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18th Century Biography French History History Royal History

Marie Antoinette and her Children: The shocking accusations at Marie Antoinette’s Trial

Marie Antoinette's trial before the revolutionary tribunal

The most striking thing about reading the record of Marie Antoinette’s trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal in October 1793 is realising what an astonishing mess the whole thing really was. In most other accounts, revolutionary justice always seems so swift, so merciless, so ruthlessly efficient. Many of those who stood trial before the Tribunal had few real crimes to answer for, and yet they were quickly exposed as monsters and condemned to die by public guillotining. So, on the balance of things, you would have thought Marie Antoinette – a figure universally despised by a populace which had been spoonfed wild propaganda and grotesque fantasies about her since before she even came to France – wouldn’t have presented many problems.

And yet as you keep reading the account of her two day trial, one question increasingly plays on your mind – is this it?

The king’s trial and execution had turned out to be a painful and awkward affair. Louis argued his case with a quiet dignity, and the final vote to decide his fate revealed the extent of lingering doubt and latent sympathy for the former king. 361 deputies voted for Louis’ immediate execution, but 288 voted against the death penalty. On the streets of Paris, where public executions had become something of a spectator sport, Louis’ end brought its share of rejoicing, but somehow failed to offer the hoped-for catharsis, the line in the sand between the old regime and the revolutionary future.

If Louis’ execution had the atmosphere of a funeral, Marie Antoinette’s was expected to have more in common with a rowdy wake. The people had never hated Louis as much as they had come to despise Marie Antoinette, indeed in the popular version of events Louis was usually cast as a hapless, blundering but essentially good puppet being manipulated by the calculating Marie Antoinette for her own nefarious ends. Until she was removed from the equation, the revolution could never feel entirely secure.

The trial was presided over by Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, President of the Tribunal. He oversaw all the key trials of the period, and had earned a reputation as one of the revolution’s most fearsome figures. Ruthless and single-minded in the pursuit of revolutionary justice, rumour had it that he was terrified of the people, sleeping with an armed guard at his door and a hatchet under his pillow. One can only imagine his feelings as he received word that Marie Antoinette was finally to stand before his court. Here was an opportunity for a spectacular showpiece, a chance to reaffirm and reenergise the revolution. All that was really necessary was to provide a reminder of the crimes that the majority of people were already convinced Marie Antoinette had committed.

Marie Antoinette was given just two days to prepare for her trial, unlike her husband who had been afforded months tucked away with his lawyers at the Temple. As per the rules of the Tribunal, her lawyers would not be allowed to speak for her during the trial itself, so she alone must respond to all examination.

On 14th October, when the galleries had filled with expectant crowds (including the diehard groups of women who attended so many trials and executions that they now brought their knitting with them to do while they watched), the trial commenced. As expected Foquier-Tinville began with a lengthy, vitriolic speech in which he outlined the charges, and placed Marie Antoinette in a long line of infamously wicked women ‘like Messalina, Brunhilda, Fredegund and Medici’. He described her as ‘the scourge and the blood-sucker of the French’, and in language reminiscent of witchcraft accusations talked of the ‘creatures’ and ‘midnight meetings’ she employed.

From the outset then it was clear that the trial was to proceed along familiar lines of character assassination, the rationale seemingly being that proving Marie Antoinette’s complete moral degeneracy would show her capable of committing any crime, thereby absolving the need to prove her guilty of actually committing particular ones. Anyone with a bad word to say about Marie Antoinette, however unilluminating, is roped in to the court. Thus, Jean Baptiste Lapiere, a former guard at the Tuileries, testifies that he was on duty on the night the royal family made their escape, ‘but not withstanding his vigilence he had seen nothing’. Pierre Joseph Terrason observes that when the family had been captured and returned to the Tuileries, he saw Marie Antoinette “throw upon the national guards who escorted her, and likewise upon the citizens in her way as she passed along, a most vindictive glance; which suggested to me the idea that she would certainly take revenge; in reality a short time after the scene of [the massacre at] the Champ de Mars took place”. Rene Mallet, a former maid at Versailles, even goes so far as to relay a rumour she had heard that Marie Antoinette had conceived a plot to assassinate the Duke of Orleans, keeping two pistols secreted in her skirts in case any opportunity to carry out the murderous plan should present itself.

