Sunday, August 25, 2019

This Day in WWII History (French Celebrate Liberation of Paris in ‘Night of Truth’)

Aug. 25, 1944—After four years of a humiliating occupation by Nazis who traduced their national ideals, killed 150,000 and deported or made prisoners of war another 1.9 million, and turned more people than anyone wanted to admit into collaborators with the enemy, Frenchmen deliriously celebrated the liberation of Paris. 

In a post 10 years ago, I recounted Ernest Hemingway’s war dispatch about witnessing the return to freedom of “the city I love best in all the world.” (In short order, he did his part for the war effort by “liberating” the bar at the Ritz Hotel.)

Far more can be said—and has been said—about this emotional high point in the Allies’ destruction of Fascism. But I thought I’d focus on two Frenchmen who would play a major role in the postwar world.

The first is Charles de Gaulle. Long a burr in the side of the Allies whose support he needed to free his country, the general had helped shove the liberation decisively ahead of schedule. 

Only four days before the liberation, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had told him that, instead of immediately supporting the Resistance fighters and striking government workers now pouring into the streets, the Allies would come back to the city later so that they wouldn’t use up resources needed to clear out the Nazis in the rest of the country.

De Gaulle urged him to reconsider. Retaking Paris wouldn’t be a problem, he said. If Eisenhower insisted on withholding forces, de Gaulle would order General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division anyway. Oh, yes—and if the Allies didn’t act, they ran the risk of Communists taking over the city.

In the early stages of the war, in an attempt to preserve French autonomy, de Gaulle had used Communists as part of the Free French movement. Now, though, he demonstrated why a college professor of mine termed him “perhaps the first Cold War” with this hint of a Marxist takeover of the City of Lights.

The play worked. The Nazi forces in the city were crushed between Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division and the Allies’ 4th Infantry Division. In his victory speech, de Gaulle hailed the former but offered not a word about the latter. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had long since come to consider such slights as typical of the man. 

The two leaders had to deal with him, however, because by this point in the war, he was the one leader with both credibility and widespread support from the public. He was the focal point the next day in leading a victory march down the Champs d’Elysees. As can be seen in the accompanying photo, at six feet and a half, he made for an easy assassination target.

Indeed, for a short bewildering but terrifyingsecond, shots from a rooftop sniper rang out, disrupting the parade and raising fears that de Gaulle had been hit. But the general’s scoffing at death (“Mosquitoes do not bite General de Gaulle,” he had joked to aides who urged him to take precautions against malaria) seemed borne out once again, as he survived the attack.

The other figure who played a notable part in the day—not by participating in it, but by witnessing to it—was Albert Camus. A young journalist, novelist and playwright with a strong interest in philosophy, Camus had attempted to join the Resistance as a soldier but could not serve because of recurring bouts with tuberculosis. Instead, he became editor of the clandestine newspaper Combat.

While Hemingway couldn’t help writing about himself in chronicling the liberation of Paris, Camus submerged his own personality in conveying the impact of “The Night of Truth” for Combat.  His eloquent editorial celebrating the event represented a touchstone in the 20th century’s struggle against totalitarianism, and established his own striking voice in witnessing to that clash:

“While the bullets of freedom are still whistling throughout the city, the cannons of the liberation are entering the gates of Paris amid shouts and flowers. In the most beautiful and hottest of August nights, the eternal stars over Paris mingle with the tracer bullets, the smoke of fires, and the colored rockets of a mass celebration. This unparalleled night marks the end of four years of monstrous history and of an unspeakable struggle in which France came to grips with her shame and her wrath.”

1 comment:

Eric Laursen said...

Key phrase in the editorial is "... an unspeakable struggle in which France came to grips with her shame and her wrath.” Unlike many others, Camus was ready to grapple with the subject of collaboration right away, rather than to bury it. Thanks for giving him the last word Mike!