War, hate and sex: Bron Sibree interviews Anne Sebba on her book Les Parisiennes: How the Woman of Paris Loved, Lived and Died
Anne Sebba gives us new insight into the ordeals of women in wartime, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times
Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s
Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
British historian and biographer Anne Sebba has been fascinated by the World War II defeat of France and the German occupation of Paris for as long as she can remember. But for as long as she can recall, too, she has also been troubled by one of the most abiding images of that war’s aftermath: Parisian women being publicly shaven, and often painted with the swastika, for the crime of collaboration horizontale.
“That is the abiding image, and it is so one dimensional. But what has happened historically is that that has become very cheap shorthand for what happened in France,” says Sebba, who has analysed the role of collaborators and resisters, and so much more, in her mesmerising (and richly detailed) social history of the period, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s.
From the outset, Sebba knew she wanted to write a different kind of history. She ignored a renowned male historian’s advice to use the most oft-quoted male diarists of the period, and set out in search of lesser-known women’s voices. The author of eight celebrated works of non-fiction, including That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King (2012) and Jennie Churchill (2007), Sebba knows her way around an archive.
Yet even so, she says, “I needed to do a lot of digging.” She spent five years combing the archives for letters and diaries, and painstakingly tracking down women now in their 90s who had lived through the occupation.
“I wanted a multiplicity of points of view. That was key to what I was trying to do so that women couldn’t any longer be given this one-dimensional tag.”
In giving voice to the countless Parisian women who suffered, died or were imprisoned in places like Ravensbrück, or endured the occupation through various degrees of compromise or resistance – mostly a combination of both – Sebba drives home the fact that it was women who were left to contend with the almost all-male Nazi occupiers.
“Wartime Paris was a feminised city. That’s a sine qua non to my book. I hadn’t even realised that until I started writing it, because two million men were taken prisoner of war. Others were with De Gaulle in the Free French and yet others, if they were Jews, were in hiding, or were elderly, so there were very, very few men in Paris. So here you’ve got a city where the women didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have the right to work without their husband’s permission, they couldn’t have a bank account. And without any fuel they couldn’t drive cars so had to ride bicycles, but they weren’t allowed to wear trousers.”
For Sebba, writing Les Parisiennes was a quest to understand the difficult choices forced upon these women – so obviously disempowered yet not cowed – and not to pass judgement. She even finds the word “collaborator” distasteful. “Although it was [Philippe] Pétain who introduced this word collaborate, I think it’s ugly and judgemental. I prefer some degree of complicity. You could argue that everyone who went about their daily business was in some way complicit. I don’t want to pretend there wasn’t collaboration, there were by some estimates more than 100000 Franco-German babies born. Some of it was of necessity – to feed your children you might sleep with a German – some of it was romantic. But did the women deserve to be punished after the war in this very gendered way, without a trial, publicly humiliated?
“It was aimed at the women,” she emphasises, “and has deep roots in the fact that the men felt so humiliated and ashamed that they had lost the military defeat, the way they reacted was to take it out on the women.”
Even the role women played in the resistance remained largely unrecognised until many years later, says Sebba, whose efforts in recording stories of feminine heroism in Les Parisiennes go a long way to redressing historical omissions.
Yet in writing such an intricately detailed history about les années noires, the dark years that divided French citizens, says Sebba, “I found huge resonance in what’s going on in the world now with all this fear that we have of refugees and people who are different from us. It’s so important that we understand that this has happened once before, and that we’re all human beings.”
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- Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
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