Cycling under the German Occupation

Cycling under the German Occupation

When I was researching our René Herse book, the most difficult part of the story were the war-time years. Herse started making bikes in 1940, while Paris was occupied by the Germans. Being conditioned by war movies and war-time memories from German relatives, I found it hard to imagine anybody making high-end bicycles during this time.
What I learned from the French cyclists who lived through those days is this: While everything changed with the German occupation, most things also remained the same. The German occupiers made the French pay for the costs of the occupation in foodstocks, so food was very scarce. Other things, like gasoline and rubber (bicycle tires), were almost impossible to obtain.
Despite all that, France no longer was at war. Life, at least on the surface, appeared more normal than in places like London and Berlin. Men and women went to work, sat in cafés, went to the movies, and even watched or participated in bike races. This did not make them collaborateurs. After all, it would have served little if all Parisians had sat in a corner and sulked for years while the Germans were occupying the city. Even the resistance fighters kept up appearances and tried to live as normal a life as possible, so they did not arouse the suspicion of the Gestapo or their French counterparts.
Even though relatively few French joined the resistance full-time, I was surprised by the many small acts of resistance. For example, I learned that René Herse actually had two shops. The first was the boutique with the showroom. Next door was the workshop where the bikes were assembled. There, the shutters were drawn and the building looked empty. Many of Herse’s employees were young people in hiding, often riders on his team who could not find employment elsewhere. They were evading the Service du Travail Obligatoire, which sent young Frenchmen to Germany to work in the factories there. This also explains why I could not find some of Herse’s employees in the company’s pay records – they were undeclared. Herse was not alone, many French did things large and small to work against the occupiers, even if, on the surface, they appeared to continue their normal life.
The color photos in this blog were taken by André Zucca for the German propaganda magazine Signal, which intended to show that life in Paris was continuing as before the occupation. Of course, life did not continue exactly as before – as Madame Porthault told me during one of the interviews for the book: “Even if we had a smile on our faces, that did not mean that we weren’t afraid deep down.”  Even though the photos were intended as propaganda, they show a glimpse of Paris during the occupation.
Gasoline was unavailable to private people in France during the war, so cars disappeared almost completely from circulation (above). Instead, bicycles became predominant in urban traffic. A nice bicycle not only was a means of transportation, but also a status symbol (below).
Zucca’s photos show numerous vélo-taxis. Since private cars and taxis no longer were available, cyclists pulling trailers provided convenient transportation for rich Parisians. Tandem taxis were faster, but cost twice as much.
Many Parisians decried the implication of humans serving as beasts-of-burden (photo at the top of the post), but some bike racers actually enjoyed the job, since it provided excellent training. Lyli Herse’s later tandem partner, Robert Prestat, said that this was how he got in shape to race as a professional during the war.
This image shows a tandem taxi waiting for passengers. The tandem is a quality machine with a nice bend of the fork blades. It is equipped with Jeay “roller-cam” brakes and a rear drum brake, but the single-sided drivetrain indicates that it was not a top-of-the-line machine from one of the great constructeurs.
Here a fashionable lady exits a rudimentary trailer pulled by a basic machine with a “dog-leg” fork bend, ill-fitting fenders and a single speed. It appears to have a battery-powered taillight. Were batteries available during the occupation?
Here we have two taxis waiting in front of the famous Maxim’s restaurant. The tandem has a strange frame configuration. It is equipped with a short-chain drivetrain and both drum and cantilever brakes. Slowing the heavy trailer with two passengers must have taken a lot of braking power! The dark lens of the headlight was mandatory. It was part of the “blackout,” which outlawed any lights shining outside to prevent allied bombers from finding their targets. The other trailer is enclosed, which was nice if it rained but must have been claustrophobic inside, to say nothing of the extra weight the cyclist had to haul.
Fancy place like Maxim’s even had a covered bicycle parking area, which you can see on the left. Movie theaters advertised that they offered guarded bicycle parking to attract visitors. I suspect that Maxim’s had a guard, too, who may have provided the equivalent of valet parking for the well-heeled customers.
In 1943, there was a race of the tandem taxis (above a photo of the winners from the René Herse archives). The trailers were lightweight cargo trailers rather than the usual taxis. This tandem appears to be a top-of-the-line Hurtu with a twin-plate fork crown. It is equipped with Herse’s Speedy brakes. The triangulation of the frame is interesting, with a single tube running to the middle of each seat tube, and two tubes continuing from there. Madame Porthault identified the front rider, Tixidre. Click here for fascinating newsreel footage of this race.
What Zucca’s photos do not show is the hardship that Parisians suffered during the occupation. The most difficult aspect was finding food. One way to augment the rations was bartering with farmers who engaged in black-market trade. However, within easy cycling distance of Paris, there were too few farmers and too many people looking for food. Randonneurs had an advantage, as they could ride further in a day, and thus reach farmers who had food to trade. Madame Porthault told me how it was a race to return to Paris before the curfew, while avoiding checkpoints along the way.
Every bike was pressed into service, even this pre-war Vélostable recumbent bicycle.
There are no photos of the tens of thousands of French Jews and others who perished in the concentration camps. These included many cyclotourists, and the list of the best-known dead in the first post-war issues of Le Cycliste was long. Most cyclotouring clubs collected money to send to the prisoners, or to support their families. During the occupation, the clubs became support networks, since they were people you knew well and could trust.
What was most striking to me, however, is the pronounced difference in the photos taken after the German occupation ended. The people are visibly more relaxed after the war, and the spontaneous smiles have returned to their faces. You often can tell whether a photo was taken during the occupation or afterward simply by looking at people’s facial expressions.
Life and cyclotouring in Paris may have continued during the occupation, but everybody was relieved when Paris was liberated. The photo above, from the René Herse book, was taken in 1945, just after the liberation. People’s clothes still are ill-fitting and speak of the privation of the occupation, but the smiles have returned. The tandem of Jean Feuillie and Lyli Herse no longer carries the license plate required by the German occupiers, which confirms the post-occupation date.
The mood is one of optimism and joy, which gave a huge boost to cyclotouring. People could travel again, and they could enjoy themselves without fear. Many were eager to take advantage of the re-found freedom, and the second half of the 1940s was a veritable golden age of cyclotouring. Understanding this history is key to understanding why the French constructeurs built such exceptional bicycles during the 1940s and 1950s.
Click here for more photos Paris taken by André Zucca during the German occupation.
Click here for more information about the René Herse book or to order your copy.

