Curator's Choice: The unseen literature of the cataclysmic Liberation of Paris in 1945

| 06 May 2014

Curator’s Choice: Charles Chadwyck-Healey on new show Literature of the Liberation: The French Experience in Print

A photo of a front cover of a book showing an illustration of a Nazi eagle plunging
P Baudouin, Victoire, numéro spécial. Supplément à la revue L’Armée française au combat (1945)© University of Cambridge
“There’s no collection like this in France or anywhere else. This is the first time there has ever been an exhibition solely devoted to the literature of this tumultuous period.

The exhibition is being held in the university library to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. And certainly centre-stage in the exhibition are some of the wonderful books that were published immediately after the liberation – not only books, but also single-issue magazines and collections of postcards.

An image of the front cover of a book showing the words le musee grevin aragon
Louis Aragon, Le Musée Grévin (1944). Cover with belly band© University of Cambridge
The collection itself is much broader than that. It is a collection to show how the French used the medium of the book to express what had happened to them during the war, the occupation and the liberation.

These are books published between the liberation of Paris and the end of 1946.

The end of ’46 is simply an arbitrary cut-off date, so we are taking a slice of time and examining the books that were produced during a very extraordinary time when France was recovering from the occupation, trying to rebuild itself, enjoying its new freedom, but was also a country virtually torn by civil war and with enormous shortages of everything, particularly fuel and food, exacerbated by two of the coldest winters of the century.

The days, weeks and months following liberation were such an extraordinary time for people in France. Occupation and liberation were cataclysmic events in French history.

They had to deal with the scars of overwhelming defeat, living with the Germans, and then having the Allies sweeping through the country. All this had a profound effect on the national psyche.

A photo of the front cover of a book showing various french people marching forward
Pierre Boucher, Paris Délivré par son Peuple (1944)© University of Cambridge
I started to collect books from this period on the subject of the war in 2001 when a dealer sold me a copy of A Paris sous la Botte des Nazis, which is one of the most interesting books in the exhibition because it was published a few weeks after the end of the liberation of Paris and was a real bestseller, at one point selling over 1,000 copies a day in Paris.

So this was a good book to start with because it showed, very clearly, the quality of production and the speed with which the French began to produce books after the liberation.

The liberation also meant the end of censorship, so even though the German army was still on French soil – the war continued until May 1945, the Germans were not driven from France until February 1945 – publishers and authors were free to publish books, really as they wanted to, from the end of August 1944.

And what is also impressive is the sheer number of books and the speed with which they were published.

Much of the collection is about shame, but the most surprising thing is the sense of humour, irony and self-deprecation. After liberation, from the very first moments of freedom, there was an extraordinary outpouring of material.

A photo of the front cover of a book showing soldiers marching towards a victory
Raoul Auger, Victoire, Numéro Spécial. Supplément à la revue L’Armée française au combat (1945)© University of Cambridge
This is the first time that these books have been shown together. In fact, most of the books are unknown to everybody who comes to the exhibition and are in very few collections outside France.

Many of them are small and drab, printed on not particularly good paper without illustrations.

But a surprising number are of very high quality, large-format, lovely illustrations often prepared especially for the book. And of course many books have photographs, particularly of the liberation.

And I should say that the Liberation of Paris is the centre point of the exhibition to celebrate the 70th anniversary, but also because it was so dramatic and publishers and authors responded to it so quickly by beginning to produce single-issue magazines, pamphlets and books and even postcards within days or weeks of the liberation.

Most of us know about the liberation of Paris through those photographs and through some of those books. There are many still to be found and we continue to add to the collection to make it as complete as possible.

It is a research collection, and I donated it to the library so that scholars and students can have access to it.

There are books by Sartre, Camus and Cocteau, but the majority are by French men and women about whom very little is known.”

  • Literature of the Liberation: The French Experience in Print 1944-1946 is at Cambridge University Library from May 7 - October 11 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an illustration for a book showing a person labouring under a nazi symbol
Jean-Louis Chancel, Livre noir (1939-1945). Le chemin de croix, from the set of 30 plates by the author© University of Cambridge
A photo of the front cover for a french book
Jean Chièze, Épreuves dans l’ombre (1946)© University of Cambridge
An image of the front cover of a french wartime book showing two men in prison
L -G Villeroy, Comme de l’an 40! (1945). Cover illustration by Maxime Rihet© University of Cambridge
An image of a french wartime book showing illustrations of various figures on transport
Pierre Albert Leroux, Libération de Paris by I Blanchot (1945)© University of Cambridge
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