Paris after the liberati.., p.7
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.7Antony Beevor
When the vehicles halted on the quai, more young women climbed up to kiss the soldiers. Shortly afterwards, the time came to launch the attack on the German strongpoints round the Palais du Luxembourg. A whistle blew. There was a shout: ‘Allons les femmes, descendez… On attaque le Sénat.’ The young women climbed down, tank gunners and loaders dropped back inside the turrets of their Shermans, and the column set off up the Boulevard Saint-Michel. A crowd of spectators followed the tanks and watched them take up position. Meanwhile, from the other direction, Captain de Boissieu, commanding the divisional headquarters defence squadron, advanced from the Port Royal métro. He was joined by the ‘Fabien battalion’ of the FTP, who volunteered to act as his infantry. Boissieu, a young cavalry officer who seventeen months later married one of General de Gaulle’s daughters, had never imagined finding himself in command of a Communist unit. He had little time to consider the paradox. Mortar fire from the Jardin du Luxembourg landing on the Boulevard Saint-Michel had to be stopped. Evidently, the Germans had an observation post in the clock tower of the Senate. Two tanks traversed their guns on to it, and a moment after they fired, he saw the German observers hurled into the air then fall on to the roof.
At a quarter past two on the right bank of the Seine, as Colonel de Langlade’s armoured column came clanking and grinding up the Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement towards the Place de l’Étoile, Paris firemen hung a huge tricolour from the Arc de Triomphe. Crowds gathering to watch the attack on the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber yelled their support. Yves Montand and Edith Piaf were among those who had to throw themselves flat on the ground or shelter behind trees when the firing began.
The assault on the Majestic was almost perfunctory, although still confused. The defenders were hardly élite troops, but like most of the Gross-Paris garrison, soldiers ‘abandoned by their officers to a suicidal task’. There was confusion over the surrender. The Protestant leader, Pastor Boegner, saw four German soldiers, bareheaded, their field-grey tunics unbuttoned, hands raised and clasped behind their necks, led at gunpoint to the Place de l’Étoile. One of them was alleged to have shot a French officer after the white flag had been hoisted. All four were shot. ‘Chose atroce!’ the Protestant clergyman recorded, powerless to save them. Shortly afterwards, Edith Piaf stopped a young fifi from throwing a grenade into a lorry full of German prisoners.
After the Majestic had fallen, catching fire in the process, the crowd gathered at the Arc de Triomphe under the firemen’s tricolour to sing the Marseillaise. The fighting and the impression of a 14 July celebration ‘were mixed up together in a hallucinating way’, Boegner noted.
Many of Leclerc’s soldiers were returning home after four years far from their families. One young woman suddenly spotted her husband on a half-track, but emotion made her dumb. Fortunately, he caught sight of her, but clearly he hardly believed what he saw. Husband and wife threw themselves into each other’s arms, while his comrades, equally filthy and unshaven, crowded round to share in the joy of their embrace.
The most important objective was to force General von Choltitz’s surrender. Only then could the fighting in other parts of Paris come to an end. Choltitz had refused to accept a message demanding his submission.
At about the same time as Colonel de Langlade’s troops began their attack on the Majestic, Colonel Billotte’s group moved against the Hotel Meurice. Five Shermans and a force of infantry set off along the rue de Rivoli towards the Meurice, near the gilt statue of Jeanne d’Arc in the Place des Pyramides. As they got closer to their objective, they began dodging forward along the rue de Rivoli colonnade. Crowds cheered on the attackers in a carnival atmosphere, but as soon as the fighting started, the mood changed abruptly. The German tanks in the Tuileries gardens and on the Place de la Concorde were dealt with at the cost of four Shermans. After a brief battle, resistance ceased. Two French officers went up to General von Choltitz’s roomand demanded his surrender.
The crowd surged forward, some spitting, when he was driven off to sign the surrender with General Leclerc at the Prefecture of Police. Other German soldiers coming out of the headquarters with their hands up were attacked by a crowd, mainly of women, who tore at their clothes, spectacles and watches.
