August 1944: Allies Liberate Paris
64 Years ago this week the Nazi German garrison in Paris, France, surrendered to Allied forces, thus completing the liberation of Paris. Yes, the Allies freed Paris from the hated Nazis during World War Two. And that’s pretty much all most Ameicans know about the liberation of Paris, though that hasn’t stopped many American pundits from concluding that the French still owe America a huge debt of gratitude for this action. Some older Americans may even remember the popular movie “Is Paris Burning?” from 1966 which made the case that Hitler had ordered Paris destroyed, but that the German commander German General Dietrich von Choltitz had disobeyed orders as he didn’t want to go down in history as the man who destroyed Paris. Von Choltitz is thus held in some regard as a humanitarian hero in Germany.
Of course as is so often the case, the actual reality of the situation is considerably different than is commonly understood, having been modified to fit the appropriate national myth. Quel Surpris. Americans cast themselves as the heroic liberators, the Germans cast themselves as the humanitarian defenders who refused to destroy the city on Hitler’s orders, and the French claim all the credit for themselves, minimizing the Allied role and castigating von Cholitz as a war criminal. I’d say the truth is somewhere in the middle, but honestly from my limited readings, I think the French version is the closest to the objective historical record.
So, a quick overview of the events. Basically after the D-Day Landings of 6 June 1944 the Allies broke out of Normandy and were rushing as fast as they could to get to Berlin before the Russians. The liberation of Paris was considered a non-priority at best, and they planned to bypass it and eventually put liberated France under an Allied military government akin to the one they were planning to set up (and did set up) in Germany and Japan. Now there were Free French military units under the command of Charles De Gaulle fighting with the Allied forces, and they were none too happy about Paris being bypassed and France being put under an Allied military government. Already one can see that America’s rosy view of itself as the good guys is a bit exaggerated, though the decision to go around Paris was also made in order to avoid bitter street fighting, so it wasn’t like the Allies didn’t care.
Well, on 19 August the situation came to a head when the French Resistance in Paris openly revolted against the Germans, and fighting raged in the streets. At this point the Free French made it clear that they weren’t going to sit by while the Germans destroyed Paris and put down the revolt, as the Russians had done in Warsaw. (Earlier in the war when the Russians reached the outskirts of Warsaw, the Polish resistance revolted and liberated Warsaw from the Germans. Then the Russian army under Stalin’s orders simply sat there and watched while the Germans brought up massive reinforcements and recaptured the city causing terrible destruction and loss of life.) So some Free French military units disobeyed orders from their US commanders and rushed to Paris. The arrival of French troops and tanks was the end for the Germans, and they surrendered forthwith, their commander later making his claims of being a humanitarian who saved Paris by disobeying Hitler’s orders.
Let’s first clear up the good German general von Choltitz’s claim of being the “Saviour of Paris.” Basically, it’s self serving crap. My apologies to any German readers, but his claims are revisionist history. Von Choltitz did in fact order several massacres, had landmarks destroyed, and engaged in battle throughout the city at great cost in lives. He fought until he basically couldn’t fight any longer, and records of his communications with Germany support the French version that he was a thug who killed the French as long as he could. While there were humanitarian heroes in Hitler’s Germany, and there were even fine German military leaders worthy of respect, von Choltitz wasn’t one of them.
Then we come to the American belief that we are heroes for liberating France. And while on some level this is true, the American soldiers advancing through France were liberators and they were greeted as such by the French…the only reason the Allies were in France was because it was between them and Germany. And the Allied plan to place France under an Allied military government went over like a lead balloon with the French people and the Free French forces. Some occupation money was even printed and distributed, but De Gaulle wasted no time declaring French independence after Paris was free and outlawed its use. No misunderstanding here, I’m not claiming that the Allies were planning to conquer France or any such thing, more that politically the USA was an accidental liberator, not a deliberate one. It’s a little disingenuous to claim ourselves as great liberators when we only got into the war because we were attacked by Germany and Japan.
And the French version that omits the participation of the Allies and claims France “self-liberated” is a little annoying. I mean, the Allies, especially the Americans, armed the Free French, shipped them to France, and defeated the German armies in France. This, obviously, was pretty crucial help in their effort to liberate France. Of course many Americans don’t know that French help was essential to Washington’s success in the American Revolution, so it’s not like this sort of self-congratulatory revision of history is uncommon.
In any event, I salute the Liberation of Paris. No matter the later historical omissions and exaggerations, there is no doubt that when Free French and Allied forces rolled into Paris, they were joyously greeted as liberators. It must have been an incredible experience, like every good thing that ever happened in one’s life rolled into a few days. It was also a unique event that is unlikely to occur again, and Americans need to understand that Baghdad and Kabul were nothing like Paris awaiting liberation from the Nazis. To learn the wrong thing from history is just as bad, or worse, as not learning anything at all.
(The above image was taken by a US Army photographer and thus is public domain under US copyright law. Credit: U.S. National Archives. I chose it because at least some faces are visible, those Germans don’t look too happy especially. Everybody looks pretty tired too, but I doubt many people had gotten much sleep in the preceding week. There’s lots of other pictures available at the main wikipedia site.)