Paris museum reopens with stories of frantic wartime exodus

Visitors may find echoes of early 1940s Europe in present-day fears and uncertainties

Eighty years ago, on 13 June 1940, the last of the 2 million Parisians – nearly three-quarters of the city’s population – to flee the fast-advancing German army were scrambling frantically to leave the capital.

Amid chaos and confusion, by train, in cars piled high with belongings, by bike and on foot, pushing prams and pulling handcarts, clutching suitcases and small children, they joined a throng of 8 million displaced people heading south.

Next week, a new exhibition about the traumatic but largely untold events of late May and early June 1940 reopens – three months after falling victim to France’s Covid-19 lockdown and another less dramatic, but still very real, Paris exodus.

“This was truly a sea of people,” said Sylvie Zaidman, the co-curator of Parisians in the Exodus, forced to close its doors in mid-March, barely a week after opening. “A brief moment of intense upheaval, when the institutions and structures of society simply collapsed.”

But because the events of 80 years ago are “so tied up in the humiliation and trauma of France’s defeat”, said Zaidman, director of the Museum of the Liberation of Paris, “and because popular stories of resistance presented a glorified version of the occupation, it has been written out of the national narrative”.

French refugees from the Paris region on their way south in 1940.
French refugees from the Paris region on their way south in 1940. Photograph: Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Inevitably, the exhibition has drawn comparison with the mass flight from the capital and its surrounding region at the start of France’s Covid-19 lockdown, when, over the course of barely 48 hours, an estimated 1.7 million people left to spend the confinement in second homes or with family in the countryside.

Pictures of crowded train stations, traffic jams, shuttered shops and empty streets prompted many to see similarities with the wartime exodus. Zaidman is cautious. “Yes, it reminds us that faced with fear and uncertainty, the instinct to escape from danger is strong – and that many Parisians still have roots in the countryside,” she said.

“But we should keep things in perspective. Perhaps the most relevant parallel for me was this need to live, individually and collectively, with the unknown. The lack of real information, of clear instructions, and the rather destabilising feeling that the government doesn’t know much more than we do.”

Hanna Diamond, Zaidman’s co-curator, saw another parallel. “This time, people in the countryside worried Parisians were bringing the disease with them,” she said. “Something comparable happened in 1940: the capital’s inhabitants brought an intimation of the scale of the coming disaster. They weren’t always appreciated.”

With posters, newspaper cuttings, black-and-white photographs, children’s drawings, archive documents and artefacts, but above all with the remarkable accounts of those who lived through it, the exhibition – France’s first major exhibition on a long-overlooked subject – corrects the dominant narrative.

‘The exodus of 13 June 1940’, la route de Fontainebleau.
‘The exodus of 13 June 1940’, la route de Fontainebleau. Photograph: Réseau-Canopé - Le Musée national de l'Education

At the Porte d’Orléans, that 13 June, Georges Sadoul records “bicycles, children’s cars, wheelbarrows – all overloaded with mattresses, blankets, cats, birdcages, dolls, saucepans … Bags full to bursting, misshapen packages … A mad panic.”

Noel Pinelli speaks of “cars riding up on the pavements, advancing just a few metres every five minutes. Calls for attention, or of fear; the struggle to keep your balance and defend your few poor possessions; anxious faces trying to push forwards without getting separated, or lost.”

By 5am the next morning, German troops were in Paris. The following day, in the central France Creuse département, a schoolgirl would recall seeing “planes overhead, people forced to lie down in ditches or to hide in woods … A little boy who saw his mother shot, and ran to see what had happened, was killed himself as he leaned over her.”

And for those who stayed behind, Paris was, briefly, like never before. “Absolutely deserted,” said the writer Paul Léautaud. “The word is right: empty. Shops closed. A rare passerby. The rue du Chateaudun is a desert. The area around the Opéra, the avenue de l’Opéra, the same. Apartment block doors closed. And a silence!”

The broad sweep of history “can only ever be really understood through the personal stories of those who are caught up in it,” said Diamond, a Cardiff University French historian whose 2007 book Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 collected dozens of first-hand testimonies and whose website assembles many more.

Paris, June 1940.
Paris, June 1940. Photograph: Roger-Viollet

Diamond, who sits on the recently opened Liberation museum’s advisory committee, said the exodus “touched the lives of so many French people. So many fled, not knowing where they were going, why, or what they would encounter on the way. So many families have a story that’s never really been told.”

But it was also instrumental in what followed, with the shock and trauma of May and early June paving the way for most French people to acclaim with relief the appointment of Philippe Pétain, the first world war hero of Verdun, as prime minister on 16 June. A day later, Pétain had requested armistice.

The first children had in fact begun to leave Paris, by train, for the countryside as early as the summer of 1939. But it was not until mid-May the following year that the great exodus really got underway, Germany’s attack on the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg prompting more than 1 million to take flight.