The formal act of surrender took place in the billiard room of the Prefecture in the presence of the military leaders of the Resistance. Colonel Rol-Tanguy announced that as commander of the FFI in Paris, he wished to sign the document with Leclerc. His request was supported by the other leaders, including the non-Communists, Chaban-Delmas and Colonel Lizé, so Leclerc felt obliged to agree. Due to a confusion, Leclerc’s signature came below that of Rol-Tanguy.
After the ceremony, Leclerc, accompanied by most of those who had been present, including General von Choltitz, moved to the railway station of Montparnasse, where he had arranged to meet de Gaulle. The head of the provisional government arrived around four o’clock, while Choltitz’s orders to cease fighting were sent off to the last German strongpoints. De Gaulle was angry when, shown the act of surrender, he saw that not only was Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s signature on the document, but it came first. He was irked not so much by the fact that Rol-Tanguy was a Communist, but that he had no official position in the provisional government or its armed forces. But this did not stop de Gaulle fromcongratulating Colonel Rol-Tanguy on the achievement of his men. He knew full well the value of the myth that the rising had created.
For de Gaulle, on this victorious afternoon, symbolism was of paramount importance. He did not hurry to meet Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance at the Hôtel de Ville. After Montparnasse, his first visit was to the Ministry of War in the rue Saint-Dominique, his own fief in 1940 before the Pétainist usurpation intervened. His memoirs describe how little the place had changed: ‘Not a piece of furniture, not a tapestry, not a curtain had been altered. The telephone was still in the same place on the desk and exactly the same names were to be seen under the buttons.’
Then he went to the Prefecture of Police to see Alexandre Parodi and Charles Luizet. He was greeted by a huge crowd and a band of the Parisian fire brigade, led by its drum-major, playing patriotic anthems. Finally, just after eight in the evening, he crossed to the right bank, to the Hôtel de Ville, where Georges Bidault and the National Council of the Resistance awaited him.
There, in the great hall, he made one of the most emotional speeches of his life: ‘Paris! Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France, that is to say of the France which fights, the true France, eternal France.’
Yet many members of the Resistance felt that in one way the General had not been emotional enough. ‘One would have liked more understanding,’ wrote one of them in his journal. ‘And this speech… short, authoritarian and spotless. Very good, perfect, but all the same, he should have said thank you to the CNR and to Alexandre [Parodi], who had given so much of themselves.’
When de Gaulle had finished, Bidault asked him to proclaim the Republic to the crowds waiting below, but de Gaulle refused. Largely as a result of his deliberate hauteur, this exchange has often been described as a cruel snub to Bidault and the leaders of the Resistance. Even Bidault himself later contributed to the myth of a great clash.
In reality, de Gaulle simply wished to re-emphasize his view that Pétain’s regime had been an illegal aberration. René Brouillet, Bidault’s chef de cabinet, who was standing just behind the two men when the request was made, had a clear memory of the exchange. ‘The request of Georges Bidault was the request of a history professor who had a strong memory of the proclamation of the Republic from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, in 1848 and 1870. And as a result [he] asked General de Gaulle in the most natural way, and the General, in no less natural a way, replied, “But why should we proclaim the Republic? She has never ceased to exist.”’
De Gaulle nevertheless agreed to make an appearance. The ‘balcony’ of t
General Koenig, the new military governor of Paris, invited officers of the 2e DB to dinner at the Invalides. Before they went in, Koenig stopped Captain de Boissieu in the courtyard and made a sweeping gesture, saying: ‘Look, Boissieu, it is extraordinary to have liberated Paris without having destroyed its wonders; all the bridges, all the great buildings, all the artistic treasures of the capital are intact.’
The last guest to arrive was Major Massu, still filthy in oil-stained battledress. He shook out his napkin, laid it carefully over the seventeenth-century tapestry seat and sat down to eat.
