Paris after the liberati.., p.15
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949,
‘The French government,’ replied de Gaulle haughtily, ‘treats its citizens according to what it expects of them.’
Thirty-six hours before Thorez had left for Paris, Stalin had summoned him to the Kremlin for only the second audience granted to the leader of the French Communist Party in five years. His parting advice, after warning Thorez against de Gaulle’s reactionary and dictatorial nature, was to remind him that the overriding priority in France must be national unity to bring about the downfall of Hitler. The underlying message was clear. And Thorez, totally subservient, did not miss it.
Stalin was not simply afraid of the United States cutting off supplies to him if the French Communists caused trouble. A Communist revolution in their rear might also give the Americans an excuse for making a separate peace with the German general staff, or even – the worst nightmare of all – a military alliance against Soviet Russia. And as the conference at Yalta was to show less than eight weeks later, Stalin had started to equate France with Poland. He would insist on being given a clear hand in Soviet-occupied Poland, which was right behind the Red Army’s front line, and in exchange, he had demonstrated his willingness not to cause problems in France, which constituted the rear area of the Western Allies.
The Franco-Soviet agreement was finally signed at four in the morning after a compromise formula had been reached over Stalin’s puppet government for Poland. Bidault, having collapsed from alcohol at the banquet, was hastily revived. With Stalin and de Gaulle standing behind, the two Foreign Ministers signed. ‘Il faut fêter cela!’ Stalin insisted, and more food and vodka were brought in.
There had been several gaffes during the visit to Moscow, such as de Gaulle’s mention of Pierre Laval’s pact with Russia in 1935. There were also several taunts from the Russian side. Ilya Ehrenburg, almost certainly on Stalin’s instructions, presented de Gaulle with a copy of his novel about the collapse of 1940, La Chute de Paris. Yet on the delegation’s return to Paris a week before Christmas, everybody seemed to consider it a great success, even though, to the amusement of Hervé Alphand, accounts differed wildly.
De Gaulle was more sanguine. The agreement signed in Moscow might not have had a great effect on the international stage, and he had failed to achieve support for French claims to the west bank of the Rhine, but he could hardly have hoped for a better domestic insurance policy. Maurice Thorez, having reached France in his absence, had not called the French Communist Party to the barricades during his major speech on 30 November, but had demanded blood, sweat, increased productivity and national unity. The Communists of the Resistance could hardly believe their ears, but next day the party press confirmed his words. They quite clearly represented the Kremlin line.
The notion of revolution in France became even less likely over the next two weeks. On 17 December, the day de Gaulle returned from Moscow, news of Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s offensive in the Ardennes reached Paris.
Much of the panic came from stories of English-speaking German commandos causing chaos far behind the lines. Identity documents were not sufficient at checkpoints. Anyone in American uniform was asked about baseball, while those in British uniform were challenged with ‘How much is a pint?’ or ‘What does LBW stand for?’
In the expectation of parachute attacks on Paris, troops arrived to defend public buildings and a curfew was imposed from eight in the evening until six in the morning. Wild rumours spread that Strasbourg had been retaken, even that the Germans were beyond Sedan, a name with terrible echoes of 1870. For the French, the fear of another German invasion was not so much for their own safety – although some refugees left Paris – but anger at the prospect of collaborators getting away with it. The rejoicing in Fresnes prison among the pro-German element who believed they would soon be liberated was very rash. There were many – not just former members of the FFI – who were determined that collaborators would not live to welcome the Germans to Paris again.
Christmas 1944 was not joyful: 3 million men and women were either dead, missing or still in German prison camps. ‘Paris is lugubrious, cold, as if empty and without a soul,’ wrote Hervé Alphand. ‘It reminds me a little of Vienna at the end of the last war, a magnificent setting without people or lights.’
De Gaulle, quite understandably, was horrified to hear that Eisenhower considered withdrawing from the recently liberated city of Strasbourg to straighten his line. Fortunately Churchill, who was in France, joined de Gaulle and Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters at Versailles on 3 January, and supported a compromise solution that two French divisions should be left to defend the capital of Alsace. De Gaulle was so relieved at the outcome of this conference that he wanted to issue a vainglorious communiqué. Palewski brought the draft round to the British Embassy first. Duff Cooper told him that it would not help matters at all. ‘It suggested that de Gaulle had summoned a military conference which the PM and Eisenhower had been allowed to attend.’
Even when the German offensive collapsed, with Strasbourg saved, de Gaulle had little to be optimistic about. France was virtually brought to a halt by freezing cold. It was so cold in that January, without fuel, that Pastor Boegner wrote in his diary: ‘I felt my brain slowing down. A strange sensation not to be able to choose one’s words with the usual speed.’ But for de Gaulle, the worst blow was that France was not invited to take part in the discussions at Yalta during the first half of February.
Roosevelt had not abandoned his old antipathy to de Gaulle. Nor had Stalin’s attitude been changed by the agreements in Moscow. The Kremlin view of France was that it was the Americans and British who had ‘chased out the Germans and liberated the country, not French armies’.
