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.
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…
- 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 by Antony Beevor As big, clever and moving as popular history gets.