Evidence like this dominates the trial in part because of the corner the revolutionary authorities had backed themselves into. Most of the people who ever had any real contact with Marie Antoinette had long since fled France, or had already faced the Tribunal themselves. A few such associates were found for the trial, but Fouqier-Tinville is so keen to establish that they too are guilty and odious that he is forced to demolish their credibility and render their testimony next to useless. Jean-Frederic Latour Dupin gave evidence on the second day of the trial. As an ex-Minister of War he initially claims to know nothing of any of the charges laid against Marie Antoinette, and rather than pressing him on this, Fouqier-Tinville devotes much time to scrutinising Latour Dupin’s actions as minister, many of which have little or no bearing on Marie Antoinette. Even when he eventually does prompt Latour Dupin to concede that Marie Antoinette had asked him for military details, which he duly supplied, Fouqier-Tinville quickly becomes distracted by questions over whether she ‘abused the influence you had over your husband, in asking him continually for drafts on the public treasury?’. The crucial point of whether or not Marie Antoinette betrayed the armies of France (so pivotal to the charge of treason at the centre of the trial) is therefore never satisfactorily resolved.

The trial often falls into a pattern, with Fouqier-Tinville throwing accusations at Marie Antoinette without any tangible evidence, and Marie Antoinette sticking to what must have been her planned approach of giving short, unemotional responses – usually one word answers, or simply stating that she had no knowledge of what witnesses alleged.

Given the motley crew of witnesses assembled for the trial and the paltry store of evidence, the revolutionary authorities must have known that it had the makings of a repeat of Louis’ confused and messy hearing. What they needed was a piece of killer evidence – some new juicy scandal that even the rumour-weary people of Paris had never heard before – to turn this trial and execution into the triumph they needed it to be. And in searching for someone to take on the role of showman/muck-racker, they didn’t have to look very far.

Jacques René Hébert was one of those deliciously intriguing personalities that make studying the French Revolution such a joy. As editor of the incendiary (and, even today, shockingly foul-mouthed) newspaper Le Père Duchesne, Hébert had achieved great influence among his hundreds of thousands of readers, and had already made repeated calls for the destruction of Marie Antoinette, ‘the Austrian bitch’. Hébert himself was a figure riddled with contradictions. His newspaper was peppered with obscene language and visceral, violent imagery, and he adopted the persona of the archetypal sans-culotte; yet he himself came from a bourgeois background, dressed finely and, in some accounts, was in private a remarkably ordinary family man. And while his huge popular following made him the envy (and, latterly, the enemy) of figures as powerful as Robespierre, Hebert was never able to win a major elected position, and his attempts to do so ended in frankly embarrassing results.

He was, however, able to secure a position as the second substitute of the procureur of the Paris commune, and in this position he shared responsibility for the imprisonment of the royal family in the Temple. In this capacity he was privy to every detail of the actions of the family, shared responsibility for the decision to separate Louis Charles from his mother (as examined in a previous story) and from then enjoyed a powerful influence over the boy. For a man like Hébert this was a golden opportunity. All he had to do now was figure out how to use it.

Marie Antoinette’s personality had been assailed on almost every front – her wild extravagance was well known and unquestioned; her supposedly perverse and numberless sexual proclivities had been the stock in trade of pornographers and gossips for years; and at one and the same time she was dismissed as intellectually vapid and reviled as a cunning, Machiavellian enemy of the revolution. But through all this, one positive light had continued to shine on Marie Antoinette: the glow of motherhood. This aspect of her role was especially important to Marie Antoinette herself; in part because it had taken her so agonisingly long to become pregnant, in part, perhaps, because of the epic example of motherhood provided by her mother the Empress Maria Theresa, and in part simply because of her own naturally maternal personality. The image had been deliberately fostered through public events and in official portraits, especially those of preferred painter Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. That it had a profound impact on the public was powerfully demonstrated in October 1789 when the crowds who invaded Versailles called for Marie Antoinette to appear before them on a balcony. When she attempted to come out with her family, the mob yelled ‘No children! No children!’, as if wanting to strip her of the cushioning aura of her motherhood.

