No doubt, Champagne corks were popping on the Champs Elysées this week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from the prolonged four-year German occupation in World War II.
Despite repeated orders from Hitler that the French capital “must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris” to be accomplished by bombing it and blowing up its bridges, General Dietrich von Choltitz, as commander of the German garrison and military governor of Paris, surrendered on August 25, 1944, in a simple ceremony at the Hôtel Meurice, the newly established headquarters of French General Leclerc.
The liberation of France came at a tragically steep cost: 134,000 Americans were killed, wounded, missing, or captured; casualties among the British, Canadians, and Poles totaled 91,000. In half a million sorties flown during the summer, more than 4,000 planes were lost, evenly divided between the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Force. A total of 600,000 tons of Allied bombs were dropped on occupied France, the weight of 64 Eiffel Towers, resulting in the deaths of between 50,000 and 67,000 French civilians. The campaign was expensive indeed.
Notable among the thousands of German soldiers who died during the liberation of France was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the notorious “Desert Fox,” who committed suicide, swallowing a cyanide pill, as the “City of Lights” was liberated by Allied forces.
Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower had earlier promised that French forces would lead the liberation of Paris. Shortly after General Leclerc led his troops into the city, General Charles de Gaulle, president of the Provisional Government of the French Republic moved back into the War Ministry on the Rue Saint-Dominique.
Throughout the occupation, de Gaulle had been a thorn in the Allies’ side, consistently demonstrating his unbridled arrogance, and what historian John Keegan vividly describes as his genius for “tantrums, sulks, insults, postures, silence, Olympian detachment, political self-righteousness, and moral holier-than-thouery.”
Upon his triumphant return to Paris, de Gaulle made an impassioned speech to a vast crowd gathered at the Hôtel de Ville:
We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!
Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights.
It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.
This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!
I’m sure in the glow of restored freedom from the Nazis and many Champagne toasts, few Parisians noticed that General de Gaulle played only a small role in the liberation of the City of Lights. But, like so many other politicians, he was Johnny-on the-spot to call for unity and cheer the victory won through the ultimate sacrifice of so many non-French allies.
So, here’s a heart-felt Champagne toast to the brave U.S., British, Canadian, Polish, and other Allied troops who fought and died so valiantly (alongside the French forces so lavishly praised by General de Gaulle) in the liberation of Paris seventy years ago this week.