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Comments (29)

  • David Pearce

    Goodness, how poignant, and what a testament to the human spirit to triumph over adversity. Thank you for showing me this. It is is amazing how bicycles and bicycling is so bound up with important and sometimes bitter history, as in the earlier period of the Dreyfus Affair / creation of the Tour de France. Remarkable. Thank you.

    December 6, 2013 at 1:51 am
  • Edwin Williamson

    “After all, it would have served little if all Parisians had sat in a corner and sulked for years while the Germans were occupying the city.”
    Wow. Let’s stick to bicycles.

    December 6, 2013 at 4:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We often tend to think that the French during the war were neatly split into two camps: either collaborators and resistance fighters. The simple fact is that most of them just wanted to survive, feed their families and keep their spirits up.
      What impresses me most is that despite all that, there were so many small acts of resistance where ordinary people risked their lives to make help their friends and others.

      December 6, 2013 at 6:16 am
  • Karel Boonen

    Magnificent post, Jan!! WWII photos are always intriguing, even more with bicycles in it. I have your René Herse book awaiting under the Christmas tree (unopened of course). I wish it was Christmas already…

    December 6, 2013 at 4:51 am
  • Rod Bruckdorfer

    Nicely written piece about Paris during the War.

    December 6, 2013 at 6:24 am
  • Shoji

    Fascinating story, Jan.

