Liberated Paris

Paris on the morning after the fighting had a strange air of calm. For those who went out early on a tour of inspection – mainly the older generation, since the young were sleeping off the excesses of the night before, as well as the accumulated fatigue of the last week – the traces of fighting amply testified to the reality of events.

During the battle for the Hotel Meurice, some of the huge columns had been shot down from the great façade of the Ministry of Marine on the north side of the Place de la Concorde. In the expanse of the Concorde, even the burnt-out tanks looked small. Just beyond, in the Tuileries gardens, the carbonized hulk of a Tiger tank was still smoking.

Across the river, outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, yet another scorched carcass of a tank – this time a Sherman of the 2e DB – had written on its side in chalk: ‘Ici sont morts trois soldats français.’ Flowers had already been laid on its blackened hulk. Other flowers soon appeared on street corners or outside portes-cochères where victims had failed to reach safety. Passers-by often paused, then stepped round them carefully as in a cemetery. They were reminded of all those who had not lived to see Paris free again.*

Many other areas had also suffered in the fighting – the Palais du Luxembourg and its surroundings, the Champ de Mars, the Palais Bourbon, the Île de la Cité and the Place de la République. But, as General Koenig observed, they were incredibly lucky that the destruction of monuments had been so limited. The Grand Palais, that beached whale of the belle époque, was reduced to little more than a skeleton, but all the other major buildings could be repaired.

In the cafés on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, glass with starred holes from bullets was left unreplaced for reasons of pride as well as economy. Shop windows broken in the fighting had been quickly boarded up, and yet people were already beginning to remove the latticework of sticky tape from their own windows in the belief that the threat of bomb-blast had disappeared, though the Germans were still within artillery range out at Le Bourget.

Most people, certainly the liberators of the day before, were light-headed either from lovemaking or the drinking of relentless toasts. David Bruce recorded that it had been impossible to refuse the bottles thrust at them, which had been hoarded almost religiously for the moment of liberation. ‘The combination was enough to wreck one’s constitution,’ he wrote. ‘In the course of the afternoon, we had beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, champagne, rum, cognac, armagnac and calvados.’

If the day of liberation had belonged to the FFI and Leclerc’s men, Saturday, 26 August, was to be de Gaulle’s triumph.

A discordant note was struck by General Gerow, Leclerc’s American superior. Still furious at the way the French had ignored his orders over the last few days, Gerow sent an instruction forbidding the 2e DB to take part in any victory celebrations. But with the city not yet fully clear of the enemy, de Gaulle needed Leclerc’s men to provide security and preserve public order. Vichy miliciens were not covered by General von Choltiz’s ceasefire, and there was always the possibility that other German forces might counter-attack from the north.

In the early afternoon, huge crowds converged on the centre of Paris. Many came on foot from the outer suburbs, having covered a dozen kilometres or more. Well over a million people gathered in the sunshine on both sides of the route from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame.* To obtain better views, people crowded at the windows of buildings overlooking the route, and the young climbed trees or lampposts. There were even people lining the rooftops. Paris had never seen such crowds. Many carried home-made tricolours.

At three, de Gaulle arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, where all the principal figures awaited him: Parodi, Luizet, Chaban-Delmas, Bidault and the other members of the National Council of the Resistance, Admiral d’Argenlieu and, of course, Generals Juin, Koenig and Leclerc.

The leader of the provisional government took the salute of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad, standing in their vehicles drawn up across the Place de l’Étoile. Under the Arc de Triomphe, he relit the flame over the tomb of the unknown soldier which had been extinguished in June 1940, when the Germans marched into the city. Then, preceded by four of Leclerc’s Shermans, he set off on foot down the Champs-Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde.

Behind the official party, swelled by numerous offcials who wished to establish their credentials, came a throng of FFI militia and onlookers who decided to join in, singing and embracing as they went.

From time to time, de Gaulle raised his arms to acknowledge the cheering, which at a distance sounded like the roar and booming of a sea crashing on rocks. ‘There took place at that moment,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘one of those miracles of national conscience, one of those gestures of France herself, which occasionally, down the centuries, come to illuminate our history.’