If there was one thing Hébert knew it was how to whip up the people, and so he quickly arrived at a plan to destroy the one last vestige of humanity left in the public image of Marie Antoinette, and speed her on her way to the guillotine. At some point, it was mentioned to Hébert that when Louis Charles was frightened Marie Antoinette would comfort him and let him sleep in her bed. This planted the seeds of an idea. Hébert decided to frame a story that Marie Antoinette abused her son sexually, teaching him to masturbate and making him sexually dependant upon her. There has been some speculation that in order to provide this story with a foundation, Hébert ordered Louis Charles’ guard Simon to encourage him to masturbate, and even bring prostitutes into his cell. Certainly, Louis Charles was subject to all manner of physical abuse by his jailers, and there is no way of knowing how far this extended. However, it is clear that Hébert knew better than most men that truth was far less important than what people could be made to believe. He operated in the realm of words rather than action, and would have seen that subjecting the boy to actual sexual abuse was unnecessary for the plan to succeed. Louis Charles was, anyway, a vulnerable and easily-led boy.

In early October 1793 Hébert visited Louis Charles in the Tuileries, and got him to sign a pre-drafted confession. Most cruelly, Louis Charles was also made to confront his sister and aunt (who had not seen him for 3 months) with the accusations, and they too were then interrogated. Though only 15 years old and unable to understand the full weight of the accusation, Marie-Thérèse knew enough to recognise it as an obscene lie, and was profoundly upset by the incident. Aunt Elisabeth refused even to respond to the questions.

Armed with this coup de grâce, Hebert arrived at the great hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14th October for Marie Antoinette’s trial. When called to give evidence, he began unremarkably enough, with recollections of finding counter-revolutionary symbols belonging to Marie Antoinette, and insinuations about Lafayette’s role in the escape plan. Is it too much to detect a little nervousness in Hébert’s opening remarks? He’s certainly watching his language, and there’s something hesitant, stumbly in his hotchpotch accusations. Finally though, he gets to the point, and the wind floods back into his sails.

In fine, young Capet, whose constitution became every day impaired, was surprised by Simon in practices destructive to his health, and at his period of life very uncommon; he was asked who had instructed him in these practices; he replied that it was his mother and his aunt.

Hebert went on, keen to prove that Marie Antoinette could not even engage in child abuse without some still more sinister motive.

There is reason to believe that this criminal indulgence was not dictated by the love of pleasure, but by the political hope of enervating the constitution of the child, whom they supposed destined to sit on the throne, in order that they might acquire ascendancy over his mind.

The court fell silent as the accusations landed, then an ambiguous murmur rippled round the crowd. Fouquier-Tinville hastily asked Marie Antoinette what she had to respond, Marie Antoinette replied “I have no knowledge of the facts of which Hebert speaks”. Even Fouquier-Tinville now seems unwilling to delve any deeper into this appalling line of questioning, and instead begins asking questions about some of Hébert’s earlier, more mundane accusations. He is interrupted by a member of the jury, who demands that the Queen answer the accusations about her son.

Suddenly the bricked-off, emotionless, almost robotic Marie Antoinette of the rest of the trial disappears.

If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother.

Standing to face the assembled crowd directly, she challenged them.

I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?

Hébert’s time as witness here ends abruptly and the trial swiftly moved on. As far as it is possible to tell from the accounts, the reaction to Hébert’s revelation was not what he had expected. There was at best dismay and at worst a wellspring of sympathy for Marie Antoinette, especially from the mothers to whom she had appealed. Not that it mattered, of course. The trial ended the next day, and the following morning Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine.

Few figures in history have suffered as much as Marie Antoinette from the distorting influence of myths and lies. The very first thing that most people will say if you mention her name is ‘Let them eat cake!’, a cold-hearted and idiotic comment that almost certainly never passed her lips. But at least the last great lie in her story has never taken hold, and the myth of Marie Antoinette as child abuser was seen for just what it was. Revolutionary karma had an ironic sense of humour, and the old adage ‘what goes around comes around’ has never been truer than in this case. Less than half a year after Marie Antoinette’s execution, Hébert fell foul of Robespierre and was himself tried at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Legend has it he responded with far less dignity than Marie Antoinette, throwing his hat at his judges and trembling on the scaffold before a crowd clearly relishing every drop of irony. Fouquier-Tinville too fell from grace in 1795. He protested that “It is not I who ought to be facing the tribunal, but the chiefs whose orders I have executed. I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers.” His trial lasted 41 days, but ended in in the same journey to the guillotine endured by so many of those he had judged.

