On the afternoon of August 26, 1944, after 4 years of deprivation and humiliation under German occupation, an estimated 1 million Parisians flocked to the streets to cheer the return of their beloved General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had reluctantly fled to England within days of Germany’s taking control of northern France in June of 1940. There, and later headquartered in Algiers (Algeria was then occupied by France), de Gaulle had tirelessly worked toward the liberation of his homeland. The previous day, Germany had ceded Paris to the Allies. The politically astute De Gaulle wanted to seize upon the first opportunity to march down the Champs-Élysées in a triumphal procession that would unite the French people behind him. Doing so nearly cost him his life.
An Extraordinary Portrait of Courage
After laying a wreath upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, beneath the Arc de Triomphe, de Gaulle headed down the Champs-Élysées on foot until he reached La Place de la Concorde. Masses of deliriously happy Parisians clogged the expansive boulevard. Dressed in blue, white, and red, spectators hung from lamposts, cheered from tree branches, and waved French flags to attract the gaze of their steadfast leader. De Gaulle, who was 6′ 5″, towered above most everyone around him. In contrast to his jubilant supporters, de Gaulle’s stately expression might be described as one of confidence and pride, but it was hardly celebratory.
Once at La Place de la Concorde, he boarded an open-air car which chauffeured him past clamoring throngs until it reached the Hôtel de Ville. After, delivering a rousing speech, de Gaulle proceeded to the Cathedral of Notre Dame for a Te Deum of thanksgiving. The parvis in front of the great church was bordered with tanks in a show of military might. As de Gaulle strode toward the massive bronze portals shots rang out, followed by machine gunfire. People ran for cover, hiding between the tanks or escaping into the church. De Gaulle appeared unperturbed as he continued on his intended route to mass.
Once indoors, however, the shooting continued. Snipers were positioned in the cathedral’s upper galleries. Parishioners threw themselves under pews and hid behind massive stone pillars in an effort to shield themselves. However, de Gaulle, without hesitation, continued his march down the center aisle toward the altar. The estimated number of casualties ranges from 100 to 300 but de Gaulle remained unscathed. One eyewitness reporter, Robert Reid, described the scene as follows:
There were blinding flashes inside the cathedral, there were pieces of stone ricocheting around the place… Heaven knows how they missed him, for they were firing the whole time.—Robert Reid, BBC
The video below contains audio portions of Reid’s reporting that day. First a live description of de Gaulle approaching Notre Dame, followed by Reid’s later summary of events that took place inside the cathedral.
Political and Military Maneuvering
Just a few weeks earlier, few could have predicted de Gaulle’s triumphal return. As allied forces finalized their plans for the Normandy invasion, de Gaulle had been lobbying for the immediate liberation of Paris. In his book When Paris Went Dark, author Ronald C. Rosbottom writes, “given the amount of attention the major branches of the Reich’s government had lavished on the French capital, it might come as a surprise that the Allies did not consider its liberation strategically crucial”. Indeed, General Eisenhower wanted to avoid a battle that would likely result in substantial destruction to one of Europe’s most dazzling cities and leave him with the moral obligation of supporting the severely under-resourced population of 3.5 million residents.
Eisenhower was convinced that if he entered Paris, Hitler would draw the Allied troops into a long and drawn-out fight. He wanted to delay liberating the city for as long as possible, conserving gasoline and heading directly toward the Rhine and then onto Berlin. Stopping to free Paris along the way would drain his supplies and prolong the war.
However, neither de Gaulle nor Eisenhower, had fully anticipated the political maneuvers of France’s Communist Party. Led by Colonel Rol-Tanguy the communists had joined forces with the Comité Parisien de la Libération. In mid-August, sensing that the city’s population was on edge and more than willing to strike at the hated Nazi regime, Colonel Rol called for insurrection.
Now de Gaulle worried that Rol, a shrewd political rival, would be strengthened in the eyes of the French people. Wishing to avoid a battle with the communists after the Nazis were gone, de Gaulle felt it was essential to lead French forces into Paris and demonstrate his authority. He planned to go forward with or without the Allies’ support. On August 20, de Gaulle urged Eisenhower to change his plans and send troops to Paris, but Eisenhower refused.
The Beast of Sevastopol
Eisenhower’s suspicions regarding the Führer’s evil intentions toward the City of Lights proved accurate. Hitler was determined to hang onto Paris at all costs. When it looked as if Germany’s grasp was slipping, he hand-picked General Dietrich von Choltitz to oversee the city’s defense. Von Choltitz, known as the Beast of Sevastopol for the devastation he had wreaked upon the Soviet city, arrived in Paris on August 9th.
Von Choltitz was surprised to learn that an evacuation of German female personnel was already underway. Keenly aware of Germany’s weakening position, von Choltitz gathered all military men, vehicles, and artillery together and paraded them down the Avenue de l’Opéra. He hoped to convince Parisians that Germany’s might was not to be trifled with but the display of strength proved ineffective. Meanwhile, Hitler was repeatedly issuing orders to destroy the city’s industries, utilities, communication systems, and bridges. On August 22, von Choltitz received the following order signed by Hitler,
Paris is to be transformed into a pile of rubble. The commanding general must defend the city to the last man and should die, if necessary, under the ruins.Order sent to von Choltitz by German general headquarters.
Other orders spoke of destroying architectural monuments, demolishing residential housing blocks, and holding public executions.