By 20 May, German troops had reached the Channel and millions of civilians in northern France joined the relentless flow of refugees by then traipsing in ever-increasing numbers through Paris to points further south. From that moment, fear started to spread fast, Zaidman said.

“The French had been prepared by the government for bombings, for poison gas attacks, but not for invasion,” she said. “The first world war, and the Spanish civil war, had taught people that wars were no longer just between soldiers. And there was very little information from the front; no one knew what the real picture was.”

Refugees in Montoire-sur-le-Loir, by Christiane Crosnier, 1940.
Refugees in Montoire-sur-le-Loir, by Christiane Crosnier, 1940. Photograph: Réseau-Canopé - Le Musée national de l'Education

Faced with such uncertainty and fear, said Diamond, the impulse was to flee. “Paris was bombed on 3 June,” she said. “That was the trigger. The better-off were the first to go, to their second homes. Many with family in the provinces followed. It was contagious: you see your neighbour packing up, you think, ‘Why am I still here?’”

On 10 June, the government decamped to Tours. Soon, just 900,000 of the French capital’s 2.9 million inhabitants remained. “It took on biblical proportions,” said Diamond. “All anyone could see was people, fleeing; 90,000 children were separated from their parents. Officialdom evaporated – civil servants, police, everyone went.”

One family, desperate to leave Paris, took with them an aged aunt who unfortunately died en route. So they rolled her in a rug and strapped her to the roof of the car, hoping to reach somewhere where someone might be able to officially record her as deceased. (The car, aunt and all, was subsequently stolen, and the absence of a death certificate deprived them of the inheritance.)

Philip Smith, a British boy caught up in the French exodus with his family.
Philip Smith, a British boy caught up in the French exodus with his family. Photograph: Supplied

Young Philip Smith, aged 10, his older brother Derek and their British parents – the father worked for an insurance company – cycled all the way to St Jean de Luz near the Spanish border to get on a ship for England, a journey via Fontainebleau, Orléans, La Rochelle and Bayonne that took them 13 days.

Then suddenly, within days of the armistice being declared and throughout the summer of 1940, most of the Paris exiles returned – to a very different kind of daily life under the occupation. Some would collaborate; some would resist heroically; most, as is the nature of things, would struggle by as best they could.

Eighty years later, France’s coronavirus lockdown began lifting on 11 May. The Parisians who fled the capital in mid-March have now returned; cafe and restaurant terraces are once again bustling. And after a three-month closure, Parisians in the Exodus reopens on 16 June – and will remain open, this time, until 13 December.


Jon Henley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Billionaire François Pinault fulfils Paris art gallery dream
Contemporary collection finds home in former grain exchange 16 years after plan for Seine island failed

Kim Willsher in Paris

17, May, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Beyoncé and Jay-Z help Louvre museum break visitor record in 2018
More than 10m visited Paris museum, with interest boosted by music video filmed there

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

03, Jan, 2019 @10:37 AM

Article image
Too rude for Paris? 'Copulating' sculpture causes stir in French capital
Dutch artist says it is not sexual, but Louvre decided giant sculpture of human appearing to copulate with an animal was too rude to be displayed

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

18, Oct, 2017 @3:26 PM

Article image
Paris museum offers Picasso a bigger canvas as it prepares for reopening
The €52m transformation of the 17th-century Hôtel Salé has been undermined by delays and controversy over the cost

Kim Willsher in Paris

04, Mar, 2014 @6:39 PM

Article image
Lalanne sculptures auction to pay for Paris museum extension
Proceeds of sale of rarely seen art works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne to go to Musée d’Orsay

Kim Willsher in Paris

27, Apr, 2022 @11:05 AM

Article image
Four artworks vanish from walls of French parliament
Police investigation launched after objects discovered missing during annual inventory

Kim Willsher in Paris

04, Apr, 2018 @1:33 PM

Article image
Paris museum refuses entry to woman in low-cut dress
Musée d’Orsay, home to some of world’s most famous nudes, apologises for barring visitor

Kim Willsher in Paris

10, Sep, 2020 @2:28 PM

Article image
Resplendence of things past: museum of Paris revels in £50m revamp
The Carnavalet, devoted to the city’s history, has been shaken out of its dusty and confusing former shape

Jon Henley in Paris

21, May, 2021 @2:42 PM

Article image
Paris museum hires Instagram artist-in-residence
Jean-Philippe Delhomme will depict an artist as a social media user every week for the Musée d’Orsay

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

08, Jan, 2020 @6:17 PM

Article image
Biggest ever Leonardo da Vinci exhibition to open in Paris
Louvre will host works of Italian artist after long-running political spats and legal battles

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

19, Oct, 2019 @4:00 AM