All over central Paris, liberators were sitting down to celebration dinners. When Colonel David Bruce and Ernest Hemingway, followed by the private army, entered the Ritz lobby, the hotel appeared deserted, but soon Claude Auzello, the manager, appeared. He recognized both Hemingway and Bruce from pre-war days. The forty-six-year-old Bruce, a Princeton friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, had spent much of his youth in Europe: from military service in France at the end of the First World War until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
The ‘imperturbable’ Monsieur Auzello asked what he could do for them. Hemingway and Bruce glanced back at the mob behind them for a rough head-count and answered that they would like fifty martini cocktails. The martinis ‘were not very good, as the bartender had disappeared,’ Bruce recorded in his diary, ‘but they were followed by a superb dinner’.
For once in history, soldiers seem to have had a better time that night than their officers. What Simone de Beauvoir described as a ‘débauche de fraternité’ during the day became a débauche tout court after dark. Few soldiers were to sleep alone that night.
Major Massu, on returning from the dinner at the Invalides to his battalion camped around the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, wrote later that he preferred to draw a veil over what he found there. In fact so widespread was the lovemaking that a Catholic group began distributing hastily run-off tracts addressed to the young women of Paris: ‘In the gaiety of the Liberation do not throw away your innocence. Think of your future family.’
Not everybody, however, was out on the streets to savour a new era of freedom. Through an open widow, Pastor Boegner saw a neighbour, an old lady, sitting at her table playing patience, just as she did every evening.
Paris on the morning after the fighting had a strange air of calm. For those who went out early on a tour of inspection – mainly the older generation, since the young were sleeping off the excesses of the night before, as well as the accumulated fatigue of the last week – the traces of fighting amply testified to the reality of events.
During the battle for the Hotel Meurice, some of the huge columns had been shot down from the great façade of the Ministry of Marine on the north side of the Place de la Concorde. In the expanse of the Concorde, even the burnt-out tanks looked small. Just beyond, in the Tuileries gardens, the carbonized hulk of a Tiger tank was still smoking.
Across the river, outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, yet another scorched carcass of a tank – this time a Sherman of the 2e DB – had written on its side in chalk: ‘Ici sont morts trois soldats français.’ Flowers had already been laid on its blackened hulk. Other flowers soon appeared on street corners or outside portes-cochères where victims had failed to reach safety. Passers-by often paused, then stepped round them carefully as in a cemetery. They were reminded of all those who had not lived to see Paris free again.*
Many other areas had also suffered in the fighting – the Palais du Luxembourg and its surroundings, the Champ de Mars, the Palais Bourbon, the Île de la Cité and the Place de la République. But, as General Koenig observed, they were incredibly lucky that the destruction of monuments had been so limited. The Grand Palais, that beached whale of the belle époque, was reduced to little more than a skeleton, but all the other major buildings could be repaired.
In the cafés on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, glass with starred holes from bullets was left unreplaced for reasons of pride as well as economy. Shop windows broken in the fighting had been quickly boarded up, and yet people were already beginning to remove the latticework of sticky tape from their own windows in the belief that the threat of bomb-blast had disappeared, though the Germans were still within artillery range out at Le Bourget.
Most people, certainly the liberators of the day before, were light-headed either from lovemaking or the drinking of relentless toasts. David Bruce recorded that it had been impossible to refuse the bottles thrust at them, which had been hoarded almost religiously for the moment of liberation. ‘The combination was enough to wreck one’s constitution,’ he wrote. ‘In the course of the afternoon, we had beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, champagne, rum, cognac, armagnac and calvados.’
If the day of liberation had belonged to the FFI and Leclerc’s men, Saturday, 26 August, was to be de Gaulle’s triumph.
A discordant note was struck by General Gerow, Leclerc’s American superior. Still furious at the way the French had ignored his orders over the last few days, Gerow sent an instruction forbidding the 2e DB to take part in any victory celebrations. But with the city not yet fully clear of the enemy, de Gaulle needed Leclerc’s men to provide security and preserve public order. Vichy miliciens were not covered by General von Choltiz’s ceasefire, and there was always the possibility that other German forces might counter-attack from the north.