It is too easy to dismiss Marie Antoinette’s trial as an empty sham, too tempting to gloss over its details in the rush towards the tragic finale of her story. But to do so is to miss out on a rich insight both into Marie Antoinette’s character at this final stage in her life, and into the mentality and operation of a revolution spiralling rapidly out of control. Marie Antoinette remains a polarising figure, but whichever side you take, the squalid details of her trial and final days, and the unnecessary attempts to blacken the character of a woman already certain to die, serve as a chilling example of human cruelty.

Sources

Infuriatingly, there is no published account of the trial available in English. For this story I relied on a contemporary account published in The Times in 1793, and printed as a book under the title Authentic Trial at Large of Marie Antoinette, Late Queen of France, Before the Revolutionary Tribunal at Paris, published by Chapman&Co 1793. This is available to request at the British Library.

Categories
18th Century Biography French History History Royal History

Marie Antoinette and her Children: The mystery and the history of Louis Charles in the tower. Part 1

Louis Charles mystery Marie Antoinette

On the morning of 11th August 1792, an exhausted and increasingly sweaty royal family sat in the reporters’ box of the National Assembly, a stone’s throw from the Seine in Paris. The night before, the Tuileries (the 16th-century royal palace near the Louvre which had been their residence since they were removed from Versailles in 1789) had been invaded by the people, and a chaotic and brutal battled ensued. The king had been forced to flee the palace and seek refuge with the Assembly.

As debate raged around them over the future of the monarchy, one thing was already clear. The Tuileries was no longer a suitable residence for the royal family, and an alternative must be found urgently. And so it was that on 13th August, Louis, Marie Antoinette and their children were transported to the Temple. This would have come as no great surprise to Marie Antoinette, indeed she had predicted that they would ultimately be moved there several months before it came to pass. But it was nonetheless a frightening development. Marie Antoinette had always disliked the Temple – a complex of buildings including a rather lovely seventeenth-century palace and the far more ominous Tower, a decaying hulk of a building constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Earlier in her life, Marie Antoinette was even said to have suggested to her brother-in-law (then owner of the palace) that the Tower should be knocked down.

The Temple, Marie Antoinette's prison
The Temple Tower

The prospect of life in the Temple was very different to the one they had known in the Tuileries. Though certainly well past its best, and a precipitous step down from Versailles, the Tuileries was at least a royal palace, and while they had been tucked away there, a sort of calm had descended, allowing questions over the exact status of the royal family to be conveniently postponed or half-answered. The family had enjoyed considerable independence in the Tuileries, where there was space to walk outside and to house supporters, and enough leeway for many of the traditions and rites of Versailles to continue in some form or another. Security had even been lax enough to allow the royal party to make its ill-fated escape attempt earlier in the year.

The Temple, it was clear to everyone, was to allow none of this ambiguity. In moving to the Temple, Marie Antoinette and her family were being imprisoned, physically and psychologically. Though their quarters were cramped, damp and cold, there were still touches of luxury in their furnishings, meals continued to be lavish, and the King was allowed his own study. What made the real difference was that the King and Queen were now strictly monitored and controlled by jailers who openly disrespected them, and clearly enjoyed inflicting what Antonia Fraser calls ‘petty humilations’ on them whenever possible. What’s more, any chance of escape, except in the most fervid daydreams of die-hard monarchists and paranoid republicans, had now well and truly passed. Most painful of all for the king and queen must have been the dawning realisation that they were now powerless – locked out of the way whilst their fate, and that of France, was being decided elsewhere.

From now on, events moved rapidly. On 21st September, the National Assembly declared France a republic, and abolished the monarchy – adding new urgency to the question of what should be done with its former monarchs. In October, Louis was separated from his family in preparation for trial. His jailers presented him with a choice – he could be allowed to see his children during this time, or they could be left with Marie Antoinette, but it must be one or the other. They would not be allowed to see both parents. Louis chose to leave the children with their mother, and he would be reunited with his family just one more time, on the night before his execution on 21st January 1793. He bade them a tearful farewell, but promised to see them again the next morning before he was taken away.

