On June 14, 1940, the German army entered Paris unopposed. German generals took the salute as the Wehrmacht marched in soldierly fashion down the Champs Elysées. This was a moment when the fate of the continent and the wider world hung in the balance. Nazism had proved stronger than democracy. Capturing Paris, Adolf Hitler became the master of Europe, and had he chosen peace instead of further war, the course of history would have been different and he might be remembered for setting up a whole new order.
Quite a few people accepted that something irreversible had happened. A documentary film made at the time shows Parisians lining the streets and mostly applauding, presumably thankful that their lives and their homes had been spared. But others elsewhere recognized that this was a crisis so great that it endangered the future, and many registered their shock, anger, and finally their determination to confront Hitler’s nightmare vision.
This Christmas I have printed and sent out to friends a little booklet quoting reactions to the fall of Paris to be found in diaries and correspondence. They range from Anna Akhmatova in Moscow to Stefan Zweig in exile in London, taking in testimonies not just from intellectuals but from people in all walks of life.
Those responses to that moment illustrate how public opinion takes shape. Parallels should not be drawn too closely, but in the troubled Europe of today the future is again in the balance. The European Union has just received the Nobel Peace Prize. It is the one good joke that all can enjoy, as everyone understands that NATO alone has kept the peace while the EU is setting nations against each other and breaking up populations. What about the malign EU role in the civil wars of Yugoslavia? What about the riots and embittered nationalism resulting from the straitjacket of the euro? There are no realistic foreign or defense policies. Wealth is draining away. Prestige has sunk irretrievably. The solution that EU representatives propose is to maximize the measures that have created this latest nightmare vision of a new order in the first place.
Hope springs eternal, especially at Christmas time. Publication of my booklet, I sense, coincides with the intention of more and more angry and shocked people to determine their lives for themselves. The way they did after June 1940.