The day Paris was liberated

It's 60 years since the French capital was freed from the Nazis. As the nation prepares to celebrate, John Lichfield sifts myth from history
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The Independent Online

Sixty years ago this afternoon, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the man who had ruthlessly destroyed Rotterdam, surrendered the French capital intact to French armoured forces, and to civilian rebels.

Sixty years ago this afternoon, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the man who had ruthlessly destroyed Rotterdam, surrendered the French capital intact to French armoured forces, and to civilian rebels.

Paris was liberated. Paris was saved. Paris - crucially for national pride - had been liberated by Parisians and by French soldiers. General von Choltitz had disobeyed nine direct orders from Adolf Hitler and refused to trigger the explosive charges on the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, the Seine bridges and every other significant monument in the world's most beautiful city.

Paris was not a "field of ruins", as Hitler intended. It had not suffered the fate of Warsaw, or even that of Berlin or London. It had fallen, miraculously whole, into the hands of General Charles de Gaulle, who arrived at the Gare Montparnasse that night. Ernest Hemingway, in person, liberated the Ritz hotel, pistol in hand, although he was a war correspondent, not a soldier.

The liberation of the French capital by the French, amid scenes of frantic elation, was the symbol of the forthcoming defeat of Nazism and the starting point for the rebirth of France from the shame and divisions of the defeat of 1940. These, at any rate, are the myths which still cling to the liberation of Paris and will be celebrated again today by joyous events, including an open-air dance, in period costume, on the Place de la Bastille.

Some of the myths, like our own British myths of the Second World War, are broadly true; others, like our own, have been distorted by political necessity and by the accretion of layers of cinematic romanticisation. Yes, General von Choltitz disobeyed orders from the Führer to destroy the city but, contrary to the version in the celebrated 1966 film, Is Paris Burning?, explosives were never laid on the Eiffel Tower or any other Paris monument.

Yes, the French 2nd Armoured Division, led by General Philippe Leclerc, was the first Allied formation in the city, although the first company to reach the centre on the evening of 24 August 1944, were mostly Spanish volunteers. The next day, French and American tanks completed the liberation of the city with minimal opposition.

Yes, the civilian population, led by the police, rose in revolt six days earlier but that was against the express orders of Charles de Gaulle, who feared a takeover by the Communist partisans, and battles which might destroy much of the city. Extensive (and militarily pointless) bloodshed was avoided only by the restraint of General von Choltitz and the intervention of the Swedish consul general, Raoul Nordling.

And yes, Ernest Hemingway "liberated" the Ritz, or more particularly, its bar and cellars, but the German occupants had long fled. Mr Hemingway was removed, comatose, some hours later.

Paris was not a stragetically important target for the Allied forces, who had defeated German armies in Normandy a week earlier. General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, had originally decided to by-pass the city, cutting off the small German garrison, and letting Paris fall "like a ripe fruit" some time in September.

His hand was forced by the uprising of the police on 19 August and the insurrection of the Forces Francaises de L'Intérieure (FFI), led by two young Communist resistance leaders, Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont and Henri Rol-Tanguy.

General de Gaulle had sent an emissary, Jacques Cheban Delmas, to forbid such an uprising. He feared the Communists would be left in de facto control of the capital, provoking a civil war or, worse, a prolonged American military government. Some rebel leaders did dream of a "revolt of the masses". The motives of most of them were a mixture of patriotism, impatience, and hunger.

The city was dangerously short of food. Most public sector workers were on strike. And there was a feeling that Paris, after sleep-walking through most of the war, must be seen to take part on its own liberation.

Madeleine Riffaud, then 20, was among many women who joined the insurgents. Today, she remembers a surreal atmosphere, with accordions and harmonicas playing popular tunes amid the gunfire, and crowds of people, including children, watched the skirmishing with German troops.

She said: "There was a sense of deliverance, that after four years of frustration and guilt, at having done nothing, Paris was not just going to allow itself to be declared an open city and be liberated without fighting. We were rediscovering our honour, our tradition of being a city which fought its own battles on the streets. There was a joy at fighting in bright sunshine, in front of people who admired us, who urged us on."

Jean-Paul Sartre, an as yet unknown writer, described the battle as a mixture of "hope, camaraderie, anxiety, great areas of calm and great areas of danger. Beside the Palais-Royal, a group of actors fought alongside the FFI, hiding behind piles of sand, fighting against a distant, invisible enemy, who were hiding in the bushes [of the Tuileries gardens]. Mostly, the Germans crouched behind their defences. Only a few tanks roamed the streets, firing at random."

