In Focus: Paris, Summer 1944

Roger Hudson explains a moment of panic on the streets of the newly liberated French capital.

It is August 26th, 1944 and Paris has just been liberated after four years of German occupation. General de Gaulle is at a thanksgiving service in Notre Dame, visible over the rooftops in the photograph. Suddenly shots have rung out, fired by either a fanatical German sniper, by a member of the Milice, the Vichy equivalent of the SS, or by a trigger-happy fifi – a member of the Forces Françaises de l’Interieur (FFI), as the Resistance is now called. The crowd on the Pont d’Arcole, crossing the Seine to the Ile de la Cité, has instinctively gone to ground. Within the cathedral a similar scene is enacted at the same time, when someone’s revolver goes off by mistake. One lone figure remains standing: it is, of course, de Gaulle.

These moments of drama echoed the theatricality which seemed to suffuse the liberation of the capital as a whole. Among the 39 Allied divisions assigned to Normandy, only General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured was French and it had only landed on August 1st. But vitally de Gaulle had secured a promise from Eisenhower the year before that Paris would be liberated by French troops. De Gaulle saw as his most important task the restoration of self-esteem, status, a measure of grandeur even, to France after the crushing defeat of 1940 followed by the shoddy Vichy years. His enemy was not so much the Germans as the Anglo-Saxons, because they could prevent him from successfully propagating a most necessary myth of French gloire. They could not be permitted to subject France to an ‘Amgot’, an Allied Military Government. Neither, given the strength of the Communists within the Resistance movement, could there be a left-wing seizure of power, because that would also provoke the imposition of an Amgot. De Gaulle could never allow it to be seen that he was indebted to the Allies, as that would play to the Vichy accusation that he was no more than their stooge.

A spontaneous uprising began in Paris on August 13th and fear that it might at any moment be bloodily crushed by von Choltitz, the German governor, forced Eisenhower to abandon his original plan of bypassing the city. On August 22nd Leclerc was authorised to advance with the 2nd Armoured, urged on by de Gaulle with the warning: ‘We cannot have another Commune.’ Luckily for the French, von Choltitz’s heart wasn’t in it and he surrendered, after lunch in the Hotel Meurice, on August 25th, by which time 901 fifis and 582 civilians had been killed, a butcher’s bill large enough to give the liberation a serious air. No one knows how many collaborators were then summarily executed by gangs of fifis in the épuration sauvage, the score settling that followed.

De Gaulle was quick to dissolve the FFI, wanting no rival to his provisional government. Those Resistance members keen to go on fighting had to join the reconstituted French army, which needed to be as large as possible to justify France’s place alongside the US, Britain and Russia as one of the Big Four after the end of the war. 

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X