The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light
“Biographer and historian Jean Edward Smith . . . tells the fascinating story of Paris’ liberation and credits three soldiers—French General de Gaulle, American General Dwight Eisenhower, and German General Dietrich von Choltitz—with saving the ‘city of light.’”
On August 25, 1944, the city of Paris was liberated after more than four years of Nazi occupation and rule. Parisians, except for those who collaborated with the Nazis, celebrated wildly as French troops under General Jacques Leclerc entered the city largely without opposition, and General Charles de Gaulle assumed political control of the city.
Paris was fortunate to have escaped the fate of Warsaw, Berlin, London, and other great cities of Europe that were extensively damaged, if not destroyed, by the war. Biographer and historian Jean Edward Smith in his new book tells the fascinating story of Paris’ liberation and credits three soldiers—French General de Gaulle, American General Dwight Eisenhower, and German General Dietrich von Choltitz—with saving the “city of light.”
The largely peaceful liberation of Paris, to paraphrase Britain’s Duke of Wellington, was a close run for several reasons.
First, Hitler ordered the city to be defended at all costs or destroyed. Second, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff did not plan to liberate Paris. The defeat of Germany’s armies in the field, not capturing cities, was the principal military goal. Third, French resistance forces in Paris were divided into several independent groups, including Gaullists, socialists, and communists, each of which had their own political goals. Fourth, Parisians were low on food and fuel and becoming desperate. Finally, President Roosevelt and his State Department hated de Gaulle and sought to undermine his leadership of the Free French movement.
The liberation of Paris was made possible by the Allied invasion of Normandy and the subsequent hard fought struggle against German defenders in the bocage country of western France in June–July 1944, and the lesser invasion of southern France in mid-August 1944.
The liberation forces were assisted by the French Resistance whose members conducted sabotage operations and spread turmoil and disinformation behind enemy lines.
As Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower controlled the tactical movements of allied forces under the overall strategic direction of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who in turn answered to Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. French leaders had no voice in Allied deliberations or decision-making.
De Gaulle was the de facto leader of the Free French nation, that is, those French citizens who refused to acknowledge or accept the rule of Germany or Vichy France under the elderly General Petain. De Gaulle rubbed Roosevelt the wrong way, but Eisenhower understood his indispensability.
General von Choltitz, according to Smith, had a reputation for always following orders. He had been personally loyal to Hitler while other generals plotted against the Fuhrer. That changed, however, after von Choltitz attended a meeting with Hitler in early August 1944 at Wolf’s Lair, the Fuhrer’s East Prussian headquarters.
“As soon as he saw the Fuhrer,” Smith writes, “von Choltitz realized the war was lost.” Von Choltitz later recalled: “I saw an old, bent-over, flabby man with thinning gray hair—a trembling, physically demolished human being.” During the meeting, Hitler “ranted at the top of his voice” about the July 20 plot to kill him. “I witnessed a terrible eruption of a hateful mind,” von Choltitz recalled. “The entire tragedy of my country was made clear to me.”
Von Choltitz was ordered to defend Paris to the last man, and if that was not possible, to destroy the city. All of Paris’ 65 bridges, the city’s power plants, gas installations, and telephone exchanges were to be blown up.
Von Choltitz was determined, however, to save Paris, but he had to act carefully. After the failed attempt on Hitler’s life, German generals’ families became hostages to their continued loyalty to Hitler. Von Choltitz walked a fine line between superficial compliance with Hitler’s orders and insubordination. “He wanted to give the impression of continuous activity to halt the Allied advance,” Smith writes, “when in reality he was doing nothing.”
Von Choltitz was playing for time. He knew Allied forces were moving in the direction of the city. He also knew that if he did not carry out his orders, Hitler would relieve him of command. “The only thing that would prevent that,” Smith writes, “would be the rapid arrival of the Allies in Paris.”
Here is where Eisenhower played a crucial role in Paris’ liberation. He changed the Allied war plan to bypass Paris and instead concocted a military justification for the political decision to liberate the city. Paris, he told the Combined Chiefs of Staff, would become a “constant menace on our flank.” German forces there needed to be neutralized, he wrote.
Eisenhower also decided to support de Gaulle as the de facto leader of France, and to ensure that French troops under de Gaulle entered the city first. This, too, was a decision that was to have lasting political consequences.
Smith calls Eisenhower’s decision to liberate Paris “one of the great decisions of World War II,” yet it was opposed by Generals Bradley and Gerow, two of his most trusted and skilled commanders. The author compares Eisenhower’s political decisions about the future of Paris to General Ulysses Grant’s decision at Appomattox to pardon all Confederate soldiers who peacefully returned home.
The liberation of Paris, however, slowed the Allied advance into Germany, and that, too, had political consequences for postwar Europe.
Smith details the movement of French troops into Paris, their interaction with Resistance forces, and the small-scale fighting that resulted in relatively small numbers of casualties. The surrender of an SS garrison at the Palais du Luxembourg ended most of the fighting. “Thanks to von Choltitz,” Smith writes, “it had been achieved without significant damage to the city.”
De Gaulle made the Ministry of War his headquarters. His twin political goals were French unity and preventing a communist takeover of the city. He achieved both. In a stirring speech to leaders of the Resistance at the Hotel de Ville, de Gaulle said: “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!”
He urged his countrymen to “keep fighting until the last day, until the day of total and complete victory.” “[D]e Gaulle,” Smith writes, “emerged as the unquestioned leader of the new France. His poise and bravery were now a matter of record and were unparalleled in modern French history.” He was at that moment the embodiment of the French nation.
De Gaulle and Eisenhower went on to become presidents of their respective countries. Von Choltitz was a prisoner of war until 1947. He died in 1966, and France sent an honor guard to his funeral, which was attended by several top French generals.
Those three military professionals acted wisely and courageously in the midst of a terrible war and saved Paris for the ages.