    December 6, 2013 at 7:40 am
  • Joe Ramey

    Very entertaining and informative Jan. Thank you

    December 6, 2013 at 8:57 am
  • David Pearce

    Mme. Porthauld, now there’s a real Lady, I’m sure, a testament to courage and determination and everything that makes a good human being a great human being. I’m sure it is no insult to say, “There walks a lady, a real Lady!”, and one who is living a three-digit age. Please give her my respect and greetings when you have a chance to talk to her. One day I hope to cycle over the Col du Galibier! And imagine, SHE was a role model for Lyli Herse!
    OF COURSE not all French were either collaborators or resistance fighters–I’m sure it could be empirically proven, not that it needs to be, there were very few French who were in either one of these categories, compared to the whole of the general population. No doubt the great, great majority of French were just people, trying to get by, certainly detesting the occupation, but trying to preserve and feed their families, and hunker down until the hated occupation was gone.
    The newsreel of the taxi race was fun, and funny. The “passengers” got off the idling (but moving) taxis to what, take on food for the drivers?
    Anyway, this is just the kind of bicycling story and history I like. Bicycling mixed with real life, which is, after all, what we are trying to achieve, at least I am. I may watch bicycle-taxi races avidly, but what I am most satisfied with is having my bicycle able to support me through good weather and bad, light time and dark, with food and tools to help me get where I’m going.
    And I thank you again, Jan and Team, very sincerely.

    December 6, 2013 at 9:30 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It appears that the tandem taxi passengers had to have their cards stamped.

      December 6, 2013 at 9:37 am
    • Steve Palincsar

      The taxi race is an excerpt from a longer video compilation. Some of the other items in the full compilation are fun to watch too — especially the artistic cycling item following the taxi race featuring a bicycle whose top and down tubes appear to be made of string (4:52 sec.) — perhaps the ultimate in flexibiliby.

      December 7, 2013 at 1:15 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        Yes, it’s really two unicycles connected by bungee chords. Those recumbents at the beginning of the video are pretty cool, too.

        December 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm
        • Bill Gobie

          Recumbents: I expected to see only Velocars, but they are absent. Instead it appears almost every recumbent configuration was invented before the war. Low racers are the only type I did not see in the film, but who knows, they may have been around, too. There is even a recumbent-upright hybrid like the Counterpoint Opus.
          The beginning of the tandem-trailer race reminds me of the chariot race in Ben Hur.

          December 8, 2013 at 6:07 pm
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            I’d love to know more about those 1930s recumbents in the film footage. I know of Vélo-Vélocars and Vélostables, but most of the others are entirely new to me. The ads in the velodrome footage (Foto Mraz; Mrazek) indicate a Czechoslovakian location. Does anybody know more or have contacts?

            December 8, 2013 at 7:17 pm
  • Jeff Loomis

    Thanks very much for this research, Jan. This info with photos and videos is amazing and something I would not have found on my own.

    December 6, 2013 at 9:41 am
  • Paul Ahart

    What a delightful surprise, on this cold and windy winter evening, to find your wonderful essay with remarkable color photos, of cycling in Paris during the War. This shows how much more intricate and deep were the lives of Parisiens during this dreadful period. As you said, most were just trying to survive and feed their families.
    Thanks for sharing this with your faithful readers.

    December 6, 2013 at 8:41 pm
  • Matt

    My grandmother lived in Paris during the occupation. A few years ago I had lunch with her and her sister. I asked about her experiences and she told me stories of getting in line at 4:00 a.m. to wait for rations. My great aunt, who always lived on a farm, was slightly taken aback. She said that food was rarely a problem in the countryside. It struck me how different their experiences were.

    December 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Yes, the regional differences were enormous. Southern France had hardly any food at all, so little that people had to curtail their cycling, as it used too many calories. Other cyclotourists from northern France sent food to help them, but few of the parcels actually arrived.

      December 7, 2013 at 7:36 am
  • Bill Gobie

    An extremely interesting post, Jan. The fact that so many images are in color speaks to the importance the German government placed on conveying life in occupied Paris as normal and happy. I was unaware of this effort. Color film and magazine printing must have been extremely expensive in wartime Germany. Googling “Andre Zucca” (the photographer) will bring up more of his images plus articles about a controversial exhibition of his photographs.

