Some of that climactic finality clings to D-Day’s inspiring coda, 11 weeks later: the surrender of Nazi-occupied Paris to Allied and French forces. The liberation of Paris in the last days of August was a near-miracle of orderly capitulation that left nearly all of the venerated city and nearly all of its people unharmed. The liberation represented not just the end of the city’s darkest hour, with rapturous pent-up joy in the streets, but the very birth of modern France, the founding moment of the era that Charles de Gaulle would define and dominate. And it thrust Dwight D. Eisenhower, not for the last time, into the role of diplomat and political crisis manager.
The loathing that President Franklin Roosevelt, and to a slightly lesser extent British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, held for the self-appointed leader of the Free French is no secret and no surprise. Jean Edward Smith’s portraits of de Gaulle and Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, suggest a different atmosphere on the ground, where it counted. In his new book, “The Liberation of Paris,” Smith presents a more modulated relationship of mutual if often grudging esteem and uneasy collaboration toward common objectives.
Those two familiar characters, both future chiefs of state, naturally loom large in Smith’s brisk new recounting of those late-summer days. De Gaulle’s objective was to establish personal authority as the leader of France, transform the motley resistance he had led from London into a government, share as little of the power and spoils as possible with the French Communist Party, and thwart American forward planning for an occupying government in France. Taking Paris, and leading the incursion, were essential to those aims.
Eisenhower’s carefully crafted battle plan was to skirt the French capital and push Allied forces toward the German border. British and American leaders feared civil insurrection in Paris and wanted to avoid the risks of pacification, possibly by force, and then feeding and running a city of 4 million, all delaying the assault on Germany itself.
Smith reveals how much discretionary power de Gaulle and Eisenhower (and their lieutenants) exercised in the field, making momentous decisions that their political masters had little choice but to accept. The same could said of the third and more obscure general in this triptych, the Reich’s military commander in the Paris region, Dietrich von Choltitz.
While Eisenhower and de Gaulle butted heads, von Choltitz was only just arriving in Paris, for the first time, to take charge of a deteriorating situation. He was one of the few senior generals of the Reich not implicated in the botched plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler just two weeks before. He was a Nazi’s Nazi, with a reputation for never questioning orders, an essential attribute for the Fuhrer as his empire crumbled around him.
In this last assignment, von Choltitz proved to be not just a man of conviction but also a man of wile. He had no illusions about Germany’s impending defeat and Hitler’s derangement, and had to operate by his own wits and lights. By evasion, omission and bureaucratic sabotage, he defied Hitler’s heated commands to topple the Eiffel Tower, torch Notre Dame and the Invalides, blow up the 65 bridges of Paris, turn its museums and palaces to rubble, and shatter its electrical and water networks.
Hitler probably never yelled “Is Paris burning?,” the phrase that became the title of a famous book (and movie) about the liberation, on which Smith draws. But the Fuhrer did cable von Choltitz urgently on Aug. 23: “Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.” The general silently pocketed the message.
Von Choltitz’s courage and cool head are all the more remarkable given that he faced more than the perils of insubordination. To rivet the loyalty of his military, Hitler just days before instituted a new policy called Sippenhaft, a form of official hostage-taking. Family members were now to be held responsible — that is, subject to arrest and execution — for the transgressions of men in uniform. Von Choltitz’s wife and three young children were in Baden-Baden.
In retrospect, the decisive moment for the fate of modern Paris may have come a few weeks before Eisenhower’s acquiescence to de Gaulle in approving the Allied recapture of Paris, led by the illustrious French 2nd Armored Division. “What the hell, Brad, I guess we’ve got to go in,” Ike told Gen. Omar Bradley.
That moment was when von Choltitz was summoned to the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s redoubt in East Prussia, on Aug. 6, just before he took up his sudden assignment as the Reich’s commander of the Paris region. He was a true believer until that moment. But, Smith writes, “as soon as he saw the Führer, von Choltitz realized the war was lost.” Before him was “an old, bent-over, flabby man with thinning grey hair — a trembling, physically demolished human being,” von Choltitz recalled. As Hitler ranted about the perfidy of the generals’ July 20 plot to kill him, “I witnessed the terrible eruption of a hateful mind. . . . He spoke in bloodthirsty language with froth literally coming out of his mouth. . . . Sweat was running down his face while he spoke excitedly about the hanging of the generals. I saw in front of me someone who had lost his mind. . . . The fact that the life of our nation was in the hands of an insane being who could no longer judge the situation or was unwilling to see it realistically depressed me immensely.”
The derangement of the supreme leader was seldom far from his mind as von Choltitz tried to manage the occupation’s final days, and a peaceful surrender, from his headquarters suite at the Hotel Meurice on rue de Rivoli.
“The Liberation of Paris” is a slender book: terse, authoritative, unsentimental. The author is an American historian and constitutional scholar long associated with the University of Toronto, and an esteemed biographer of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, as well as Ulysses Grant, John Marshall and George W. Bush.
In the closing paragraphs of this book, almost as an afterthought, Smith raises the question of what the military diversion to liberate Paris cost the Allies in the drive toward Berlin — the price of victory postponed. He puts it at six months, but he says the imperative of Germany’s “total defeat” made the price worth paying. “Her total defeat,” Smith writes, “has meant there has been . . . little nostalgia for Hitler or the Nazi regime.” This was probably a door better left unopened.
Correction: An earlier version of this review contained a photo caption that mistakenly said the liberation of Paris occurred in July 1944. It occurred in August 1944. The caption has been corrected.
The Liberation of Paris
How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light
By Jean Edward Smith
Simon & Schuster. 242 pp. $27