In the early afternoon, huge crowds converged on the centre of Paris. Many came on foot from the outer suburbs, having covered a dozen kilometres or more. Well over a million people gathered in the sunshine on both sides of the route from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame.* To obtain better views, people crowded at the windows of buildings overlooking the route, and the young climbed trees or lampposts. There were even people lining the rooftops. Paris had never seen such crowds. Many carried home-made tricolours.
At three, de Gaulle arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, where all the principal figures awaited him: Parodi, Luizet, Chaban-Delmas, Bidault and the other members of the National Council of the Resistance, Admiral d’Argenlieu and, of course, Generals Juin, Koenig and Leclerc.
The leader of the provisional government took the salute of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad, standing in their vehicles drawn up across the Place de l’Étoile. Under the Arc de Triomphe, he relit the flame over the tomb of the unknown soldier which had been extinguished in June 1940, when the Germans marched into the city. Then, preceded by four of Leclerc’s Shermans, he set off on foot down the Champs-Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde.
Behind the official party, swelled by numerous offcials who wished to establish their credentials, came a throng of FFI militia and onlookers who decided to join in, singing and embracing as they went.
From time to time, de Gaulle raised his arms to acknowledge the cheering, which at a distance sounded like the roar and booming of a sea crashing on rocks. ‘There took place at that moment,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘one of those miracles of national conscience, one of those gestures of France herself, which occasionally, down the centuries, come to illuminate our history.’
Not everyone, however, was yelling for de Gaulle the man. There must have been Pétainists cheering in the crowd; there had certainly been enough people cheering the Marshal only four months before. Meanwhile, Communists could not resist the odd ‘Vive Maurice!’ in honour of Maurice Thorez, still in Moscow, where he had remained ever since deserting from the French army on Stalin’s orders at the start of the war.
Simone de Beauvoir, who had gone to the Arc de Triomphe with Michel Leiris, was later careful in the way she described her approbation that day. ‘Mixed in the immense crowd, we acclaimed not a military parade, but a popular carniva
With police cars well in front, then the four tanks, de Gaulle’s escort increased with largely self-appointed groups of FFI. At the Place de la Concorde, a platoon of the ‘Jewish army’ Resistance group joined in, wearing captured Milice uniforms (their provenance countered with tricolour armbands). Shortly after de Gaulle had climbed into an open car to drive the last two kilometres to Notre-Dame, shooting broke out. To this day, nobody knows whether this was a serious assassination attempt, a provocation or simply the result of too many tense and inexperienced people with weapons.
In the Place de la Concorde and the rue de Rivoli, the crowds threw themselves flat on the ground or sheltered behind groups of armoured vehicles from the Leclerc division. One man lifted his bicycle over his head as a shield. Nobody knew where the shooting came from, and the result was panic. The fifis began firing at rooftops and windows. Jean-Paul Sartre, on his balcony outside the Hotel du Louvre, was shot at by a trigger-happy fifi, who mistook him for a milicien sniper. (Jean Cocteau, watching from a window of the Hotel Crillon, claimed less convincingly that his cigarette was ‘cut in half’ in his mouth.) The most senior official in the Ministry of Finance was shot dead at his office window. At least half a dozen people were killed around the Place de la Concorde and the rue de Rivoli.
For the rest of the day, black traction-avant Citroëns, daubed with the FFI initials on the roof and sides, charged around self-importantly at breakneck speed, stopping only to shoot at rooftops and windows. Other vehicles requisitioned by the Resistance had men armed with rifles lying on the mudguards or standing on the running boards. ‘The heroes multiplied,’ wrote Galtier-Boissière. ‘The number of last-minute resistants, armed from head to toe and covered in cartridge belts in the Mexican style, was considerable.’
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