Seventy years ago, the German general Kurt von Briesen led his troops in a parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Photographs and film show the general rising on his stirrups in the excitement of victory, and rank upon rank of Wehrmacht soldiers marching in good order. Not a shot had been fired at them. When these troops had entered the city 24 hours previously, a French colonel tried to mount a machine gun, but two of his own fleeing soldiers shot him dead. Now these photographs and film show many Parisians lining the street as their conquerors marched past, and there is no element of defiance to be discerned. The physical and moral collapse of the French was complete.
And so Nazism had defeated democracy. Hitler had the whole continent of Europe at his mercy, and could have ruled it till the end of his days, so destroying freedom and culture, in effect knocking out everything the West is supposed to stand for. On June 23, Hitler made his one and only visit to Paris, to see the Opera, whose architecture he admired. In his entourage were Gen. Hans Speidel, the post-war commander of NATO, no less, and the sculptor Arno Breker. Instead of consolidating, he miscalculated that the invasion of the Soviet Union was the necessary preliminary to eliminating Britain. By the time he was proven wrong, Germany and most of Europe was a ruin.
And 70 years ago, Marshal Philippe Pétain asked for an armistice; in other words, surrendered. At which point, Gen. Charles de Gaulle flew to London, where he went to the BBC and broadcast that he was forming a resistance movement. Afterwards he inspected his men, who numbered just above 100. At the time, thousands of French soldiers and sailors had just been evacuated from Dunkirk, but almost unanimously they chose to return to France and enjoy surrendering. Practically no Frenchmen seem to have heard de Gaulle’s broadcast, let alone obeyed it. The Pétain regime condemned him to death for treason. Of course he was a rather preposterous fellow, but that June 18 was his moment of greatness.
The drama of that moment has something to say about the role played by character in the making of history. Five grim years were to pass before the human overcame the inhuman. If only it was easy to believe that this must always be the outcome.