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.
Ordered to blow up the magnificent bridges, cathedrals, and monuments of Paris before the Allies arrived, von Choltitz could not see the point. He stalled and equivocated. But he couldn’t be too obvious about it. Under a new edict from the Reich called Sippenhaft (imprisoned families), “a general’s family would be held responsible for his failings.” If von Choltitz did not heed Hitler’s commands in Paris, his wife and small children back in Germany were likely to be killed.
“I saw in front of me someone
who had lost his mind.”
Von Choltitz needed to find an honorable way to surrender—and soon. With the Allies only 35 miles from Paris, the Resistance was starting to act up. The police were on strike, and Gaullists and Communists were shooting Germans, when they weren’t shooting each other.
But where were the Allies? The plan of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, was to bypass Paris as he chased the German Army eastward. General Charles de Gaulle, the haughty leader of the Free French, was demanding that the Allies liberate Paris—but only if they could be led by a Free French column, of course. Stopping to fight street by street in Paris, Eisenhower worried, could add weeks to the conquest of Germany.
It all could have ended very badly. Back in 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the barricades had gone up during the Paris Commune and a bloodbath had followed. That summer of 1944, the Polish resistance had risen up in German-occupied Warsaw with the coming of the Red Army—but the Russians had stopped outside the city and allowed the Nazis to massacre the Poles.
President Roosevelt regarded de Gaulle as a phony, and his State Department wanted to make a separate peace with the collaborationist Vichy government. Fortunately, General Eisenhower liked de Gaulle, or at least put up with him. Eisenhower was not a brilliant military strategist, but he was a great politician, and his human instincts rarely failed him. He gave de Gaulle the green light. The Free French, followed closely by the Americans, were ordered to ride in to save the day.
Smith writes, citing other authorities, that it is questionable that Hitler actually demanded, Brennt Paris?—“Is Paris burning?” But the Führer did order, “Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.”
Von Choltitz pocketed the order and told no one about it. On the evening of August 24, the German commander was eating dinner at Nazi headquarters at the Hotel Meurice with his staff when church bells began to ring all over Paris. They had been silent for four years. His secretary asked, “What does that mean?” Von Choltitz replied, “They are ringing because the Allies have arrived in Paris. Why else do you suppose they would be ringing?”
“Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.”
The celebration in the streets was joyous and riotous. “Anyone who doesn’t sleep with a woman tonight is just an exhibitionist,” said Ernie Pyle, the legendary American war correspondent. Then came the reprisals. French women who had slept with German soldiers—and there were tens of thousands of these so-called “horizontal collaborators”—had their hair shorn and were sometimes paraded in the streets. But the common folk, too, showed courage and humanity. As von Choltitz walked away from the Hotel Meurice to surrender, citizens spat upon him. One of his aides was shot in the head and instantly killed. Emerging from the jeering crowd, a French woman in a Red Cross uniform walked beside von Choltitz, shielding him. When they reached safety, the German general embraced her and said in his best French, “Madame, comme Jean d’Arc.”
Von Choltitz spent the rest of the war in P.O.W. camps and returned to his wife and three children in Germany in 1947. He died in 1966.
Evan Thomas is the author of Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941–1945 and Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.