    December 6, 2013 at 11:13 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Signal, the German propaganda magazine was a very important effort to the Nazis. According to Wikipedia, it had a huge budget and the highest circulation of any magazine in Europe during the war – 2.5 million copies. I doubt it had much success in convincing the occupied populations that the Germans were their benefactors. Actions speak louder than words…
      Regarding Zucca, I wonder whether the photos of fat cats being pulled by tandem taxis weren’t a covert act of resistance. They hardly portrayed the idyllic image of all Parisians living happily under the German occupation that Signal and the Nazis were trying to convey.

      December 7, 2013 at 7:46 am
  • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

    It is important to remember that these photos do not mean that Parisians were happy or had an easy life under the German occupation. It was a terrible time, and also very dangerous, as people were arrested under any pretext, and often, Germans executed prisoners as revenge for attacks of the resistance. It was a very dark period, but I find the resilience of the people, and especially the cyclists, very inspiring.

    December 7, 2013 at 8:14 am
  • David Pearce

    I am empathetic to the privations you talk about during the Occupation. Obviously food was most important, but I can’t help but think about the rubber, for tires and tubes, that must have provoked along the way much consternation and gnashing of teeth by cyclists. Metal, if it failed, could be re-braised, metal lasts a long time, even if it begins to rust a little, I’m sure there was enough oil to be found to lubricate a chain, etc., and leather is pretty robust, anyway more easily found. But the rubber, which breaks down so much faster! I wonder if you have previously written about this in the Magazine or on the Blog. In solving history by envisioning it and thinking about it, in my mind’s eye I see many, many raggedy old tubes, patched for the dozenth time, and tires that were an embarrassment to ride on. What a relief it must have been when the War was over to get something NEW. Sometimes there is just no replacement for NEW. How beautiful to their eyes it must have been for those work-a-day cyclists with their cycles, of whatever quality, to be shod in NEW tires when they could finally get them! Your thoughts?

    December 7, 2013 at 8:22 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You are absolutely right. Madame Porthault told me how a pair of tires was almost worth its weight in gold. In fact, Herse went all the way to Clermont-Ferrand, where he knew a cyclist who worked for Michelin. They made truck tires (presumably for the Germans), but they were paid in bicycle tires, since those were more useful on the black market. That is how the rider, his wife and even his children ended up with beautiful René Herse bicycles – apparently traded for tires!
      The tire shortage didn’t even end after the war. Tires were still impossible to find. At the first 1946 Technical Trials, some builders used pre-war tires and had lots of flats. To prevent this problem, at the next Technical Trials, they weighed the bikes without tires, so builders could use any tires they could find.
      Since you asked about Bicycle Quarterly, the fascinating story of the Technical Trials – competitions for the best and lightest bicycle – was covered in Vol. 1, No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1.

      December 7, 2013 at 8:37 am
  • David

    Very nice piece, Jan. Thank you for researching and writing it. Fashion and dressing well was also considered a subtle form of resistance to the occupation. Here is a nice NYT piece about that, that also mentions how bicycles were used at the time:

    December 7, 2013 at 10:11 am
  • Mark Syme (@MarkBikeFanatic)

    That’s so great to see the spirit staying strong and of course you have to race these things or it’s just not worth it!

    December 8, 2013 at 12:19 am
  • Timothy Gormley

    I just renewed my subscription, and purchased several back issues. In truth, I would have done so anyway, but this entry made me even more glad I did. Bicycle Quarterly opens a world to me, and I am so glad I found it. The new format has enhanced your work. Your enthusiasm and the product it generates has not decayed over time.
    Dr. Heine, you and your team bring an element of culture, knowledge and joy to your readership. When my children are grown, perhaps I will have the time to have my long roads, beautiful machines and experiences. For now, BQ allows a very pleasant dream, and I ride to work.
    Sincere thanks for all.

    December 8, 2013 at 7:22 am
  • Michael Thompson

    I have an American friend who lives in Paris and is married to a French lady for 35 years. Her father once told me during the war years he took wine corks and wire, threaded the wire through the corks and then around the rims of his bike. He said, “we couldn’t aford tyres, you just had do what you had to do.” I asked him how his bike rode? He said, “not bad really.”

    December 9, 2013 at 5:40 am
  • 16incheswestofpeoria

    Great post, Jan. Not nearly as heavy as the book. And what a beauty the Herse book is.

    December 9, 2013 at 6:38 am

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