Dorothy Thompson: High comedy will mock Nazi rule on Paris (8-23-44)

Reading Eagle (August 23, 1944)

Dorothy Thompson1

High comedy will mock Nazi rule on Paris

By Dorothy Thompson

Today it is difficult to recapture the feeling that gripped the world in June 1940 when Paris fell, and with Paris, France, men’s hearts and minds were paralyzed. Even in America, months before this war had become our own, there was anguish, and a terrible fear that as far as continental Europe was concerned, Western civilization had gone.

Militarily, there was no continental counterbalance. Russia stood aloof, neutral, mysterious. There were few who believed Britain could survive, or do more than hold out for a compromise peace. With the fall of Paris, America had become more isolated than in her entire history – a big island, covered only by a little island, rocking under siege.

In a political sense it was the great breakthrough of fascism, that seemed chosen by destiny to rule the world. In Paris, a quick-eyed camera caught a picture of Adolf Hitler in a capering mincing dance of joy.

So overwhelming was the German force, so swift and disastrous the defeat, that it seemed like an act of nature and at the outset was accepted with a kind of fatalism, as something preordained. In that moment the Germans appeared, even to their victims, as supermen. As they marched through the city, tall, clean, superbly clothed, with the shining rivers of their strange, gleaming, irresistible machines, they awakened a reluctant admiration. From Vichy, Pétain’s wavering voice deepened the French feeling of inferiority. Perhaps it was in the logical nature of things that the strong should win and rule.

Thus, a capricious woman, mastered against her will, may feel a certain dependency and security in the strength and desire of her master. There was something of that, for a brief moment, in France. Who knows? It might have lasted – if the master had not started to reeducate her. That is always the German mistake.

And ordinary men do not remain supermen for four years. A parade isa one thing; an occupation is another. Parisians began to see Germans with their boots off. A successful occupation army must understand the country and the people whom it rules. The Germans could not understand Paris. When they ceased to be conquering tourists, they were homesick strangers. Bit by bit they became not only oppressive, but ridiculous.

In the latitude of the spirit, it is farther from Berlin to Paris than from Berlin to Moscow or London.

The spirit of Paris is wiry and tough; the German spirit heavy and brittle. Parisians are conventional but not disciplined; tolerant but exclusive; skeptical but not credulous; witty, not humorous; lucid, and never sentimental.

Paris is the city of Pissarro, Seurat, Utrillo, who convey its beauty in light and vibrancy, a manner of seeing and painting that no German has ever mastered, in art or in life. Despite that it was mental but graceful. Nothing is overblown; everything is in moderation. Moderation is so un-German that the Germans make vices out of their very virtues, committing, as George Bernard Shaw remarked back in 1901, hideous crimes but always and only in the name of duty. The Parisians care little for “order.” But they have equilibrium. Nor is their laugh the belly-howl of farce, but the fine grin of comedy. in Paris, the satyr is a satirist.

Thus, years from now, when the sufferings of these four years are dimmed, I am sure it will be no French tragedian who will immortalize the four years of German occupation, but a new Moliere, making of it a high comedy – the kind of comedy that destroys, forever, with irony.

The crumbling of the German prestige began with the Parisians long before their armies began to disintegrate. Paris continued to belong to the Parisians. The Germans were everywhere and everywhere on the outside. They wanted to be liked. They strutted their stuff. They wooed the already conquered. When that happens, however, a man is lost. Rejected, the Germans resumed the masterly role and shot those who repulsed them. but nothing is more ridiculous than a superman, wavering between presenting bouquets and battering down the door.

I am sure that the Parisian feeling today is, “Thank God the British and Americans are coming to remove these idiotic bores.”

The Germans in Paris have suffered far more than a military defeat. They have suffered a psychological defeat, which in the long run will trouble and confuse them more. Not even defeat will do most to break the German spirit, but defeat coming atop years of unchallenged victory – and victory that proved pure illusion.