The performance of British leaders at this time was far from their finest hour. Eden especially seemed almost morbidly afraid of irritating Stalin in any way. Yet all the most infamous agreements, from Churchill’s ‘percentage agreement’ with Stalin in October 1944 to the betrayal of Poland, have often been taken out of context. And the idea that de Gaulle’s presence at Yalta might have saved central Europe from nearly fifty years of tyranny is hopelessly misguided. It ignores the fact that the Yalta agreement was in many ways the political seal placed on the military reality established as a result of the strategy decided at the Teheran conference. And no Western government, after all the praise for the sacrifice of the Red Army, could have asked soldiers eager for demobilization to prepare to take a stand against the Russian ally.
French resentment that Europe was being carved up without a single continental representative was understandable, although misdirected. Unfortunately, the situation was made far worse when President Roosevelt invited de Gaulle to Algiers on his way back from Yalta to tell him what had been agreed. De Gaulle was furious that Roosevelt could treat Algiers, which was French territory, as if it were his own property and promptly refused. Word then leaked out that Roosevelt had called him a ‘prima donna’ and this inflamed the situation further.
French emotions, however, underwent some change in the first two months of 1945, as the Red Army advanced at a breathtaking rate. ‘The French authorities are frankly frightened,’ Caffery reported to Washington. Bidault had exclaimed: ‘Who is going to stop Attila? He is covering more territory every day.’ Even de Gaulle acknowledged that France very much needed the friendship of the United States. Caffery could not let the opportunity pass. ‘I remarked,’ he wrote, ‘that some officials of the French government do not always act as if they shared that view. He retorted by listing grievances against us, and I retorted in kind. In the end, however, we both agreed that this is definitely no time for bickering.’
De Gaulle had a wonderful sense of history, but found it hard to stomach the vulgar fact that, without money, you could not be a major power. The greatness of France and the greatness of Britain were as doomed as their empires, which had carved up much of the world between them in the previous two centuries. Now two different superpowers were about to dominate the continent of Europe. The prospect was a bitter humil
Liberators and Liberated
For some time after the Liberation and even the end of the war, white-helmeted military policemen used to halt the traffic on the Place de la Concorde to give priority to US vehicles approaching the American Embassy.
Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, was no thick-skinned autocrat, yet even his relationship with the provisional government suffered from the distrust which had grown up between President Roosevelt and de Gaulle during the war. The plan to install Allied rule as if France were conquered enemy territory was bound to poison any alliance.
Allied forces came ashore in Normandy comprehensively prepared. The ‘France Zone Handbook No. 16, Part III’ ostensibly dealt with ‘Local Information and Administrative Personalities’, but was in fact a guide to Parisian brothels, arrondissement by arrondissement. Prepared in May 1944, presumably from information supplied by Allied intelligence services, it warned that the list was ‘not necessarily exhaustive’ and that ‘owing to the shortage of all medical supplies’ there had been ‘a very great increase in the number of VD cases in the country’.
Whether or not foreknowledge of the brothel known as ‘Aux Belles Poules’ in the rue Blondel, or the unnamed establishment at 4 rue des Vertus (‘street of the Virtues’), or the ‘House of All Nations’ in the rue Chabanais hastened the American advance on the capital is hard to judge. But clearly American troops made good use of the information so liberally provided by their commanders, because within a year US military authorities felt obliged to print barrack posters which proclaimed: ‘Gonorrhea. Do you want a Family? 12% of all men who contract Gonorrhea become STERILE. Keep fit to go home.’
The puritan General Montgomery put brothels out of bounds to British troops and posted military police in red-light districts. This did not put a stop to business. In spite of all the summer storms, the fields next to bivouac areas were used instead.
To the dismay of French patriots, the exuberance of the Liberation was rapidly tarnished by pilfering or dabbling in the black market. For many people it was a question of survival, as it had been during the Occupation. Even Yves Farge, later the Minister of Supply, admitted that there were those ‘condemned to trade illegally or perish’. Yet the black market was at first seen as a French disgrace, both by the Allies and by the French themselves.
Early posters issued by the provisional government concentrated on the threat to French patriotism: ‘French people do not have the right to make their fellow citizens go hungry’… ‘Officers and soldiers of our Allies are astonished at the prices charged in certain shops and restaurants.’ It soon became apparent, however, to both civil and military authorities that members of the Allied forces were profiteering just as shamelessly. In fact many people suspected that the black market had moved into a higher gear with the rackets operated by certain quartermasters and young entrepreneurs determined to make a fortune before they returned to the States.
Since French shops were virtually bare, almost all the items provided by the American military cornucopia – coffee, gasoline, tyres, cigarettes, boots, soap, ammunition, morphine, Spam or whisky – were resold on the black market, thus flaunting a wild capitalist streak at a government trying to introduce an effective war socialism.
On 13 January 1945, newspapers carried a proclamation by the military governor of Paris to the population: ‘Anyone found in possession of gasoline, arms, munitions, equipment or war material will be tried by court martial.’ But such warnings did little good. The theft and sale of fuel supplies in jerrycans even started to endanger the attack on Germany.