Emissaries sent to the Allies exaggerated the seriousness of the fighting, which was nasty enough but never near the murderous grinds of Stalingrad or Warsaw. The rebels held psychologically important buildings, such as the town hall. The Germans made half-hearted attempts to dislodge them. (In the entire "Battle of Paris", there were 900 French civilian deaths, 76 deaths among General Leclerc's soldiers and 3,200 German and a few American dead.)

General Eisenhower had been persuaded to change his mind about Paris, partly through fear of a Communist takeover, partly through anxiety that there could be thousands of civilian casualties. General Leclerc's division, and a US one, were diverted from the mopping-up in Normandy and made a three-day dash.

There were tank battles in the centre of the city, including in the Place de la Concorde, but the few German defenders - four regiments with 17 tanks - were made up of mostly elderly and unmotivated conscripts. General von Choltitz was besieged with orders from Hitler, instructing him to lay waste to the city but, apart from blowing up a military communications centre, he did nothing.

The general may not have been the humanitarian hero sometimes portrayed: he had been responsible for the savage destruction of Rotterdam and Sebastopol. Later, he said he had come to the conclusion that the Führer was deranged and it was then permissible to disobey his orders.

With Germany's defeat inevitable, General von Choltitz appears to have balked at becoming the man who would take the blame for destroying Paris. Whether this was an act of courage or cowardice is beside the point: he was a hero of sorts.

After the exploratory push by the Spanish patrol on the evening of 24 August, the French tanks entered Paris in three columns from the south-west at 9.30 am on the 25th. The Americans rolled in from the east. Tens of thousands of Parisians swarmed on to the streets, and on to the tanks, risking their lives from the sporadic fire from the Germans.

The French-manned but American-made tanks and troop carriers could hardly push their way through the crowd on the Avenue d'Italie. A contemporary French news report said: "At first, there was just a murmuring in the distance and then the first vehicle appeared. It was crushed by the crowd. It was a machine-gun carrier, with five men in khaki, with American helmets, but five Frenchmen with the word 'France' sewn on their shoulders. When the crowd heard them speak French, there was an explosion of joy. Everyone sang the Marseillaise, once, twice, three times."

Thérèse Henry, 74, said: "I saw my father cry only twice in his life. Once was in in June 1940, when the Germans entered Paris. The second was on 25 August when we saw Leclerc's soldiers and we discovered they were French. The Americans gave us slabs of chocolate with nuts and almonds in them. In all my life, I have never again found chocolate which tasted so good."

General von Choltitz was captured in his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice and taken to the Hotel de Ville to sign the official surrender. Snipers - die-hard Germans and members of the Vichy militia - continued to fire from rooftops for days. There was even shooting (never fully explained) inside Notre Dame cathedral when Charles de Gaulle entered for a Mass, after striding in triumph down the Champs Elysées the following day.

Almost immediately, the joy gave way to less noble emotions. Resistance leaders were furious to find that the same civilians who had cheered them, expected life, and especially food supplies, to return to normal as soon as the Germans left.

Women accused of "horizontal collaboration" with the Germans were dragged through the streets naked, and their heads shaved. Madeleine Riffaud says such acts were as disgraceful as they were inevitable, committed, in many cases, by people who had done little for the Resistance. "The acts of revenge often fell on the weakest rather than those who were the most responsible [for collaborating with the Germans]," Mme Riffaud said.

She told of one die-hard sniper, a member of the Vichy militia, who shot a four-year-old girl as she played on the street in the 19th arrondissement. He was captured by police and a crowd gathered, wanting to lynch him. "We set up a kind of popular tribunal," Mme Riffaud said. "People were screaming, 'Kill him, kill him'. If I had been older I would have tried to persuade them to have a proper trial. But the crowd was out of control. We put him up against a wall and shot him. It was cleaner that way than giving him to the crowd."

Lynch mobs also tried to kill German prisoners, not ones suspected of a particular crime, just any German prisoners. The Resistance had to threaten the crowd at gunpoint so they could lead the Germans to safety.

The idea that Paris was liberated "by itself" was a myth instantly seized on by General de Gaulle, who used the phrase in a speech at the town hall on 26 August. ("Paris! Paris outraged! Paris shattered! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated, liberated by itself."

General de Gaulle saw the value of the Paris insurrection as a component in the bigger myth he wanted to construct: that of France as one of the victor nations, not a defeated nation liberated by others.

The legend had its value in helping France unite and rebuild after the war. And for 30 years or more, it also prevented France from facing its internal divisions, and the acts of wickedness committed by the Vichy regime in France's name.