Louis was fascinated by history, and had spent much of his life reading history books. Some observers had wondered why, because the king had never seemed to learn much from it. But recently he had been fixated on the story of Charles I of England, and in particular the fearless and noble way he met his own execution. It was said that Charles had secretly worn two overshirts as he stepped onto the scaffold that January morning, so that his people would not see him shiver from cold and think him afraid. Louis was determined that his people should not see him shiver, finding, as he faced his death, a resolution and strength he had so often lacked in life.

This newfound resilience called upon all of Louis’ emotional reserves, so when dawn came, he found himself unable to face the strain of of seeing his family again. He broke his promise. Marie Antoinette and her children waited in the Tower, unaware of what was going on. It was only when they heard drums and a huge cheer echoing round the streets that they knew Louis was dead. Later, some would claim that in that instant Marie Antoinette turned to her son Louis-Charles and said ‘The king is dead, long live the king’, expressing the tradition that monarchy itself never dies – kings come and go, but kingship passes down a divinely-ordained and unbroken ancient line.

The comment seems emotionally out of place, but whether or not Marie Antoinette actually said it, it was true that, with French law forbidding a woman to hold the crown, for those unwilling to accept that monarchy in France was a thing of the past, the seven-year-old Louis Charles had suddenly become King Louis XVII.

Louis Charles, son of Marie Antoinette
Louis Charles, painted in 1792 by Alexander Kucharsky

Louis Charles can’t have remembered much of life before the revolution, and in one way or another conflict had overshadowed his whole life. Portraits of the boy show an angelic and spirited but delicate looking child, and this matches well with the reports of everyone who knew him. He was said to be loyal and loving, and his stubborn pride was certainly forgiveable (indeed, almost a requirement) in a dauphin of France. He was adored by his parents and his sisters, and proved capable of charming even his most implacable enemies. The revolution would severely test the boy, and though he endured numerous terrifying episodes in which he and his family could easily have been killed, he did not emerge unscathed. These experiences seem in particular to have reinforced a pair of key character traits which Marie Antoinette and others had noted despairingly even before the upheavals of 1789. Firstly, Louis Charles had always been easily scared. At Versailles, more often than not it was the sound of dogs that startled him, but by 1793 his nerves had become so frayed that he cowered at almost any disturbance. Secondly, Louis Charles, like many young boys, had a tendency to repeat things that he had heard too freely, adding his own invented details to enhance the telling, without consciously meaning to lie. This it seems was a symptom of a more general desire to please, and to be loved.

This particular combination of character traits, though not exactly unusual in a boy of his age, was to prove disastrous in the new phase of Louis Charles’ life that was now beginning. With his father dead and mistrust and hatred for Marie Antoinette as widespread as ever, it was decided that the boy should be separated from his mother. This was done in June, without warning. When men entered to take him away, Marie Antoinette clung to her son for over an hour, refusing to release him even when her life was threatened. Only when the guards shifted tactic and threatened her daughter did Marie Antoinette finally relent.

Louis Charles now posed a problem for the revolutionary authorities. He was too young to be tried like his father, and he could certainly not be allowed to go into exile, where he would provide the counter-revolutionaries with a potent figurehead. And though the problem of his father had been solved by killing him, doing the same to this cherubic, innocent boy would present a most unpleasant image of the revolution to the world, and could inspire a backlash of monarchist sympathy. So, it seems to have been decided, the only thing to do with Louis Charles was to keep him out of sight of the public and hope that in time he would be forgotten. More deliciously for some, a close, solitary imprisonment even presented the tantalising possibility that Louis Charles might be made to forget himself. The Commune, which oversaw the imprisonment of Louis Charles, spoke explicitly in terms of a ‘re-education’, and the ultimate hope was that the boy should ‘lose the recollection of his royalty’, in the words of Jacques-René Hébert, and become a revolutionary.