Not everyone, however, was yelling for de Gaulle the man. There must have been Pétainists cheering in the crowd; there had certainly been enough people cheering the Marshal only four months before. Meanwhile, Communists could not resist the odd ‘Vive Maurice!’ in honour of Maurice Thorez, still in Moscow, where he had remained ever since deserting from the French army on Stalin’s orders at the start of the war.

Simone de Beauvoir, who had gone to the Arc de Triomphe with Michel Leiris, was later careful in the way she described her approbation that day. ‘Mixed in the immense crowd, we acclaimed not a military parade, but a popular carnival, disorganized and magnificent.’ Jean-Paul Sartre was waiting much further down the route to watch from a balcony of the Hotel du Louvre.

With police cars well in front, then the four tanks, de Gaulle’s escort increased with largely self-appointed groups of FFI. At the Place de la Concorde, a platoon of the ‘Jewish army’ Resistance group joined in, wearing captured Milice uniforms (their provenance countered with tricolour armbands). Shortly after de Gaulle had climbed into an open car to drive the last two kilometres to Notre-Dame, shooting broke out. To this day, nobody knows whether this was a serious assassination attempt, a provocation or simply the result of too many tense and inexperienced people with weapons.

In the Place de la Concorde and the rue de Rivoli, the crowds threw themselves flat on the ground or sheltered behind groups of armoured vehicles from the Leclerc division. One man lifted his bicycle over his head as a shield. Nobody knew where the shooting came from, and the result was panic. The fifis began firing at rooftops and windows. Jean-Paul Sartre, on his balcony outside the Hotel du Louvre, was shot at by a trigger-happy fifi, who mistook him for a milicien sniper. (Jean Cocteau, watching from a window of the Hotel Crillon, claimed less convincingly that his cigarette was ‘cut in half’ in his mouth.) The most senior official in the Ministry of Finance was shot dead at his office window. At least half a dozen people were killed around the Place de la Concorde and the rue de Rivoli.

For the rest of the day, black traction-avant Citroëns, daubed with the FFI initials on the roof and sides, charged around self-importantly at breakneck speed, stopping only to shoot at rooftops and windows. Other vehicles requisitioned by the Resistance had men armed with rifles lying on the mudguards or standing on the running boards. ‘The heroes multiplied,’ wrote Galtier-Boissière. ‘The number of last-minute resistants, armed from head to toe and covered in cartridge belts in the Mexican style, was considerable.’

De Gaulle, meanwhile, affected not to hear the firing. His open car continued down the rue de Rivoli to the Hôtel de Ville, where the band of the Garde Républicaine was drawn up in review order outside. After a brief stop, he crossed the Pont d’Arcole to Notre-Dame.

Outside the cathedral Mgr Suhard, the cardinal-archbishop of Paris, was conspicuously absent from the welcoming party. He had wanted to be present, but there was little to recommend him in Gaullist and Resistance eyes. In August 1942, he had insisted on giving absolution in the service of blessing for the Legion of French Volunteers off to fight for the Wehrmacht in Russia. In April 1944, he had welcomed Pétain on the latter’s visit to Paris; and only two months before the Liberation he had dignified the funeral of Philippe Henriot with full pomp and ceremony. Henriot, assassinated by the Resistance, had been Vichy’s Minister of Information and a pro-Nazi propagandist.

Shooting broke out again just as de Gaulle entered Notre-Dame. Outside, FFI groups began firing at the towers. The members of the Jewish platoon concentrated on the north tower. Inside, policemen and soldiers trying to protect de Gaulle aimed up into the recesses and vaulting of the cathedral. Some shots brought down chunks of masonry. Members of the congregation, who had thrown themselves flat, then tried to hide behind pillars or even under chairs. De Gaulle, disengaging himself from the mêlée, walked forward up the aisle towards the high altar, where the service was due to begin.

