The Liberation of Paris in August 1944 has to be one of history’s happiest moments. Everyone did the right thing, more or less, at a time when it was tempting to do the wrong thing. Civilization was saved, in a very suspenseful sort of way. It is still a great story in Jean Edward Smith’s trim but engaging account of driving darkness from the City of Light.
The unlikely hero, for those of you who remember the 1965 best-selling book and 1966 movie, Is Paris Burning?, is German general Dietrich von Choltitz. Hitler picked von Choltitz to defend occupied Paris from the Allies because he was told by his chief of personnel that von Choltitz “never questioned an order no matter how harsh it was.” (This included the liquidation of Jews.) In the summer of 1944, General von Choltitz still believed that Germany could win the war, and he had faith in Hitler—until he met with him, shortly before heading to Paris. The Führer was foaming at the mouth. “I saw in front of me someone who had lost his mind,” von Choltitz later recalled.