The man chosen for this ‘re-education’ would be, in any other circumstances, an unlikely tutor. Antoine Simon was one of life’s failures, making a mess of everything he tried his hand at. Training initially as a shoemaker, nobody was interested in buying his wares, and his cheap tavern by the Seine proved equally disastrous. His luck seemed in when his first wife died and by some miracle he managed to attract another who came with a hefty dowry attached, but this too was soon frittered away. Rather than accepting that his own laziness and lack of business acumen had been the primary cause of the string of failures that riddled his adult life, Simon became increasingly angry and bitter, blaming anyone but himself for keeping him from the success he richly deserved. The Revolution was a gift to Simon, dovetailing nicely with his paranoid conspiracy theories, encouraging him to paint the aristocracy as being responsible for keeping men like him in their lowly stations. Even in the midst of this revolution, dominated by legendary characters and awesome personalities, Simon’s commitment and zeal marked him out, and he was soon noticed by those in authority. Simon was a man who would put the revolution above anything, and would not allow sentiment or affection to prevent him from following orders. Consequently when Jacques-René Hébert and his superiors at the Commune were searching for a man to watch over Louis Charles and break his royal spirit, Simon was a natural choice. One can only imagine Simon’s feelings on discovering his new destiny. He had spent his life railing impotently against the aristocratic Hydra laying waste to his hopes and dreams. Now one of its last remaining heads was his to control – and destroy.

Louis Charles’ re-education could not begin immediately as for the first few days he simply huddled in a corner, weeping uncontrollably, terrified by the slightest noise. Eventually though, things began to settle into a routine, and at least in this early stage, Louis Charles was not treated too badly. He was washed and his clothes were cleaned, he was given toys and sometimes even got to play with the laundry woman’s daughter. He was allowed outside into a small garden for air, and on one of these occasions Louis Charles found the courage to demand of some officials who had come to see him ‘I want to know what law you are using that says I should be separated from my mother… Show me this law, I want to see it!. Louis Charles’ short walk to the garden took him directly past Marie Antoinette’s cell, and if she craned her neck to a certain crack in the wall she could catch the merest glimpse of him as he walked by. Marie Thérèse wrote later that her mother would stand for hours with her eye crammed against that crack, waiting to see her son – ‘it was her sole hope, her sole occupation’.

In these early days of his isolation, there seems to have been some uncertainty about what exactly was to be done with Louis Charles. Simon didn’t like uncertainty, and resolved to clarify the situation. In July he went to the Commune, demanding what their intentions were for the boy. Their answer was clear and unequivocal – ‘We want to get rid of him!’.

From this point on the life of Louis Charles took a far more sinister turn.

Click here for part 2 of this story >>

Categories
20th Century French History Historical Places History Paris

Is Paris Burning: Did a German General save the City of Light?

How German General von Choltitz saved Paris

In February 1943, there was nothing in Stalingrad but the ghost of a city. The scale of the battle that had raged for the past seven months was so unimaginable that it is nearly impossible to talk about it without resorting to empty cliché. There are the figures, of course – 850,000 Axis casualties, 1.1 million Soviet – which make this a strong contender for the title of deadliest battle in human history. But such numbers are incomprehensible in any real sense. The further you sub-divide these overarching statistics, to reveal, for example,the 40,000 Soviet civilians killed in one week of bombing, or the 13,500 Soviet soldiers executed by their own leaders during the fighting, the more you seem to be able to glimpse the hell of the battle.

In November of 1943, a plane flew over Stalingrad carrying Soviet diplomats journeying to meet their British and American counterparts. One passenger, Valentin Berezhkov, recorded what he saw.

We pressed to the windows in silence… First individual houses scattered in the snow came into view, and then a kind of unbelievable chaos began: lumps of walls, boxes of half-ruined buildings, piles of rubble, isolated chimneys… Visible against the snow were the black figures of people…’

Flash forward to Paris on 25th August 1944. Anyone flying over this city on that day would have witnessed a very different scene. Paris is still there. Damaged, certainly, and neglected, but still quintessentially and recognisably herself. From the window of the plane, you can still see barricades, trenches dug into the streets, trees felled on the boulevards. Many buildings are riddled with bullet holes, and the elegant, graceful Grand Palais is smouldering. But the battle has been won in only six days, and though several thousand people died in the fiercest fighting, the contrast between the liberation of Paris and the battle for Stalingrad could hardly be more marked.

This, unsurprisingly, was not part of Hitler’s plan. The Führer had several times issued orders that Paris must not be abandoned without a fight to the death. On 23rd August, he commanded,

The city must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris.

Explosives had been primed in strategic and iconic locations around Paris, to ensure that if the Germans were forced to withdraw, they would leave nothing behind.

So why was this plan never carried out – who saved Paris? Since the day of liberation, two divergent versions of what happened in Paris that August have emerged, that go right to the heart of the many myths that flock around Paris and its liberation like moths around candlelight.