Malcolm Muggeridge, a British intelligence officer who had reached Paris late the night before, described the whole event. ‘The effect was fantastic. The huge congregation who had all been standing suddenly fell flat on their faces. There was a single exception; one solitary figure, like a lonely giant. It was, of course, de Gaulle. Thenceforth, that was how I always saw him– towering and alone; the rest, prostrate.’ There were others, such as Alexandre Parodi, who remained upright, but with all eyes fixed on de Gaulle; he alone appeared majestic, fearless and untouchable.

The incident confirmed de Gaulle in his determination to disarm the FFI at the earliest opportunity. There could be no further doubt that they represented a bigger danger to public safety than the rump of any ‘fifth column’ of miliciens. Disturbances presented a double threat. ‘Public order is a matter of life and death,’ he told a visitor to the rue Saint-Dominique a few days later. ‘If we do not re-establish it ourselves, foreigners will impose it upon us.’ The American and British forces now appeared to be seen as ‘foreigners’ rather than allies.

At half past eleven, during a second night of celebration, the air-raid sirens sounded. The Luftwaffe had arrived on a revenge attack, bombing at random. A hospital was seriously damaged. So too were the spirit warehouses of Les Halles des Vins. The orange glow against the night sky could be seen from all over Paris.

On the day of liberation, it seemed as if almost every French Communist had converged on party headquarters at 44 rue Pelletier, always known as ‘le 44’. Those released from prison turned up at the six-storey building in search of news, and most had gone into one of the nearby cafés in the hope of discovering who had survived the terrible years and who had not. The entrance was protected by sandbags, a legacy from the building’s last occupants, the Milice.

Six days later Jacques Duclos, Thorez’s deputy and stand-in, summoned a meeting of the party’s central committee. Only some twenty members met that night, including Professor Joliot-Curie, the scientist who had made Molotov cocktails in the Sorbonne. Four tables had been arranged in a rectangle, ‘like a marriage feast’. The veteran Communist Marcel Cachin presided. Behind his head a proclamation decorated ostentatiously with tricolour flags listed the members of the central committee who had ‘died for France’. From another wall, a photograph of Stalin watched over them.

Duclos’s fellow members of the French Communist Party’s wartime triumvirate were Benoît Frachon, who was to prove a skilful leader of the Communist trades union movement in the post-war years, and Charles Tillon, a hard and resourceful man who had been the real leader of the Communist Resistance during the Occupation. Duclos feared his influence and soon arranged for him to be one of the Communist ministers in de Gaulle’s government. This would restrict his freedom of action and also remove him from the real centre of power within the party itself.

Duclos, when he faced his colleagues, was in an embarrassing position. It was he who had directed the approach to the German authorities in 1940, invoking the Nazi–Soviet pact, to arrange for the reappearance of the party newspaper L’Humanité and the release of Communist prisoners. In exchange he had offered to put France back to work. Tillon had ridiculed the idea that French Communists would thus receive preferential treatment. ‘For shit’s sake, do you really think that in Paris the Germans will see you as Russians?’

Duclos was a little man, almost risible in the eyes of someone like Tillon. His round face with round glasses made him look like a complacent petit-bourgeois; but the impenetrable smile and the clever little eyes hinted at why he was such a formidable survivor. He knew that the faithful follower of the party line, as laid down in Moscow, would come out on top in the end. The Comintern had been officially disbanded in May 1943, mainly to please the American government and encourage the huge flow of Lend-Lease aid. It simply continued to function under the same leader, Georgi Dimitrov, but under another name: the International Section of the Central Committee.

The French Communists of the Resistance, many of whom had left the party during the Nazi–Soviet pact, failed to appreciate this. They now wanted to launch a revolution on the back of the Liberation, but few had stopped to wonder whether or not it might suit Comrade Stalin’s strategy. The reason why Stalin never gave the French Communist Party the order to start a revolution was quite simple. It was not in the interests of the USSR. A French Communist attempt to seize power in the rear of the Western Allies as they prepared to invade Germany would have caused a major breach with the United States. Stalin still needed the massive American logistic support to the Red Army to keep coming, especially the Studebaker and Dodge trucks which had transformed its mobility. Meanwhile, his great fear was that the Americans and British might make a secret peace with Hitler, and a French Communist uprising in their rear might provide them with an excuse.

