paris narrowly escapes destruction -- 3/22/17

Today's selection -- from The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo. In the climactic months of World War II, after the Allies had stormed the beaches of France on D-Day and were marching to liberate all of France and then attack Germany, Hitler's forces were abandoning their occupation of Paris. As part of this, Hitler had ordered General Dietrich von Choltitz to destroy Paris, leaving it a "field of ruins":

"Law and order were un­raveling quickly. ... It was a logistical nightmare. The German administrative corps had all but abandoned Paris, and the faltering Vichy gov­ernment was imploding. But systematic terror was something the French still understood and respected. And Dietrich von Choltitz was there to deliver it.

"He'd start by sending troops to burn the grain windmills in the northeastern suburb of Pantin so the Parisians would slowly starve. Then, according to plan, the troops would turn to planting bombs under bridges and landmarks across the city. When the fuses were lit, Paris would become an inferno. Adolf Hitler wanted the capital of France razed to the ground before the Germans retreated. Destroying one of the great cities of the world would be a powerful 'moral weapon' against the enemy, the Führer declared. He ordered von Choltitz to leave the city 'a field of ruins.'

"To the dismay of even some of his fellow Germans, the gen­eral showed every sign of compliance. He had a reputation for ruthlessness. In Russia, he had carried out the extermination of large parts of the Jewish population. Ambassador Otto Abetz sent repeated telegrams to Berlin, complaining of the 'brutality and rudeness of Choltitz' and decrying the escalation of the violence in the capital. It was a useless protest. The Führer was in a punishing mood, and he wanted Paris flattened.

Members of the Free French Forces fight from inside the Paris Prefecture (police headquarters)

"Yet even with the Allies just beyond the city, theoretically capable of entering the capital at almost any moment, the planned destruction was unaccountably slow in starting. On August 17, 1944, the American troops reached the River Seine and the outskirts of Paris, to the north and the south. For days, still nothing happened. Lighting the fuses shouldn't be taking this kind of time. Furious with the delays, Hitler was screaming to his staff in Berlin, 'Brennt Paris?' -- 'Is Paris burning?'

"Dietrich von Choltitz had long since come to the conclu­sion that the German leader was insane. He also knew that surrendering Paris was inevitable. He was a general, not a hu­manitarian, and he had blood on his hands in this war, without question. But he had already made a tactical decision. He didn't want to destroy the capital of France. That was not how he wanted history to remember him. ...

"The general -- aided by representative resistance insurgents within Paris, to whom he could not with dignity or safety surrender -- arranged for a diplomatic emissary to cross the front lines and deliver a message to the formal French forces­-in-exile and to the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower. The message was a stark one. Enter the capital quickly, before I have to destroy it. Dietrich von Choltitz warned them that he had 'not more than 24-48 hours left' before he would have to show Hitler that he was moving ahead with the explosions. The Allies had until noon on August 24, 1944, to make their liberation happen. ...

"It all should have been perfectly simple. The trouble was that the French and the other Allies -- especially the Ameri­cans and the British, who were in charge of the military op­erations outside Paris -- were now caught up in another round of bitter squabbling that threatened to squander the fleeting opportunity to save Paris. ...

"As a matter of national pride, the French wanted to be the first forces to enter the city. There was a protracted brouhaha about the matter. ... Suddenly, the French started dragging their feet and trying to slow down the entire operation. The clock was ticking. They had only until noon to take the capital. Yet [French general] Leclerc would not budge. The French were not advanc­ing. ...

"Noon on August 24 passed without the liberation. Outside of Paris, the Allied troops met with a surprisingly fierce resistance. The bridge at Sevrès, connecting the capital to routes southwest of the city, exploded.

"Part of what General Leclerc couldn't point out was that in fact he had been trying to delay liberation, even if it meant missing von Choltitz's deadline and undermining a unified Al­lied operation. General de Gaulle had already made it clear to Leclerc that he didn't want the French troops taking control of Paris until he could make political arrangements to oust the pro-communist resistance and install his own post-occupation government. At stake was his leadership of postwar Paris."



Tilar J. Mazzeo


The Hotel on Place Vendôme: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2014 by Tilar J. Mazzeo


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