Eighty years ago, on 10 May 1940, the German assault on Western Europe began.
The Nazi Wehrmacht stormed through the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg with devastating ease.
Paris was on edge. Remembering the previous war, the French government had prepared for a defensive conflict, and had not anticipated an invasion of the capital.
But, by the beginning of June, the Nazis began to bomb Paris ahead of their full-scale takeover of France.
This campaign of terror provoked an exodus – and the Biblical term is appropriate. The French government fled, soon followed by many of the city’s inhabitants.
The exodus is the subject of a new exhibition at the Musée de la Libération de Paris – Musée du Général Leclerc – Musée Jean Moulin in Paris, which has recently opened on a new site in the heart of the capital.
Bringing together rarely seen archive film, as well as many photographs, the exhibition focuses on the sense of urgency that provoked Parisians to flee the Nazi storm.
Hanna Diamond is a curator of the exhibition. Her 2007 book Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 considers the exodus ‘an important modern event in its own right’.
Diamond wrote of the disparity between wealthy Parisians, ‘people who had nothing to lose, people who had money, people who had salaried jobs’, who made arrangements to leave well in advance, and those who fled at the last minute.
The latter typically tried the train stations first, only to find them gridlocked. ‘If all else failed,’ she wrote, ‘they would pick up whatever wheeled vehicle they could find.’
Something like this eventuality appears to be happening in this image, which shows a family who have piled their belongings – valuables, clothes, and even bedcovers – onto a cart in order to flee on foot.
Such a sight would have been common on the routes out of the city, along with more bicycles, trucks, and cars than the roads could handle.
Some sought sanctuary with relatives living in the south. Others were simply desperate to get away.
Yet even after they fled, safety was not guaranteed. Around 100,000 of the refugees would die on their journeys.
The consequences for Paris were devastating. By the time the Germans entered on 14 June, three quarters of the city’s population had gone.
The exhibition 1940: Paris Exodus runs at the Musée de la Libération de Paris – Musée du Général Leclerc – Musée Jean Moulin until 30 August 2020. For further information, click here.
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.