Seventy years ago, after a bloody week-long insurrection by the French Resistance and a nail-biting wait for General Eisenhower to decide to support the recapture of Paris, allied troops flowed into the city as German troops left.
The story was told memorably in the 1965 book by Dominic Lapierre and Larry Collins, “Is Paris Burning?” It detailed the day-to-day struggle that began when the Resistance forced action by breaking a truce, which had been negotiated by Degaulle’s emissary and the Swedish consul, and launched a five-day battle for the city with the battle cry, “A chacun son boche,” or “To each his own kraut.” It is prominently featured in the newspapers of the day, which are available in many of the museums.
The greatest and most serious drama, of course, was the battle for the mind of General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, whom Hitler had ordered to destroy Paris before he withdrew. According to von Choltitz, Hitler’s question to him on the telephone as the end drew near was, “Brennt Paris?” He used the phrase in his own book a few years after the war and Lapierre and Collins adopted its translation for their book and the movie that followed (which was shown on French television last week, dubbed. It was still riveting.)
The film represented von Choltitz as rather more benign than he was in life. In fact, he was a tough, dedicated Nazi who ordered the deaths of many French men and women as late as a few days before he surrendered the city.
Paris is awash in museums. One of my favorites honors General Leclerc, commander of the 2nd French Armored Division, whose audacity had much to do with persuading Eisenhower to support the attack on Paris. You’ll find it atop the Montparnasse Railway Station in the 14th Arrondissement. (An adjacent museum honors Jean Moulin, a hero of the Resistance killed by the Nazis. His name appears on streets all over France.)
There were two wars going on at the same time — the war of the Resistance against the Nazis, and the war of the Resistance against Degaulle. France could be an entirely different place today if Degaulle had not prevailed, because the core of the Resistance was communist. The Parisian leader, Henri Tanguy (who assumed the nom de guerre “Rol,” and is now known as Colonel Rol-Tanguy, was a lifelong communist, as was his wife, who is still living. (He took the name Rol from a comrade who fell in the Spanish Civil War, where he fought.) Just recently, the square at Denfert-Rochereau, where he set up his command post in an air-raid bunker built for the city’s waterworks staff, was renamed in his honor.
It was Degaulle’s quick action and personal bravery that headed off the risk that France would be forced into an American military government.
The city plans a huge celebration Monday, the 70th anniversary of the day the Germans surrendered. The entire city is invited to a gala on the huge plaza in front of the city hall, where dignitaries’ speeches (President François Holland and Mayor Ann Hidalgo, among others) will be followed by a bal populaire, a festive outdoor dance of the sort the city normally only sees on its main national holiday, Bastille Day, which commemorates the start of the French Revolution. It’s much like the American July 4.
The City of Paris web site has a fascinating collection of documents illustrating daily life under the occupation. (If it opens in French, click the “English” icon on the right.)
This map, showing the routes the various Allied invasion forces took into Paris on Aug. 24-25, appeared in Le Monde (no link).
Wikipedia has interesting articles about many of the events and people involved in the Liberation:
The Telegraph’s Colonel Rol obituary from 2002
The main City of Paris web site on the Liberation (English)If you’d like to receive my blog posts and occasional newsletters by email, please subscribe by leaving your email address below: