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Liberation of Paris 75th anniversary: The story of the French capital being freed of Nazi control

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Liberation of Paris 75th anniversary: The story of the French capital being freed of Nazi control
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"These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!"

Those were the words with which General Charles de Gaulle opened his victory speech, hours after Nazi forces had surrendered Paris on August 25, 1944 – 75 years ago on Sunday.

After four years of occupation by the German army – from 14 June, 1940, eight days before France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany, to 25 August, 1944 – and six days of fierce battle between the occupiers and resistance fighters and Allied troops, who arrived on 24 August, the French capital was liberated.

It was also on the brink of starvation, even if it had not been "reduced to a pile of rubble" as Hitler had ordered. More than 43,000 Parisian Jews, around half the city's Jewish community, had been deported to concentration camps, where it is estimated 34,000 of them died.

Occupation

On 14 June, 1940, German troops entered the city and Parisians awoke to the sound of an announcement over loudspeakers that there would be an 8pm curfew. So began 50 months of occupation by Nazi Germany.

Around 2 million people had already left Paris in anticipation of Germany's invasion, and it is estimated a further 1 million fled the city during 1940. For those left behind, life in the city of light entered its darkest hour.

Swastikas hung from the Arc de Triomphe, along the Rue de Rivoli and from the Palais Garnier opera house, and German street signs were erected. Food, fuel, tobacco and clothing were rationed from September 1940, and press and radio contained nothing but German propaganda. For Parisians, the curfew continued, from 9pm till 5am, while the city became a playground for Nazi officers, who commandeered its famed cafés, restaurants, nightclubs and luxury hotels – as well as its brothels.

Paris's Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David from 29 May, 1942, onwards. They were banned from main streets, cinemas, restaurants and cafes, parks and libraries and required to travel on the last car of metro trains. Over two days – 16-17 July, 1942 – French police working on German orders rounded up 13,152 Jews in the city. Their destination was Auschwitz, via various concentration camps across France, including Drancy, 20 miles (32 km) north of Paris.

Artworks from the Louvre and other museums had been evacuated prior to the occupation to the unoccupied zone, but the art of the city's Jewish collectors was looted by the Nazis on an industrial scale, with the Gestapo visiting bank vaults, Jewish-owned galleries and empty residences belonging to families who had fled the city in order to plunder their contents.

Their spoils were transferred to the Jeu de Paume gallery in the Jardin des Tuileries, where Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, visited more than a dozen times to select pieces for his own personal collection, including paintings by Rembrandt and Van Dyck owned by Jewish banking family the Rothschilds. Between April 1941 and July 1944, 4,174 cases of artworks were shipped from Paris to Germany. Much, but not all, of the art was recovered after the war.

Cultural life did not, however, grind to a halt in the French capital. Picasso and Braque were among the painters who remained living and working in the city. The former had postcards of his anti-fascist work Guernica made to hand out to visitors, but while his work had officially been deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis, his pieces continued to be sold at auction in Paris.

When the Germans opened his bank vault in search of Jewish-owned works to seize, he gave them such rambling descriptions of who owned what that they left empty-handed, after he also told them that the paintings in Braque's vault, adjoining his, belonged to him too.

Singers and musicians Édith Piaf, Yves Montand and Django Reinhardt continued to perform in the city, as did Maurice Chevalier, who refused to perform in Berlin when asked but did so for French prisoners of war in Germany, in exchange for the release of ten of them.

The writer Colette remained in Paris, publishing her most famous novel Gigi in 1944, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras. Director Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis, considered a masterpiece of French cinema, was filmed in the suburbs of Paris during the Occupation, although it was not released until 1945.

AFP
A German soldier walks through the Place de l'Opera in Paris in August 1944 as another regulates the trafficAFP

Liberation

The French 2nd Armoured Division had been formed in London in late 1943 expressly for the purpose of liberating Paris. In August 1944, under the command of General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, it arrived in Normandy. By 18 August, Allied forces were approaching Paris and in the city, workers went on strike and Resistance fighters emerged from hiding to attack German forces and fortifications.

While the Allies had decided to delay the liberation of Paris in order not to divert resources from other crucial operations, on 21 August De Gaulle met with Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and persuaded him to reconsider, arguing that Paris could be liberated without great difficulty, and that were Allied forces to bypass the city at this juncture, this liberation could be carried out by the Communist faction of the Resistance. Subsequently, the French 2nd Armoured Division entered Paris from the north, with the help of the United States 4th Infantry Division from the south, on 24 August, reaching the Hotel de Ville just before midnight.

The majority of the 20,000 German troops in the city surrendered or fled, and the following morning Leclerc led the 2nd Armoured Division through the city in celebration. That afternoon the German military commander of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, was arrested and forced to surrender the city.

Choltitz had been instructed by Hitler to leave Paris "a pile of rubble" before it fell into Allied hands, but had refused the order. While Choltitz had begun laying explosives under the city's bridges and major landmarks, he then failed to detonate them, reportedly not wishing to go down in history as the man responsible for the destruction of Europe's most celebrated city. In his 1951 memoir, he also states that by this point he believed Hitler to be insane, writing: "If for this first time I disobeyed, it was because I knew Hitler was crazy."

AFP
German soldiers sit on the terrace of the Café de Flore in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district in Paris in August 1944 during the battle for the Liberation of ParisAFP

Often called "the saviour of Paris", and with some arguing that his profile was one of career soldier rather than dedicated Nazi, given that he served in the Royal Saxon Army during the First World War, Choltitz remains a figure who divides opinion. In a 2004 interview with The Telegraph newspaper, his son Timo said: "If he saved only Notre Dame, that would be enough reason for the French to be grateful. France officially refuses to this day to accept it and insists that the Resistance liberated Paris with 2,000 guns against the German army. To official France, my father was a swine, but every educated French person knows what he did for them. I am very proud of his memory."

De Gaulle arrived in the capital that afternoon and led 2 million Parisians in a celebration parade down the Champs-Élysées. His speech has been the subject of controversy, given that no mention was made of any liberating forces other than the French.

This is why the French troops have entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the great French army of Italy landed in the south and are advancing quickly through the Rhone valley. This is why our brave and dear forces of the interior will turn into modern fighting units. It is to have this revenge, this vengeance and at the same time this justice, that we will keep fighting until the last day, until the day of total and complete victory, the only which will satisfy us. This duty of war, all the men who are here, all those who hear us in France know that it involves other duties, the main of which is called national unity!

The Nation would not admit that, in the situation in which she is, this unity be broken. The Nation knows that to win, to rebuild itself and to be great she must have all of her children with her. The Nation knows that her sons and daughters, all of her sons and all of her daughters besides a few unfortunate traitors who gave themselves to the enemy or gave others, and who know or will know the rigor of the laws. Besides them, all of the sons and all of the daughters of France are walking and will walk in fraternity for France, hand in hand.
General Charles de Gaulle

In the months following the liberation of the city, 10,000 Parisians who had been judged to have collaborated with the Germans were arrested and tried – 8,000 were convicted and 116 executed.

On 29 April and 13 May, 1945, the city's first post-war local elections were held, the first in which French women were eligible to vote.

General De Gaulle remained at the helm of two successive French provisional governments until 1946, when he resigned citing constitutional disagreements. He went on to serve as President of the Fifth Republic from 1958 to 1969.

General von Choltitz was held for the remainder of the war alongside other senior German officers in London and later moved to Camp Clinton in Mississippi. No charges were ever filed against him and he was released in 1947. He died in 1966 from emphysema in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Commemoration

The 75th anniversary of the city's liberation will be marked in Paris on Sunday, 25 August, at a ceremony at the Eiffel Tower, honouring the moment six firefighters climbed the city's best-loved symbol to raise the French flag again after the occupation. A public parade in 1940s dress following the route of that held on the day of the liberation, from Porte d'Orléans to Denfert-Rochereau, will also take place, and a concert will be held in the evening at the Hôtel de Ville.

Reuters
A portrait and the ID card of the French Resistance leader Jean Moulin on display at the new Paris Liberation MuseumReuters

The Museum of the Liberation of Paris will also open its doors to the public on Sunday. Dedicated to French resistance leaders Jean Moulin and Philippe de Hautecloque, also known as General Leclerc, the new museum displays everyday objects from the time of the occupation, as well as military equipment and documents relating to both resistance fighters and everyday Parisians.

Paris deputy mayor for culture, Christophe Girard, said that he hoped the museum would inspire people to continue fighting for democracy, saying that the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terror attacks showed that freedom was not guaranteed even in Paris.

"Things are never gained forever. Democracy is something you have to actually discuss, protect and take care of. So this museum is absolutely necessary for the knowledge and the history of Paris. And the young generation, I think, will learn a lot about their own city."

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