Remembering Liberation: 60 Years of Paris’ Freedom

By Scott Wentland

August 25, 2004 marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Paris, France, a critical turning point in World War II.

For four long years, the Third Reich cast its callous shadow over the horizons of the “City of Light.” Nazi Germany had conquered Paris on June 16, 1940. Before the United States had officially joined the Allies in World War II, the fight against the fascists, Nazi conquest was literally in the backyard of Parisians. The French fell to an enemy that took a world to defeat.

Though war surrounded Paris for four years, the storied city was seen as too precious to be carelessly destroyed, even to the Nazis. There was surprisingly little damage to the city’s infrastructure. Paris’ most famous buildings and landmarks were respected by the Nazis, who had shown no such respect for London and other famed cities of Europe. Notre Dame Cathedral was left almost untouched. Napoleon’s tomb, at Invalides Palace, remained undamaged. Hitler had visited there in 1910 with visions of succeeding where Napoleon failed in his global conquest. The Luxembourg Garden area, where the Germans had made their last stand, was the area with the greatest damage.

Adolf Hitler, knowing the grand significance of Paris both strategically and symbolically, demanded Paris to be defended at all costs. He ordered General Dietrich von Cholitz, the commander of the German forces of occupation, to not let the city fall into Allied hands. Hitler knew Paris’ liberation was eminent due to the fact that the Nazis were spread too thin across Europe and had been undertaking extraordinarily high casualty rates since D-Day, a couple of months before. Hitler then gave the order to destroy the city. General von Cholitz had explosives laid under Paris’ bridges and many of its notable landmarks, but disobeyed Hitler in its execution. General von Cholitz did not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed the “City of Light.”

The Parisians were not as lucky as the city itself. The Nazis showed little compassion for its citizens. The occupation brought vicious oppression. Curfews were imposed nightly, food was rationed, and there was rampant persecution of the city’s Jewish population. With the Nazis came anti-Semitic propaganda and the execution of a historic evil. In the month of July 1942 alone, the Nazis sent 13,000 Jewish Parisians to their deaths at Nazi concentration camps. There were many among the French population who collaborated with the Nazis, some more than others. Charles de Gaulle, after the dust settled from the war, made it a priority to punish those of the Nazi-designated Vichy government who ardently collaborated with the Nazis.

It was thought that Nazi Germany, at the height of its power in the summer of 1940, when it had invaded France, was a permanent global force. Hitler preached the permanence of the Third Reich and its thousand-year reign. Though the French government surrendered to the wrath of the Nazi military machine, there were many among the French population who believed the war was not over. Their fate was not sealed. While insurgents within the mainland of France were active during the years of occupation, the French resistance within the mainland was too sparse and unorganized to make a significant impact. The organized Free French forces, officially known as French National Committee of Liberation, were comprised of troops from free colonial French lands around the world. General Charles de Gaulle refused the French surrender. His Free French troops equipped with American-made armor assisted in Allied efforts in Africa, and ultimately freed his capital on August 25, 1944, along side the American 4th Infantry Division. French Brig. Gen. Jacques Leclerc commanded the French 2nd Armor Division as they helped the Americans secure Paris on August 25, 1944.

The fight for Paris itself was little to speak of relative to other major conflicts of World War II. The preceding fighting at Normandy and throughout France was far more fierce than any fighting in and around Paris’ city limits. There was moderate resistance for a brief period during the night of August 24-25, but by morning some 20,000 German troops either surrendered or fled back toward Germany. Snipers and stubborn detachments remained fighting in various parts of the city, but the tanks still rolled through the center of Paris, signifying that new leadership has arrived.