Colouring the gasoline did little good. The court martial of American soldiers, several of whom received extremely severe sentences, made no difference. The profits to be made were so easy and so large that French drug dealers moved in on the racket, sometimes in alliance with American servicemen. It was above all the effrontery of the black-marketeers which drove the government almost to despair. On one occasion, the Minister of Supply issued an order to ‘seize three French trucks transporting food, travelling with papers signed Eisenhower’.
To the exasperation of the French government, there were other ways for American soldiers to make a killing at its expense. All US forces were exempt from French exchange controls and import duties. This meant that servicemen were allowed to convert their pay in French francs back into dollars at the official rate of exchange. Many of them promptly sold their dollars for francs on the black market at a great profit. Another money-making activity at the expense of the French government emerged later. ‘I am told,’ Caffery reported to Washington, ‘that a large number of New York firms are mailing American cigarettes and nylon stockings to [Army Post Office] addresses here. Much of this merchandise is illegally bartered or sold by American purchasers enjoying benefits of APO exemption from French customs control.’
The nylon stockings may not have been destined for the black market. For American soldiers, they were the most obvious bait to persuade young Frenchwomen to go out with them. Overall, exploitation was probably evenly balanced between the two sides. ‘Lise’s main sport since the Liberation,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir of a young woman who lived in the same hotel, ‘was what she called “hunting the American”.’ This meant charming them into parting with cigarettes and rations, which she then resold.
For attractive midinettes (the young Parisians who worked in the fashion industry and shops) there was no shortage of American soldiers on seventy-two hours’ leave from the front, with dollars saved up and eager to see Paris. The GIs were bowled over by the midinettes, who were brilliantly inventive in their clothes and especially their hats, piled high in Carmen Miranda-like fantasies. ‘The hats in Paris are really terrific,’ one young soldier wrote in a letter home, ‘very high, usually like a waste basket turned upside down with feathers and flowers all over them.’
The welcome for the young soldiers had been quite genuine at first, largely because of what they represented. ‘The easygoing manner of the young Americans,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘incarnated liberty itself… once again we were allowed to cross the seas.’
Young Frenchmen, however, would not have agreed with the US Embassy euphemisms which described their troops as ‘ardent and often very enterprising’ in the pursuit of women. Many reports, in fact, suggest that within a few months of the Liberation, certainly by the spring of 1945, American ardour was no longer appreciated by most Parisian girls, who did not like the arrogance that went with it. Summoned by a whistle and a proffered packet of ‘Luckys’, one girl earned the cheers of French onlookers by taking a cigarette from the GI, dropping it to the ground and grinding it under her foot.
This coolness was accompanied by another development which embarrassed and shocked the American military authorities. According to a SHAEF report, very young girls had begun to loiter in large numbers outside US army camps, offering themselves to GIs. It is hard to tell whether this was juvenile prostitution driven by hardship or thrill-seeking by children disturbed by the war. The Americans put forward various suggestions, including the imposition of a curfew for girls under sixteen and an increase in the age of consent to sexual intercourse from thirteen to fifteen, but the French government reacted frostily to any hint of interference from its ally.
With fewer young Frenchwomen prepared to go out with soldiers, the behaviour of servicemen began to provoke trouble. The conduct of US airborne troops in Nancy, a designated rest area from the front, led to a rash of complaints. What American officers regarded as the natural high spirits of their men was more often seen by the French as insulting behaviour.
The Hotel Meurice was the Paris officers’ mess for SHAEF. Staff were also billeted at the Crillon, but those in the Meur
SHAEF was dominated by the Americans, with General Walter Bedell Smith as Eisenhower’s chief of staff, but the British were also well represented. Bedell Smith’s deputy was General Freddie Morgan, the chief planner of D-Day. But the two main administrators were General Lewis and his British counterpart, General Dixie Redman. Redman lived in some style, having taken over the apartment of Lady Mendl, best known as the decorator Elsie de Wolfe. There he entertained, with a limitless supply of whisky, gin and sandwiches made from NAAFI bread and tinned salmon.
Almost inevitably, SHAEF represented a state within a state, and Duff Cooper’s concern was that ‘all the Generals at SHAEF are violently anti-French except Morgan’. General Kenneth Strong, Eisenhower’s chief intelligence officer, was prepared to show the British and American ambassadors intelligence reports only on condition that they did not show them to the French. Clearly, diplomats were suspected of being too sympathetic. Strong told even British colleagues that American officers at SHAEF ‘did not have a high opinion of Mr Caffery’, and that the ambassador was ‘likely to be subordinated to General Eisenhower as long as the latter is in France’.
The fact that it was fighting a war gave SHAEF licence to do whatever it pleased, ignoring Allied diplomats and the French provisional government. In the autumn of 1944 it obstructed the return of French officials from Algiers to Paris and British journalists coming over to France. The British also complained that Paris was ‘full of American businessmen dressed in uniform’, while British businessmen were refused permits to travel.
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949 by Antony Beevor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes