading this book you’ll realise that it’s not as black-and-white as that. It’s very difficult to define a woman as one or the other, but they all played a part in France’s recovery and ultimate modern transformation. The life of a Frenchwoman would never be the same, no matter what role she played.
There is no denying though, that all of the women mentioned in ‘Les Parisiennes’, endured a very tense and divided time in French history. Undoubtedly, they continue to spark much debate today, and undergo much scrutiny and harsh judgement. Yet as Anne Sebba argues – and what I wholeheartedly encourage – we have the beauty of hindsight to dictate what our actions would have been. Those women unfortunately did not have that luxury. We should therefore no longer judge them, but by trying to emphasise with them, we could perhaps develop some sense of understanding. I hope that after reading this book, you may reach the same conclusion too.
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