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A black and white photo from the Exodus of Paris. Several children are pushing a cart laden down with their belongings.

The Exodus of Paris, 82 Years Later

Last month I visited The Liberation of Paris General Leclerc Jean Moulin Museum. Long name, fantastic museum. It was originally located in the 15th arrondissement, and it commemorated the lives of Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque and Jean Moulin, leaders of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance, respectfully, during World War II. The museum moved to its current location at Place Denfert-Rochereau in 2019, and was inaugurated on August 25th to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in 1944. It is now located over the former command station of Colonel Rol-Tanguy, the head of the Paris branch of the French Forces of the Interior, and this underground space can be visited as part of the permanent collections of the museum. And you should visit, because this is an incredibly important museum. Especially now.

I must confess that there was a lot to take in at this particular museum. A lot of history to understand. A lot of objects on display. And a lot of stories of the men and women who fought against the Nazis during the occupation of France. Those stories were what captured my attention the most. They were both tragic and heroic, but also heartbreaking in the fact that they exist in the first place. In particular, I spent a lot of time in the room depicting the Exodus of Paris in 1940. It was an event that saw 8 million people across France flee their homes and take to the roads to try and find safety. Two million people fled Paris alone. In just a matter of weeks, a fully modern society became a country of refugees. 

As I looked at the photos of desperate Parisians, their belongs stacked on carts and wagons, I couldn’t help but think about what I would do in that situation. What would I do if I suddenly had to abandon my home? How would I pack up my life? What would I leave behind? Where would I go when a guarantee of safety doesn’t exist? These are not hypothetical questions. They are questions that people who lived in the same city that I live in had to answer, suddenly and horrifyingly, not that long ago. And as I looked at the photos of people trying to flee Kyiv this past week, all I could think was, “It’s happening again.” Another invasion. Another exodus of people fleeing the whims of a tyrant.

Because unfortunately, the Exodus of Paris was not an isolated incident. Nor was last week’s flight from Kyiv. Far from it. In the 82 years since 1940, hundreds of millions of people around the world have had to abandon their homes and their countries due to war, famine, violence, and/or persecution. No matter how much we study history, all the understanding in the world doesn’t seem to save us from continually repeating it. So here we are again. Europe once again at war. Soldiers and civilians dying because of one man’s fragile ego. I will never not be angry about this.

I often joke that I love French history because it’s like reading a soap opera. And to be fair, that’s not an entirely inaccurate assessment. But the main reason why I love history, any history, is because I want to understand. Why does history happen the way that it does? How do we let things get to the point of war? Because only when we truly understand the Why and the How can we look at the What. As in, what can we do differently next time? What can we do to ensure that we never get to this point again? We clearly have a long way to go on the road to understanding, but I still have hope that we will figure it out one day. I just wish that day was today.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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