THE BLOOD OF FREE MEN: THE LIBERATION OF PARIS, 1944
By Michael Neiberg
Basic Books, $28.99, 352 pages
The French people sloughed off years of national shame in one glorious summer month in 1944 when, with only minimal assistance from Allied armies, they evicted German troops from Paris. Albert Camus, writing in the clandestine newspaper Combat, spoke of Paris returning to its historic role of purging tyranny with the “blood of free men.”
The liberation of Paris by its own people is best put into perspective when compared with the disgraceful weeks of 1940, when, as William L. Shirer wrote in his 1969 book “The Collapse of the Third Republic,” “this old parliamentary democracy, the world’s second-largest empire, one of Europe’s principal powers and perhaps its most civilized, and reputedly possessing one of the finest armies in the world, went down to utter military defeat, leaving its citizens, who had been heirs to a long and glorious history, dazed and then completely demoralized.” The French surrendered their country to a pro-Nazi government.
Understandably, postwar French historians offered excuses for their countrymen’s conduct — the Germans “forced unwilling French officials to commit atrocities against other French people,” and “the vast majority of French people supported the Resistance from an early date.” Mr. Neiberg, a history professor at the U.S. Army War College, dismisses such claims as “historically nonsensical.”
During the first two years of occupation, the Germans behaved benignly, evoking little popular reaction. The Germans left the dirty work to a French paramilitary force, the Milice, which happily rounded up Jews on behalf of the Gestapo and shipped them to death camps. Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval openly wished for a German victory.
Save for the provinces, with terrain friendly to guerrillas, the “resistance movement” was initially meager. Things changed abruptly when the Germans began pressing French males into forced labor contingents and shipping them east. An estimated 1 million people were swept up.
Thus commenced serious resistance in Paris, with young men opting to go underground rather than be exiled. The politics were a horribly mixed nest of competing groups. Communist-dominated labor groups competed with moderate and royalist factions, all seeking to gain control of a postwar government.
Towering over this turmoil was Gen. Charles de Gaulle, a relatively obscure figure when the war began who ended up in London as the self-declared leader of the “free French in exile.” To the chagrin of the Allies, de Gaulle insisted on being treated as an equal with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
As Mr. Neiberg writes, any effort to “free Paris” was further complicated by military strategy. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of Allied ground forces, considered Paris “nothing more than an ink spot on our maps to be bypassed as we headed toward the Rhine.”
The lack of outside military help did not deter a leading leftist Resistance group — the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), which enjoyed strong support in Parisian working-class districts. Under a Spanish War veteran, Henri Rol-Tanguy, the FFI declared “that only by rising up and liberating Paris themselves could Parisians earn the right to govern themselves once the Germans had left.” The FFI formed an uneasy alliance with the National Council of Resistance, with de Gaulle as political leader. But many on the left opposed him as a “representative of the same rotten system” that caused the 1940 disgrace.
Mr. Neiberg details how the Resistance groups staged an urban insurgency against a stronger foe. Key to their success was persuading much of the Parisian police force to stop cooperating with the Germans. The FFI and the National Council of Resistance identified some 80 strategic sites to be seized — prisons, the gas and electric works, banks and telephone exchanges. Leaflets went out ordering, “Chacun Son Boche” —”Everyone Kill His Hun.”
Barricades composed of broken furniture, overturned cars and debris of all sorts blocked key streets. Showers of Molotov cocktails — flaming champagne bottles filled with gasoline — rained down on German tanks. Mobs rounded up scores of so-called horizontal collaborators — women who had affairs with Germans — and shaved their heads.
The German commander, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, who earlier had ruthlessly destroyed Rotterdam and Sevastopol, realized early on that his weakened garrison could not quell the Resistance. He sloughed off increasingly strident demands from Hitler that he reduce Paris to “rubble” and searched for a way to vacate Paris with his honor intact.
Among many heroes cited by Mr. Neiberg is a brave Swedish consul, Raoul Nordling, who negotiated a cease-fire as the Germans prepared to bomb a key government building, the Prefecture, on the Ile de la Cite, adjacent to the venerable Notre Dame cathedral.
As the insurgency raged, the Allied command feared the eruption of a civil war that would rival the Reign of Terror of 1870. Intelligence reports went to Allied headquarters cautioning that “communist groups were preparing a coup once the truce expired.” So Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to Paris, along with a French division commanded by Maj. Gen. Philippe Leclerc, who had twice escaped from German POW camps to join de Gaulle in Paris.
Joy reigned in Paris the last days of August, and Eisenhower praised residents on his first visit to the liberated city: “Liberty has returned to one of its traditional homes. The glory of having freed the capital belongs to Frenchmen.”
The taking of Paris was of scant strategic importance but served as an enormous morale booster — so much so that Allied generals began speaking of a final victory in 1944. Such was not to be. The story of how the supposed “final offensive” stalled for months is documented in Joachim Ludewig’s “Ruckzug.” Mr. Ludewig, who serves in the German Defense Ministry, delved into records of both adversaries and concluded that a quick defeat of the Germans post-Paris was hindered by excessive caution and a lack of strategic boldness on the part of the Allies. He also cited the Germans’ tactical skill and energy.
His book, first published in Germany, is part of a new series, “Foreign Military Studies,” a joint venture of the University Press of Kentucky and the Association of the U.S. Army. Mr. Ludewig offers insight into a phase of the European theater that I had not read elsewhere.
Joseph C. Goulden, formerly Washington bureau chief of The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of 18 nonfiction books.