The 2014 Franco-German film, Diplomacy, dramatizes von Choltitz’ reluctance to decimate France’s magnificent capital. In order to free himself of the deplorable task, he agreed to let the Swedish Consul General, Raoul Nordling, contact the Allied Forces. Nordling essentially ended up inviting Eisenhower to remove von Choltitz from his post. However, Eisenhower had already decided that he needed to comply with de Gaulle’s request. On August 22, he ordered Major General LeClerc to move his Second French Armored Division into Paris.
French Troops must be First to Enter the City
Shortly before midnight on August 24, the first French soldiers rolled through the Porte d’Orléans. Tucked away in their homes under curfew, most Parisians were oblivious to the drama unfolding in the darkened town. The small and agile French force sped down narrow side streets, trying to go undetected until they reached the Hôtel de Ville in the heart of the city. Around 1:00 am on the 25th, bells rang out from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Parisians knew immediately that their long wait would soon be over. They had not heard those bells since before the Occupation began.
By dawn, as the rest of Leclerc’s division marched into Paris, they were met with a zealous outpouring of emotion. Pelted with flowers, food, and various gifts the soldiers were greeted by a host of exuberant Parisiennes, dressed in blue, white, and red and eager to smother the liberators’ cheeks with fresh lipstick. De Gaulle had insisted that French troops be the first to enter the city. Newsreels, photos and written reports of French citizens being reunited with their long-departed sons would later reveal how impactful this decision had been.
In the afternoon of August 25th, von Choltitz handed the city over to General LeClerc in the Gare Montparnasse. LeClerc accepted the surrender not in the name of the Commander of the Allied Forces but in the name of de Gaulle’s Provisional Government.
As a result of his actions, von Cholitz may be the only Nazi leader to come out of the war with his reputation unscathed. According to When Paris Went Dark, however, he did much to create the legend of his heroic role in saving Paris. We perhaps do owe him a debt of gratitude but it should be noted that he also sent more than 3 thousand political prisoners to concentration camps a week before his surrender. If Germans are to be thanked, we should also include General Hans Speidel, chief of staff to the general commanding the defense of France, who refused to carry out Hitler’s orders to bomb the city.
All Going According to Plan
De Gaulle entered Paris on the heels of the French liberators and drove straight to his prewar headquarters. He knew that the Communist Party of France would try to take credit for the Liberation by pointing to the insurrection that had begun more than a week before French forces arrived. He quickly arranged for the procession down the Champs-Élysées that would take place the following day.
By the time the Americans arrived, Paris would be nearly free of Germans but the exceedingly thorough de Gaulle worried that French Forces might not be able to hold the capital alone. He asked Eisenhower to leave behind enough Allied soldiers to help him secure the city. Again, Eisenhower refused.
However, Eisenhower did agree to yet one more victory parade. On August 27th, a day after de Gaulle had survived the sniper attack at Notre Dame, the American Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division and Fifth Armored Division retraced de Gaulle’s path down the Champs-Élysées. The American show of force drew huge crowds and another round of cheering. Members of the Milice, a French paramilitary force commanded by the Nazis, and other collaborators were certainly now less likely to launch a counter-attack.
Identifying the Snipers of August 26th
In the immediate aftermath of the Notre Dame sniper attacks, France was fixated on who had carried out the assault. Most news organizations reported that German operatives were responsible. There were certainly hundreds of Germans still hiding within the city and tens of thousands of French collaborators. However, the only photographs shot that day of men carrying firearms in and around Notre Dame are those of either Allied soldiers or members of the French Resistance. In his book, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, author Graham Robb talks of a 9-year old boy, Michel Barrat, who witnessed the arrest and brutal beating of a handful of “miliciens” that afternoon. Yet, no one was ever officially identified or charged with the crime.
Some historians posit that over-exuberant onlookers fired the initial shots and trigger-happy soldiers immediately added to the cacophony of gunfire. Indeed, celebratory rounds had been periodically fired into the air all along de Gaulle’s route. But this theory doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation of why shooting continued inside the cathedral.
De Gaulle would later write in his memoirs that he felt the incident had been staged by the communists who wanted to eliminate their fiercest political adversary.
The cynics hypothesize that de Gaulle staged the entire scene. His political savvy and understanding of the importance of optics are undeniable. De Gaulle could not have asked for a better outcome. When he left Notre Dame that day, he was now cemented in the French psyche as an unstoppable hero, maybe even one sanctioned and protected by God.
I suspect we’ll never know who was behind the shots that were fired that day. I’ll close by quoting a passage from Graham Robb’s book:
Only a man who begrudged de Gaulle his hour of glory would have bothered to ask such questions, and only a man who hoped to emulate his triumph might have wondered what lessons could be learned from his masterly manipulation of what appeared to be a totally unpredictable event.—Graham Robb, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris
- Wikimedia Commons
- The New York Times, The Day Paris was Liberated
- World War II on Deadline, PARIS LIBERATED: DE GAULLE UNDER FIRE
- Blog, Eleven Days in August
- l’Obs, Les mystérieux snipers de la Libération ont-ils existé ?
- Paris Match, Dossier: 70e anniversaire de l’appel du 18 Juin
- National Gallery of Australia, In Picasso’s Studio
- Richard Smith’s Non-Medical Blogs, What was Piccasso doing in the final days of the occupation of Paris?