Prologue“We Will Write the History Now”
THE BEAST, LONG lurking in plain sight while the Allies stood idle, pounced at last. On May 10, 1940, wave after wave of German bombers, their supercharged engines in high pitch, swept across the dawn sky while armored columns rumbled overland. Into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg the Nazis advanced, shattering the morning quiet. Their paratroopers severed communication lines and captured essential bridges. Commandos dropped from glider planes and seized critical fortresses before they could stall any advance. In short order, panzer divisions barreled deep into foreign territory. When French and British forces hurried northeastward to Belgium to stem the attack, they fell straight into the trap of expectations entrenched from the First World War.
To their east, the main thrust of the German juggernaut charged through the seventy-mile stretch of the Ardennes, forested hills once considered as impenetrable as the concrete fortifications of the Maginot Line that ran along the border between France and Germany.
The French had some fight left in them, but it was at best panicked going up against what one witness called “a cruel machine in perfect condition, organized, disciplined, all-powerful.”
At the news and battered suitcases, holding twisted birdcages, and dogs in stiff arms,” observed Life magazine, “they came and came and came.”
Fearing an invasion for more than a year, the French had safeguarded many of their finest treasures. In Paris, monuments were sandbagged, and the stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle had been removed. Curators at the Louvre denuded its walls of masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and its floors of priceless sculptures. Convoys of nondescript trucks hauled these artworks to chateaus across the country. Likewise, French physicists evacuated their supplies of heavy water and uranium, instrumental to the pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Priceless art and rare substances were not the only items squirreled away as the German blitzkrieg threatened Paris. Across the city, people stashed family heirlooms in cellars and buried them wrapped in oilcloth. One Parisian hid a batch of diamonds in a jar of congealed lard that he left on his pantry shelf.
In the Delahaye factory on the rue du Banquier in the working-class heart of the city stood four 145s. The manufacturer’s production chief intended to see his creations secured away, whether by dismantling them into parts, hiding them in caves outside the city, or, like those diamonds in the lard, masking them in the open, their engines and chassis covered up with new bodies—or none at all—and their true provenance concealed. These masterpieces could not be lost in the rage of war, nor found by the Nazis. There was little doubt that Hitler wanted them seized and destroyed.
In late May, the Germans drove back the Allied forces into northern France, where they were forced to evacuate the continent at Dunkirk. Then the invading army wheeled toward Paris. Reynaud exhorted his countrymen to fight to the death to hold the Somme, while his feckless war committee debated where to move the government when Paris fell. His staff collected secret papers to be sunk in barges in the Seine or burned in ministry yards.
While the police Stuka planes dropped over a thousand bombs, targeting most intensely the Renault and Citroën factories in western Paris, which had transitioned to war production, much as their German counterparts, most notably Daimler-Benz and Auto Union, had done years before. The attack killed 254 and wounded triple that number.
The exodus from Paris accelerated.
Two days later, the Germans launched the second half of their campaign to take France. At the Somme, they ruptured the French line, their panzer divisions overpowering the courageous but doomed army. The door to Paris was ajar, and Reynaud and his government abandoned the capital.
Onward the Wehrmacht pressed.
In the capital, the growing numbers of routed French soldiers with unkempt beards and muddied uniforms portended the inevitable. Finally, on June 14, motorized columns of the German army—including heavy trucks, armored vehicles, motorcycles with sidecars, and tanks—entered an undefended city. Soldiers clad in gray and green followed on foot. The streets were so empty before them that at one intersection a herd of untethered cows aimlessly wandered past.
The Germans fortified positions at key arteries across the city, but there was no reason for such caution. Residents were helpless to launch a revolt when their armies had already retreated to the south. Instead, from windows and half-open doorways, they gaped at the rows of Germans marching past in their heavy boots.
By the afternoon, swastikas flew from the Arc de Triomphe and the ministry of foreign affairs. An enormous banner was strung to the Eiffel Tower that read, in block letters, “DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN” threaded throughout the city streets, demanding obedience and warning that any hostile act against the Third Reich’s troops would be punishable by execution.
On June 18, General Charles de Gaulle broadcast his own message to his countrymen from his offices in exile at the BBC in London. “Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. One day—victory . . . Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not die and will not die.”
Marshal Philippe Pétain, the newly installed French prime minister, maintained the opposite conviction. He pleaded for surrender, and on June 21, Hitler rolled into the Forest of Compiègne in an oversized Mercedes to deliver his demands. Surrounded by his highest officials, including General Walther von Brauchitsch, commander of all German forces, Hitler emerged from his car. Never one to shy from symbols, he forced the French to sign the terms of capitulation in the same train carriage in the same clearing where the Kaiser’s emissaries had surrendered on November 11, 1918.
Fifty miles away in Paris, the Germans solidified their control of the capital, targeted its Jewish population, and began expropriating whatever they wanted. “They knew where everything was,” was the common refrain: the best hotels, the finest galleries, the richest houses, and even the most popular bordellos.
On the Place de la Concorde, the German army commandeered the famously elegant Hôtel de Crillon and its neighboring colonnaded mansion, which was owned by the Automobile Club de France (the ACF). Founded in 1895, and the first such club of its kind, the club organized the French Grand Prix. Its membership included some of the wealthiest, most influential men in the city. Spread out over 100,000 square feet in a pair of buildings constructed during the reign of Louis XV, the club’s quarters were well suited to its prestige.
One day early in the occupation, its private bedrooms, and its shaded terraces were of no interest to him. Neither was he there to dine in one of its chandeliered, gold-trimmed restaurants, nor to swim in its palatial pool surrounded with statues l...