French historians, with remarkably few exceptions, appear to have been unable to see the Communist failure to seize power after the Liberation in anything other than French terms. It is, of course, much less surprising that most of the Communists who joined during the war completely failed to understand that the French Communist Party was not an ally of the Soviet Union; it was a totally obedient subordinate. The problem for Duclos, however, was the lack of clear guidance emanating from Moscow. France was very low on the list of Soviet priorities.

Duclos could not assert party discipline until de Gaulle granted Thorez an amnesty for his desertion at the beginning of the war and allowed him to return from Moscow with clear instructions. For the moment, however, Thorez could only fret in impatience in Moscow. The General did not even bother to reply to his telegrams. He simply passed a message back by his representative in Moscow that any delay was the fault of the British, who controlled the air route via Cairo.

While Tillon and his followers wanted to maintain the Resistance in arms as a force for political change, Duclos was far more cautious. The party, however, could still increase its power by installing its own candidates in key positions wherever possible. One way was to lead the call for popular justice against traitors and then, during the ensuing purges, denounce anti-Communists as collaborators and replace them with their own people. More and more reports arrived from all over France of last-minute massacres carried out by the Germans. There had also been incidents of German officers who let political prisoners go, but they received less attention at a time when most news was so grim.

On 1 September, the French and foreign press was given a tour of the Gestapo’s torture chambers in the rue des Saussaies, just behind the Ministry of the Interior on the Place Beauvau. In a relentless campaign, L’Humanité did all it could to exploit stories of massacre and torture to their utmost. The implication was that Vichy and its officials had been involved in every crime: directly, indirectly or by association.

New arrivals in liberated Paris were seeking out old friends. One of Hemingway’s first visits was to Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon. He was sad to find that in 1941 the Germans had forced her to close down her bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, so this part of expatriate Left Bank life was over. But at least she had survived, having spent six months in an internment camp.

In the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, people discussed their different wartime experiences, or heard about events from which they had been separated by censorship or distance. Raymond Aron described the bombing of London. Far worse tales had also begun to emerge, like that of the Warsaw uprising and the first rumours of the death camps.

Some people resurfaced in astonishing new roles. Right-wing anti-Semites appeared full of stories of the Jews or Communists they had saved from the Gestapo. Among the members of what was mockingly known as the ‘RMA’ – the resistants of the month of August – there were characters who, having denounced fellow citizens to the Germans, now denounced fellow collaborators with such venom that people dared not speak out against them.

It was a time for making new friends. Camus introduced Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to Father Bruckberger, the FFI chaplain, whom they found in his white Dominican habit, smoking his pipe and drinking corrosive punch in the Rhumerie Martiniquaise. They also met the writer Romain Gary, and Lise Deharme, a poet whose salon was frequented by the rump of the Surrealist movement. Black American soldiers were greeted in Saint-Germain by Parisians starved of jazz, and the warmth of the welcome prompted a number of them to wonder whether to stay there instead of returning to the States.

It was a time of debate, ideas and conversation. Jean Cocteau and his friends held court in the bar of the Hotel Saint-Yves in the rue Jacob, where Cocteau, like Picasso, was famous for his monologues. For Cocteau, ‘the spoken word was his language and he used it with the virtuosity of an acrobat’.

It was also a period of feast and famine. Tobacco hunger, only partially assuaged by packets of Camel thrown from passing jeeps, was far more noticeable than a skinny ribcage. People dug out cigarette holders from the 1920s so as to be able to smoke their cigarettes down to the last drop of nicotine. Brassaï’s photograph of Picasso’s wartime muse, Dora Maar, shows the ash burning to within a millimetre of the holder. The black market boomed. At night the métro station of Strasbourg-Saint-Denis was ‘packed full of types who whispered out of the corner of the mouth as you passed: “Chocolate? Tobacco? Gauloises? English cigarettes?”’