General Von Choltitz: Saviour of Paris?
General von Choltitz

The first is, at base, your classic Parisian love story, with an unlikely leading man in the shape of German General Dietrich von Choltitz. Von Choltitz became the governor of Paris on 7th August 1944, and was the man responsible for carrying out Hitler’s orders, even (according to legend) receiving a screaming phone call from the Führer, demanding ‘Brennt Paris?‘ (Is Paris Burning?). There was nothing in von Cholitz’s past to suggest that he would do anything other than follow these orders to the letter. In 1940 and 41 both Sevastopol and Rotterdam were destroyed on von Cholitz’s orders. He apparently had no qualms about executing Resistance fighters in Paris, and, in a conversation secretly recorded whilst he was being held as a prisoner of war, von Choltitz admitted “executing the most difficult order of my life in Russia, (…) liquidation of the Jews. I have executed this order in its entirety nonetheless…”. He also issued the order to burn the Grand Palais on 23rd August 1944.

But on 25th August, von Cholitz surrendered Paris to the Allies, in direct contravention of his orders. None of the explosives had been detonated. And when De Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées, it was through a sea of smiling faces, not the blackened wasteland of Hitler’s directives. So can it be that, at some pivotal moment, von Choltitz simply could not bring himself to carry out his orders, deciding he’d rather betray his leaders and surrender than see Paris destroyed? This is the version of events suggested by von Choltitz’s son, who claimed that his father realised the war was lost, and decided to prevent unnecessary bloodshed and destruction to the city. This idea is tempting, romantic even, but surely wide of the mark. In von Choltitz’s own account, he stated simply

If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane

Moreover, an experienced military man like von Choltitz would have recognised how disastrous Stalingrad had been for all sides, and seen the value in avoiding a repeat of those events.

The alternative version of events refuses to give con Choltitz even this much credit. Resistance member Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont argued in 2004 that von Choltitz wrought us much death and destruction on Paris and its citizens as he could, “and when he ceased to kill them it was because he wasn’t able to do so any longer”. Kriegel-Valrimont shudders at any attempt to paint von Choltitz as the saviour of Paris, and insists that it was Pierre Taittinger, chairman of the municipal council, who convinced him not to detonate the explosives around the city.

Two very different stories then. In one, a hardened Nazi is struck all too late by the futility and insanity of the war he has fought, and adds his name to the long list of Parisian heroes. In the other, the Parisians themselves are solely responsible for throwing off the rule of their alien, resented occupiers, who sought nothing but their destruction right up to the end. The truth must inevitably be found somewhere between the two. Von Choltitz was certainly no romantic hero, and it seems highly unlikely that he sought to ‘save’ Paris for its own sake. More likely, this practical man genuinely did realise that Hitler’s time was coming to an end, and determined to get things over with as quietly and efficiently as possible. But despite the legitimate protestations of many French historians, the fact remains that there must, surely, have been a window of opportunity for von Choltitz to carry out his orders, press that button and set off explosions all over Paris. That button was never pressed – that’s the fact, cold and undeniable, and the legacy of some combination of the actions of both von Choltitz and those Parisians who fought for their city.

So the brilliant, uniform beauty of Paris remained, the City of Light apparently undimmed. But even as De Gaulle marched triumphantly down the Champs-Élysées, and the crackly sound of the Marseillaise once again echoed down the streets after four forbidden years, a process of soul-searching and recrimination was already beginning. There were some deeply unpleasant questions that needed to be asked about the last few years. Why had it taken so long for Paris to shake off its occupiers? Had life in Paris under the Germans been a bit too easy? Most troubling of all – who had collaborated? Deep down, had everyone collaborated? These questions were made all the more uncomfortable by the unavoidable comparisons between still-dazzling Paris and the scenes of devastation in many of the other cities of Europe. German occupation may have ended, but the damage and pain it could inflict on Paris and Parisians had not disappeared with von Choltitz.

I think I feel another post coming on…

Further Reading

Paris

  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones Superb, detailed and comprehensive history of the city, from before it was even Paris to modern times.
  • Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey A more social take on the history of Paris, with plenty of evocative detail.

Stalingrad

  • Stalingrad by Antony Beevor As big, clever and moving as popular history gets.