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Visiting Boulevard Barbès, Paris, France and Barbès-Rochechouart Metro Station: Pre-WW1 Solidity and Memories of WW2

Updated on December 4, 2017
Flag of France
Flag of France
Panoramic view of the Metro and of Sacré-Cœur church, Paris (at the beginning of the 20th century)
Panoramic view of the Metro and of Sacré-Cœur church, Paris (at the beginning of the 20th century) | Source
Paris Metro, under the viaduct, Barbes-Rochechouart (line 2), Paris, France
Paris Metro, under the viaduct, Barbes-Rochechouart (line 2), Paris, France | Source
General Charles de Gaulle, 1944
General Charles de Gaulle, 1944 | Source
General Otto von Stuelpnagel (right) with Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (left), 1941
General Otto von Stuelpnagel (right) with Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (left), 1941 | Source
Joseph Stalin (front row, left) with President Truman, 1945
Joseph Stalin (front row, left) with President Truman, 1945 | Source
Winston Churchill. Drawing by Lyn Ott in 1942
Winston Churchill. Drawing by Lyn Ott in 1942 | Source
Map location of Paris, France
Map location of Paris, France | Source

Historically evocative of complicated politics in the shadow of Montmartre

Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, France, is a major road artery in and around which a large proportion of its residents and businesses are North African in origin.

A local station for lines 2 and 4 of the Paris Metro (French: Métro de Paris) here is Barbès-Rochechouart, situated on the boundaries of arrondissements 9, 10 and 18. While one basically — and accurately — thinks of the Metro as service which runs underground, yet here, however, a massive viaduct was built carry the service overground; and the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station thus provides access up to, rather than down to, the Metro line.

Almost literally in the shadow of Montmartre's famed Sacré-Cœur church, Barbès-Rochechouart's proximity to the building is seen in the main photo, supplied above, dating from the beginning of the 20th century.

Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station was opened in 1903 (known initially as 'Barbès' rather than 'Barbès-Rochechouart'). Its huge pillars and metal girders effuse a solidity recalling a bygone era prior to World War One.

The Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station was the scene of a historically significant — and sanguinary — event in World War Two, during the City of Paris's occupation by Nazi German forces. This event revealed not only a French undercurrent of resistance to fascism, it also brought into focus complex nuances of viewpoints among Allies and co-bellligerents. On August 21, 1941, Colonel Fabien (1) of the French Resistance succeeded in assassinating an officer of the Kriegsmarine.

Of course, the Nazi German occupiers portrayed the fatal shooting as one whereby a supposedly poor, downtrodden officer of the Fascist occupying forces was the victim of supposedly unrepresentative and unpatriotic French people misled by alien influences. But rhetoric aside, the actions of the Nazi German occupation forces were oppressively draconian. In the ensuing weeks, scores of French hostages were executed.

The killing put General Charles de Gaulle, head of the Free French Forces in exile and eventually acknowledged as leader of the French Resistance, in an awkward position. On the one hand he and the Free French leadership did not want to sanction acts which would be likely, through the application of cruel reprisals by the Nazi German occupiers, to cause great suffering among a disproportionate amount of French people. On the other, he wanted to make it more difficult for the Nazi German invaders in their ongoing attempts to enforce collaboration on the part of the French people, supposedly led by the technically legal Vichy-France régime of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Neither did General de Gaulle wish to become over-dependent on the support of Stalin era, Moscow-loyal Communists, although he, as a basically conservative, nationalist republican, proved to be adept at working with ideologically divergent groups, in pursuit of the French national interest (2).

For his part, the Nazi German military governor of Paris in 1941, General Otto von Stülpnagel, who ordered the executions of hostages by way of reprisals, following this incident, came to believe that such drastic acts were counterproductive to an effective Occupation policy; he eventually committed suicide while in a French prison in 1948.

In the United States, it at first proved difficult for the FDR Administration, still officially neutral, to know quite what to make of such events. Even after Pearl Harbor, and the entry of the United States into World War Two, it was a long time before the Administration gave unqualified recognition to General de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, however, felt no ideological or moral misgivings about any attempts by irregular, clandestine forces to 'set Europe ablaze'. (Even though many British people during World War Two privately thought, if German fascists and Soviet Communists were fighting each other, just let them fight each other to a standstill; just leave their Island alone... .) Churchill's working relationship with General de Gaulle was, nevertheless, very difficult (3).

The Barbès-Rochechouart episode, and its aftermath, and others like it, underscored the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the practical and political issues surrounding the Occupation period in World War Two France.

May 9, 2013


(1) Real name: Pierre Georges (1919-1944). Interestingly, after World War Two, the headquarters of the French Communist Party was situated at a square named Place du Colonel Fabien, thus named in this prominent Resistant's honour (also the name of a Paris Metro station).

(2) As government leader until 1946, de Gaulle proved willing to include Communist ministers in his administration; the roots of this capacity for improbable political allies to work together are widely seen as having emerged from the exigencies of the Occupation years.

(3) Churchill was in the ambiguous position of encouraging irregular forces of de Gaulle and his Communist 'friends' to shoot as many Fascists (supported by the legal government of France) as they could, while many in the Conservative party, which Churchill led, wanted Fascists and Communists just to keep shooting each other, while they themselves sat aloof. Meanwhile, Nazi Germans and French Fascists were terrorist in character, while vocally complaining that de Gaulle's Free French and Resistance forces — because irregular — were 'terrorist'.

Also worth seeing

In Paris itself, its huge and absorbing variety of visitor attractions are very hard to summarize convincingly. But the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Bourbon Palace, the Louvre Museum and the Paris Opera would probably be included in any list of the most popular sights.

Saint-Denis (distance: 11 kilometres) has the Basilica church associated with the burial of France's kings since Medieval times.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle), from where car rental is available; but visitors to Paris may prefer to explore the city via its excellent RATP public transport system, of which the Métro forms part. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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