In spite of the destruction of Les Halles des Vins, a miraculous supply of cheap alcohol somehow remained available, and a frenzy of parties followed the Liberation.Les Lettres françaises, the counter to the right-wing takeover of France’s great literary magazine,La Nouvelle Revue française, gave a cocktail party presided over by the Communist ‘royal couple’, Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Éditions de Minuit, which had won such admiration by underground publication of books like Le Silence de la mer by Vercors and François Mauriac’s Cahier noir, gave a party at Versailles with a play by La Fontaine. Few guests were very smart, as much out of necessity as taste. Simone de Beauvoir had a single black suit for grand occasions, but Sartre seldom changed out of his worn lumber jacket.

For the GIs, however, the young women on bicycles with short skirts billowing were the most enduring memory of Paris. Galtier-Boissière noticed how ‘the short lampshade skirts generously uncovered pink thighs’. These short, loose dresses for bicycling were made out of patchwork, though even patchwork could differ in quality. Simone de Beauvoir observed that ‘les élégantes used luxury silk scarves; in Saint-Germain-des-Prés we made do with cotton prints’.

Long hair, piled high above the forehead, was one answer to the shortage of electricity. Constant power cuts made coiffeurs resort to a lot of back-combing. Lee Miller took a photograph of a pair of male cyclists furiously pedalling a tandem linked to a dynamo to provide current for the dryers upstairs. Most ingenious of all were the wooden-soled shoes with an articulated sole to avoid the rigidity of clogs. (The Germans had requisitioned all stocks of leather for the Wehrmacht.) The noise of those shoes clacking on pavements was one of the most evocative sounds of the war years. One of Maurice Chevalier’s songs was entitled ‘La Symphonie des semelles de bois’.

Maurice Chevalier put all his efforts at the Liberation into the song ‘Fleur de Paris’, an air of sentimental patriotism which he clearly hoped would help him ‘se dédouaner’ (get him through ‘customs’ in the form of purge committees) for having sung on the German-run Radio-Paris, among other accusations. Chevalier, Charles Trenet and the singing nightclub owner Suzy Solidor were all blacklisted, and Tino Rossi was locked up in Fresnes prison. Suzy Solidor went round to visit the editors of newspapers, claiming she had worked for the Resistance and that the only accusation against her was to have sung ‘Lili Marlene’ at a time when it was a great hit with British troops.

Even Edith Piaf was suspect for a moment, having, like Chevalier, gone to sing for French prisoners in Germany, but she had never supported the Pétainist régime; unlike Chevalier, who had taken off his boater and drunk a bottle of Vichy water as a show of loyalty to journalists – the most ill-judged photo-opportunity of his career.

One singer whose Resistance credentials were impeccable was Josephine Baker. General de Gaulle even wrote the preface to the book about her exploits by Commandant Jacques Abtey, La Guerre secrète de Josephine Baker. De Gaulle also attended her first concert in Paris after the Liberation. Josephine Baker had returned to France with General de Lattre’s 1st Army and came up to Paris to see old friends and prove that the reports of her death were premature. She gave a gala concert for the French air force charity at the Paramount in November, when she sang ‘Paris chéri’, one of the last songs written for her by Vincent Scotto. Jo Bouillon’s orchestra provided the music and, soon afterwards, she married him.

Malcolm Muggeridge went in uniform with a brother officer to a very different cabaret on the Left Bank, packed out and thick with tobacco smoke. ‘There were only flickering candles to light the tiny stage, where a man, completely bald, with a large, sad clown’s face, was intoning a soliloquy, in which he recalled all the terrible things that had happened to him since the Germans came to Paris. “Et maintenant,” he concluded, with an expression of infinite woe, through which he struggled to break into a wry smile – “Et maintenant, nous sommes libérés!” The audience roared their approval, looking quizzically at Trevor and me. Somehow it seemed the most perfect comment on the situation.’

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