The liberation of Paris, the iconic French capital, was not a strategic target for the Allies, and US General Eisenhower considered it a distraction in his plans. He was thinking of bypassing it altogether as his Allied armies set out in pursuit of the Germans as they retreated eastwards across France.
Eisenhower was sensible to approach Paris with caution. If the city was defended with determination it might be destroyed for all-but symbolic gain, and the already overstretched Allies would have to feed a huge population of displaced people.
Western, southwestern and central France
On 19 August 1944, the fate of Paris was decided by an uprising of Parisians and resistance fighters bent on liberating their city for themselves. The German garrison fought back to suppress the rebellion and the precarious situation could easily have degenerated into an uncontrolled guerrilla war of liberation and political feuding – one that risked spreading across the whole of France. Eisenhower couldn’t afford anarchy behind his lines or disruption to his carefully orchestrated military campaign.
The French also had a say in the matter. It was imperative they were seen to be taking an active part in liberating their capital. With a sense of historic prescience, de Gaulle disembarked at Cherbourg on 20 August, just as the last German troops in Normandy were surrendering to the Allies. Four days later, at dusk on 24 August, an outreach detachment of General Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armoured Division drove into southern Paris virtually unopposed. The next morning his entire division entered the city.
What followed in the next few hours was to curiously echo the events of the summer of 1940, when the French and Germans decided against reducing the City of Lights to rubble. In August 1944, however, Hitler unequivocally ordered the German military commander of Paris, Lieutenant General Dietrich von Choltitz, to crush the insurrection and raze the city, as happened in Warsaw. If the Allies took Paris, it should be transformed into a prize not worth the effort of taking.
Choltitz chose to disobey his orders, refusing to destroy one of the great cities of European civilization. Instead, he yielded Paris intact, and on 25 August, US divisions crossed the Seine and joined Leclerc’s troops in clearing the last German pockets of resistance. The opposition was sporadic and ineffectual – mainly provided by Germans and collaborators who didn’t want to fall into Allied hands.
The city’s eastern suburbs were bombed, but otherwise Paris survived the war. Choltitz signed an instrument of capitulation and ordered his troops to surrender; the following day, de Gaulle led a victory parade down the Champs-Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe. Paris hadn’t been scarred by the Liberation, but there was still little light, heat and running water. Gradually normal life resumed, and the city became an administrative centre for the Allies, as well as a pleasure dome for soldiers on leave.
France’s Army Museum in the Hôtel des Invalides tells the story of the war and Liberation using memorabilia and stirring contemporary newsreels. In the basement, the “Historial de Gaulle” section plays a high-tech audiovisual tribute to the resistance leader and, later, president. A series of rooms are also devoted to the generals of the Free French forces: Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Alphonse Juin and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
Two essential figures of French history are celebrated at this museum, which recently relocated to new premises. On 25 August 1944 General Leclerc, commander of the 2nd French Armoured Division, drove into Paris, set up his command post in Montparnasse Station and organized the surrender of the city’s German garrison. Jean Moulin was the head of the National Council of Resistance. Arrested, tortured and killed in 1943, Moulin died without the knowledge that Paris would later be liberated.
Since 1956 this memorial has occupied a sombre crypt containing a large black marble Star of David, with a candle at its centre. In 2005 President Chirac opened a new museum here and unveiled a Wall of Names: four giant slabs of marble engraved with the names of the 76,000 French Jews sent to death camps from 1942 to 1944.
The museum gives an absorbing and moving account of the history of Jews in France, especially Paris, during the German occupation. There are last letters from deportees to their families, videotaped testimony from survivors, numerous ID cards and photos. The museum ends with the Children’s Memorial, a collection of photos, almost unbearable to look at, of 2500 French children, each with the date of their birth and the date of deportation.
The Shoah Memorial in Drancy, a suburb of Paris, stands opposite the Cité de la Muette about 10km from the city centre. During World War II, the Cité de la Muette served as an internment camp for the Jews of France before their deportation towards extermination camps. Almost 63,000 people passed through Drancy on their way, principally, to Auschwitz–Birkenau. The memorial here traces the history and function of the camp, as well as the harsh daily lives of the interned.
In 1940, Charles de Gaulle created an award for people who participated in the liberation of France. Second only to the better-known Légion d’Honneur, the Order of Liberation was bestowed on fewer than 1500 people for their heroic deeds during World War II. The Hôtel des Invalides complex displays the collections of the Companions of the Order of the Liberation: two thousand objects and documents relate to the Liberation, the deportation of French citizens by the Nazis and the activities of the French Resistance.
This no-holds-barred luxury hotel opposite the Tuileries was one of the key locations in the liberation of Paris. In August 1944 it functioned as the headquarters of Dietrich von Choltitz, the German military governor the city. Hitler is said to have phoned him here to make sure his order to destroy the city was being carried out. “Is Paris burning?” he demanded of Choltitz, who had decided that the preservation of the city was more important than the Führer’s command. When the Americans replaced the Germans, this and three hundred other hotels were used to accommodate their officers and offices.
Almost every department of France has its own Resistance archive and centre of interpretation. This museum, in the southeast suburbs of Paris, attempts to present a coherent picture at national level from the inception of the resistance movement to the Liberation. Interesting displays include assorted photographs, documents, paintings and other wartime objects.
On 14 June 1940, German troops marched from the Arc de Triomphe down the-Elysées – then as now among the most famous streets in the world – to emphasize their unqualified victory after the Fall of France. On 26 August 1944 it was the turn of de Gaulle and the Free French Army, unperturbed by a lone, unidentified sniper firing on the crowd. De Gaulle delivered a rousing speech, praising his countrymen and women for freeing themselves of their Nazi oppressors, but barely acknowledging the contributions of his allies.
Top image: Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe at night, Paris © Catarina Belova/Shutterstock