The road to WWII initially began in 1933 when Hindenburg, the president of the German Reich, appointed Hitler as chancellor. In 1935, Germany embarks on a major rearmament and by March of 1938, German troops march into Austria. In September of the same year, Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier meet in Munich and come to an agreement to annex Czechoslovakia. On August 23rd 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union sign a non-aggression treaty. On September 1st 1939, Germany attacks Poland then Great Britain and France declare war on the German Reich two days later. In April of 1940, German troops occupy Denmark and Norway, closing in on France (WWII: Timeline: The Road To Disaster).
In May of 1940, the Germans overtook and occupied France. France’s Maginot line failed to hold back the German Blitzkrieg and fell in just under six weeks. French citizens were stunned over this quick defeat, especially after the line’s success and defeat of the Germans during World War I (Kedward 1). Thousands of civilians fled the country, taking little with them. Roger Langeron, the prefect of police at the time, estimated that the total population of Paris had sunk to 700,000 or a quarter of its pre-war total (Horne 355). Even Paris’ government fled, ending up in the city of Vichy. Paris was abandoned and declared an open city, with the Germans occupying the city in June of 1940 (France in Defeat, 1940).
The ultimate humiliation for France came during the signing of the armistice. The German terms in the Armistice Settlement were heavily influenced by how they were treated by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles, when Germany was required to disarm and make territorial concessions (Kedward 1-2). Under the terms of the armistice, France was divided into two sections; occupied France under direct German control, and Vichy France, a quasi-independent territory with Marshall Petain, a WWI war hero, as its head (France in Defeat, 1940). French troops were held as German prisoners of war to ensure that France complied with the terms of the settlement (Kedward 1). One foreign historian wrote that life for Paris under German occupation “was the unhappiest period in all her 2,000 years’ history” (Horne 354).
Three weeks after the occupation of France, under pressure from the Germans, some 300,000 civilians returned to Paris and on June 23, 1940, Hitler entered Paris. Ironically, few Parisians recognized him. Hitler ordered the immediate removal of the statue of WWI General Mangin, insisting that it was an insulting reminder of French occupation of the Ruhr in the 1920’s. Other statues were also destroyed on Hitler’s orders. When a group of Parisians struggled to protect the statue of Henri IV, the Nazis response was, “The German high command will tolerate no act of hostility towards occupation troops. All aggression, all sabotage will be punished by death” (Horne 355-367). Such a stringent response to a seemingly small act of defiance accomplished its goal of instilling fear into the hearts of the Parisians.
— Jessi Scharf