5) Paris in and Between Wars


The First World War

Paris had been anticipating the apocalypse on the eve of WWI with migrant groups entering Paris and changing the look of the city as well as the culture. More than one version of Paris was developing. It had been the capital of the 19th century, could it also be the capital of the 20th?

There was both conscription and voluntary service in Paris during WWI. Although, in order to have an army, a common language was required. There also needed to be social cohesion which created a sort of grand coalition in Paris that ended the peacetime conflicts between the radicals, trade unionists, socialists, progressivists, Catholics, and monarchists. Thus, the war seems to have created the coming together of the nation-state, but this didn't just happen in France, it happened all over the world. 

The western front of the war was organising itself just to the east of Paris meaning that, if Germany were successful, Paris would be in danger. Paris was actually bombed by balloons which brought back memories of the Commune.

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Paris Noir

There was an influx of non-white immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s coming from France's African colonies and African American soldiers who had stayed following WWI due to Paris being more racially accepting than America was at this time. The 're-making' of Paris during the interwar years was largely influenced by immigration.

‘Official statistics recorded the entry of 78,556 Algerians, 48,995 Indochinese, 36,941 Chinese, 35,506 Moroccans, 18,249 Tunisians, and 4,546 Malagasy, for a total of 222,793 colonial workers… The war thus brought a large non-European, racially distinct population to France for the first time in the nation's modern history.’
Tyler Stovall

The codification of race hadn't established itself in Paris like it had in America where slavery had been a part of society. But, the French people still held reservations about this influx of people as they hadn't really encountered them before. The French authorities, for example, feared political destabilisation and violent crime and thus created unprecedented forms of surveillance to control the immigrant workers.

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The Negritude Movement

Many of the immigrants entering Paris were students from well-off/middle class families. This was the Negritude Movement. They came from the French colonies and included students such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor who seemingly took their inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance.

They described Negritude by saying it was:

‘the awareness of being black, the simple acknowledgment of a fact which implies the acceptance of it, a taking charge of one’s destiny as a black man, of one’s history and culture.’ (Césaire)

‘the total of black Africa’s cultural values’ (Senghor)

Senghor also said:

‘We were at the time in the depths of despair. The horizon was closed. There was no reform in the offing, and the colonizers were legitimizing our political and economic dependence by the tabula rasa theory [Africans had no culture before the French, although this was untrue]. They deemed we had invented nothing, created nothing, written, sculpted, painted and sung nothing.’ 

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Jazz Age Paris

The interwar period created new ways of doing things in a new society, including the development of new types of music. Paris, in some ways, mirrored America following WWI with many of the 'Lost Generation' of writers coming to Paris. It became the European centre for discussing jazz, a symbol of modernity. The music was both alluring and problematic with 'loose morals' being associated. It was linked to sex, race, industrialisation, Americanisation, and moral and civilisational decline.

Josephine Baker was a cabaret dancer from Missouri who came to Paris and took it by storm. She became important in the Civil Rights Movement later in life, but during this period headlined in Parisian clubs. The revue nègre was used as advertising for her shows but it used very stereotypical views of black people, like very plump lips. There also weren't many black people in Paris at this time so she was a kind of novelty, using stereotypical views of black people and Africa in her performances, like her banana dress. She was criticised for doing this, however. Sidney Bechet, a famous musician, also moved from New Orleans to Paris.

Variations of jazz, like gypsy jazz, also entered Paris. Django Reinhardt was known for gypsy jazz and was very popular in Paris, for example.

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Problems with Jazz

  • Jazz brought fear of sexual excess, specifically miscegenation, sex between the races.
  • Generally, some saw the modern city as a traumatic space with jazz being associated with the sounds of this modern city, like the sound of an automotive engine.
  • Some also believed jazz showed the trauma and PTSD of recovering from the war with some believing that artillery shells and machine guns can be heard in jazz.
  • Most people liked jazz, but there were some calling for it to be banned.
  • As jazz was a distinctly black music with its origins going back to Africa, it could be suggested that Paris was relatively colour-blind in discriminating against race as jazz was well received in Paris.
  • But, there is proof that there was an unconscious desire for racial separation in a lot of people.

‘Whether opening successful businesses – including Montmartre nightclubs – working as laborers, attending school, or engaged in the arts, blacks from the United States created an exile community in interwar Paris that existed in relative harmony with its French neighbors.’ Jeffrey Jackson

‘At times, the black body is the subject of interest, delight, and fantasy. At other times, the black body is the subject of paternalistic, and potentially violent, condescension and scorn, as well as a white desire to dominate the black individual… representations of blackness helped define and stabilize French identity in the interwar years’. Michael Vann

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Paris in 1931

In 1931, Paris created an international colonial exhibition. It aimed to celebrate the achievements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Paris wanted to prove it was still a global player.

French colonial subjects were displayed in human zoos and cabarets like the Folies-Bergère. It was meant to emphasise the African identity by making the people displayed there perform on stages or live in made-up African villages.

There were protests against the exhibition and it is now a site to celebrate the internationalism within France.

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The Dakar-Djibouti Mission 1931-1933

The Dakar-Djibouti Mission was an expedition of scholars that traversed Africa from the west to the east. It was supposed to be a study of Africa, but a lot of the scholars actually appeared to be more interested in picking items up across the continent. They were taking these things to sell in Paris once they returned home, like cooking pots and spears, in order to pay for the expedition. They only went through French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa though. Some of the artefacts they gathered are still on display in a museum in Paris.

Paris is seen as being the capital of surrealism which meant it challenged modernity and rationality and focused on the unconscious mind, paying particular attention to dreams.

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The Lost Generation

Hemmingway wrote many of his works in Paris during the interwar period, but so did many others of the Lost Generation of writers. They travelled to Paris for inspiration and to meet up and discuss ideas, which is still done today in Paris.

It can be questioned whether these writers were staging the American Dream in Paris. They were recovering from the horrors of WWI there, trying to reinvent happiness. Paris was full of people who had lost something, either mentally or physically.

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During WWII, Paris was occupied by the Nazis. They tried to remake the city in 1944 in an attempt to recover from the occupation. They went from resistance to collaboration with the Nazis, the memory of which still brings shame to the Parisians, and the French in general.

The Vél d'Hiv, for example, now holds a place in the common memory of Parisians as the cycling velodrome was used for holding Jewish people before they were sent off to concentration camps. The French cooperated with this and the memory still brings national shame.

But some didn't do too badly during the occupation as, for example, Picasso experienced the perfect conditions that occupation brought about that allowed people to stay at home and facilitate stronger community bonds.

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