‘From the moment it began,” argues Michael Neiberg, a history professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., “the liberation of Paris was an almost mythical affair.” He is right, and not simply because Paris meant more emotionally to the Allies than did any other city occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The story of how freedom finally came to the city in late August 1944 had to be instantly mythologized by the French themselves, in order to construct an heroic narrative through which they could recover national self-respect after four turbulent and complex years of collaboration, resignation, and occasional resistance, when the struggle over the soul of France was bitterly fought between Marshal Philippe Pétain in Vichy and General Charles de Gaulle in London.
“To a generation raised on fanciful tales of their fathers in the American Expeditionary Forces,” recalled General Omar Bradley, “Paris beckoned with a greater allure than any other objective in Europe.” Although it undoubtedly was a great objective in terms of Allied morale, Neiberg points out that the French capital was actually relatively unimportant strategically in terms of the wider war; indeed it would have been far more use to the Allies to have captured the Scheldt estuary than to have marched down the Champs-Élysées. The sheer number of extra mouths to feed once Paris was liberated even tempted strategists, including General Dwight Eisenhower and Bradley himself, briefly to consider skirting round Paris altogether, leaving it to be “mopped up” later.
Yet that was not politically possible, and instead it was agreed to let the Free French units lead the liberation of Paris, which was timed — with various degrees of operational competence — to coincide with a Resistance-led uprising in the city that would, in the words of Albert Camus, purge tyranny with “the blood of free men.” Today one can see scattered around the city tiny plaques, memorials to those brave and lightly armed resistance fighters who paid the ultimate price at the hands of the Germans. Of course, had Parisians resisted the Germans in June 1940 and put up barricades in the streets in the way they had during their revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 — let alone during the siege of Paris during the Franco–Prussian War of 1870–71 — the French capital would not be the architectural jewel it is today. London’s beauty was forever scarred through her bravery in the Blitz, while that of Paris was saved by her swift surrender.
As a Londoner, I must take exception to the author’s statement, about wartime Paris, that “no other city could have motivated such intense feelings of love from people around the world”; but it is true that when they heard the news that Paris had been liberated, the free world celebrated. Chilean MPs sang La Marseillaise in Santiago (though one wonders how they knew the lyrics). An Australian journalist sent a report to his editor stating simply that “the whole thing is beyond words,” implying that he might not have chosen the right profession. As Ernest Hemingway patriotically liberated the wine cellar of the Ritz Hotel, the “black misery” of Paris — in one Swiss diplomat’s phrase — lifted. Even more than with the news of D-Day itself, people started to believe that Hitler’s days were numbered.
The Führer, of course, wanted to dispel precisely that sense by destroying Paris in the same ruthless and Teutonically thorough manner in which he was about to raze 85 percent of Warsaw. Yet, despite direct orders from Berlin, the fat, disillusioned Prussian commander in Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, adamantly refused to commit such a blatant crime against civilization. This is probably not owing to any sense of inherent decency in his soul — he had readily smashed up Rotterdam and Sevastopol earlier in the war — but because he feared that a wholesale destruction of Paris would make it far harder for him to get himself and his troops out of the city alive. “Afraid of what the mob might do to them,” records Neiberg, “German soldiers were often among the happiest to see Allied soldiers arrive in the city.”
Choltitz, who had arrived only on August 9, wanted to keep the city open as a transport hub as long as possible, but “he also had no wish to see his name forever associated with the destruction of the city unless doing so could help the German Army in some significant way.” There were plenty of fervent Nazis in the Wehrmacht and SS who would not have hesitated to carry out Hitler’s orders, but Parisians were fortunate that Choltitz was war-weary and rational enough not to be one of them, so the City of Light survived largely intact. (If you ever want to really irritate a Frenchman, just suggest that Paris should erect a statue to its savior, Dietrich von Choltitz.)
Just before he left Paris, after surrendering to the lightly armed Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), Choltitz gave Pierre Taittinger, the pro-Fascist mayor of Paris, an autographed photograph of himself, citing their common “Christian and European” beliefs. Taittinger seems to have hated the Communists, the FFI, and the SS in almost equal measure, and Neiberg is particularly good at recreating the confusing state of affairs in Paris as former collaborators attempted to make their accommodation with the new realities of power. There were no fewer than a dozen separate organizations under the FFI umbrella, for example, many of which hated the collabos more than they hated the Germans and looked forward to a wholesale revenge during the “Épuration,” the purging of French society following the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal.
Much of this vengeance fell upon the thousands of women who had to suffer la tonte, the shaving of their heads for having slept with Germans. Neiberg estimates that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 children were born to German fathers and French mothers out of wedlock, an astonishing figure in only four years of occupation. “In my bedroom,” joked the French actress Arletty, “there are no uniforms.” (She was also supposed to have said: “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”) Yet while she and other high-profile performers of what was dubbed collaboration horizontale got away almost scot-free, other, less prominent women were beaten up, abused, and forced to walk the streets wearing placards round their necks stating such things as “Had my husband executed.”
Rather like the FFI itself, when it comes to historical narrative Neiberg is excellent at small-arms fire. He tells us that there was so little gas in January 1945 that it took 18 minutes to boil a cup of water; that people used to ride the Métro or visit the Louvre all day just to keep warm; and that when it looked as though the Germans might win the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, after which Paris might fall to them once more, the capital’s prostitutes (in the words of an American pilot) “got rid of their English phrasebooks and dusted off their German versions.”
Neiberg is also good on the way the city endured blackouts, breadlines, black markets, and rationing. Through all the misery there were the jokes, themselves mostly black. One such was about a Jew who had killed a German soldier and eaten his heart at 9:20 p.m. “Impossible for three reasons,” went the punchline. “A German has no heart. A Jew eats no pork. And at 9:20 everyone is listening to the BBC.”
A joke in equally poor taste was Charles de Gaulle’s famous liberation speech from the Hotel de Ville, in which he somehow managed to present the liberation of Paris as having been almost entirely the work of his Free French forces and the French people. “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred!” he began, in what was undoubtedly the greatest — but also most ruthlessly cunning — speech of his life. “But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!”
Only in the fourth paragraph did de Gaulle deign to mention, in a sub-clause, “the help of our dear and admirable Allies,” as though France could ever have been liberated without the Anglo-Canadian-American invasion of Normandy two months previously. Nowhere in the speech did he acknowledge explicitly the sacrifice of the Communists, the Paris Resistance, or the FFI. He referred to them only obliquely, thus, as Neiberg states, “disconnecting the Paris Resistance from the formal authority structure of the state.” It wasn’t so much a speech as a coup d’état. It was brilliant, timeless, pulsating oratory, and it was successful in what it set out to achieve, but it bore next to no relation to the reality of how Paris had been liberated. For that, one should turn to Professor Neiberg’s well-researched, well-written, and utterly absorbing account.
– Mr. Roberts is the author, most recently, of The Storm of War: A New History of World War Two.