In August 1944, just four days before the arrival of the American Army, Parisians who had suffered under German occupation for four years began an uprising. This was unlike the Warsaw Uprising, which had begun a few weeks earlier—where friendly armies were much further away and where, after savage fighting against SS units for more than two months, the Soviets, though finally close enough to assist, had allowed the Polish freedom fighters to be crushed.
In Paris, the German occupiers were already on the way out. Hitler’s orders to destroy the city would not be enforced—the Nazis were simply packing up and leaving. The French police, having faithfully assisted the occupiers for four years, went on strike.
The Parisians chose this moment to put up barricades to prevent the German troops from flowing out of the city, and they opened fire with the rifles and machine guns they had stashed away for just such an occasion. (The Nazis had put 1,600 political prisoners on trains for Buchenwald just five days earlier, but no one stopped them then.) The bloodless withdrawal turned into a series of confused skirmishes, and between 1,000 and 2,000 Frenchmen were killed—many simply caught in the crossfire and mowed down accidentally. The Germans lost about as many men on the way out.
This uprising was not the last battle in the fight for Paris. It was the first battle in the postwar fight for the reputation of France. After the Germans left, hordes of Parisians joined in shearing the hair off those unfortunate women whose collaboration had been particularly obvious. In the angry throng were many French who had resisted the Germans and whose rage was understandable. Many more simply wished to be on the winning side—as they had positioned themselves to be all throughout the German occupation.
For four years, the Germans had run Paris with their characteristic and unimaginative efficiency. They put up road signs in German, lined the Rue de Rivoli with swastikas, and switched Paris to Berlin time. And, during those four years, the Germans received more than 2 million tips from Parisians squealing on their neighbors. Reporting so-and-so for buying on the black market. Reporting so-and-so for violating the curfew and staying out too late. Some concierges hid Jewish tenants from the police. Others turned them over and took their apartments (or simply stole the contents before the Germans could).
The point is not that the French were especially bad. In most respects, they were simply all too human. No one is a born résistant—it took real courage to be one, and most people found it much easier to go with the flow. For every Parisian who actually fought the Germans, there were at least as many who actively helped them out. Even scrawling a “V” for Victory over a propaganda poster takes more guts than most people have. Who wants to risk being arrested?
America was always sensitive and considerate regarding France’s national humiliation. Despite the fact that the only French military unit in Europe, Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division, landed in Normandy two full months after D-Day and had been about as useful in the overall fight as a piece of pizza, Eisenhower graciously chose them to enter Paris before the Americans and British. Eisenhower also gave the Resistance an expanded role in his postwar recollections of the liberation of France, somewhat to the resentment both of Allied infantry units and the top-secret “Jedburgh” teams, who parachuted into occupied France and whose contribution seems all but forgotten.
Today, we are living through a new assault on freedom, coming not from without but from within. Paris recently lived under a curfew more restrictive than the German occupation curfew. Hundreds of millions of people across the globe were told to lock themselves in their homes while their “leaders” continued to dine out. For the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany, western Europeans may be stopped and asked for their papers. Australia’s quarantine app gives people 15 minutes to submit photographic proof they’re at home (the photo is analyzed using facial recognition software).
And in New York City, after months of people gradually learning to behave normally again, there is now a renewed emphasis on wearing masks—everywhere. One month ago, virtually no one wore a mask on the street. Now almost half the people I see outdoors in some parts of town are wearing them. Stores in which people happily shopped maskless for months are requiring masks again: I spoke to someone who didn’t have a mask but who was finally admitted to the West Side Market after tying a plastic shopping bag around her lower face. Very safe. To go to the Met—unless you’re Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—you need proof of vaccination and must still wear a mask the entire time you’re there. Bill de Blasio, whose real name is Warren Wilhem, Jr., has decreed that every gym and restaurant in the city must verify vaccination papers, which they’re calling the “Key to NYC,” before they grant admission.
Some of us refuse to comply. I will not wear a mask anywhere, and have no intention of sharing personal medical information so I can go to a museum or restaurant. Some restaurants are finding creative ways to get around the mandate. (I won’t describe these methods since I don’t want to make it easier for Wilhelm to crack down on them.) It is possible, in New York, to find many people who will not be bullied by the government into getting a vaccine they don’t want—even though the government will pay them $100 to do it.
But most people will wear a mask when they’re told, even if they know it’s pointless. Most people will get the vaccine—even if they’re not persuaded it’s good for them—rather than be ostracized by society. Doctors will record video messages about how they can’t wait to get their young children vaccinated, even when they know they don’t know what the ramifications are.
Wearing a mask outdoors is not utterly pointless. It has no health value whatsoever (except for the negative effects of constantly rebreathing what your body has expelled). But it is a gesture of compliance. It is a statement that, no matter what somebody else may be doing, you at least are no troublemaker. You intend to follow the rules. You will even help the government enforce the rules on other people. You’re a good citizen.
You’re a collaborator.