On This Day

Liberation of Paris, paris liberation parade, paris parade
Library of Congress
Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view Allied tanks and half tracks pass through the Arc du Triomphe shortly after Paris was liberated.

On This Day: Paris Liberated from German Occupation

August 25, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 25, 1944, Allied forces joined the French Resistance to liberate Paris from Nazi occupation.

A Liberated Paris

Paris had been under German occupation since June 14, 1940, eight days before France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. Allied troops arrived to liberate the city on Aug. 24, 1944; after a day of fighting, the French 2nd Armored Division entered the city with the aid of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.

The following morning, as the majority of German troops dispersed, Maj. Gen. Philippe Leclerc led the 2nd Armored Division through the city in celebration, while encountering pockets of German resistance.

In the early afternoon, German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, was arrested and forced to surrender the city back to the French. Choltitz had been instructed by Hitler to destroy the city, but had refused the order.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, arrived that afternoon and took control of the government. He then delivered a speech at City Hall that attributed the liberation of Paris entirely to the French.

He declared, “Paris! An outraged Paris! A broken Paris! A martyred Paris! But … a liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of all of France, of the fighting France, of the only France, the real France, the eternal France!”

On Aug. 26, de Gaulle and Leclerc led a parade down the Champs d'Elysees, avoiding occasional sniper fire from remaining Germans.

The liberation of Paris was not a significant military victory for the Allied forces. Indeed, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had planned on bypassing Paris before being persuaded by de Gaulle to enter the city. “But for sheer romance, joy, delight, tears of happiness and emotional dizziness, the liberation of Paris surpassed all the other momentous events of the war,” writes Martin Blumenson in World War II magazine.

“The news that made the whole free world catch its breath last week was the news that Paris was free,” wrote Time in its Sept. 4, 1944, edition. “It was one of the great days of all time. For Paris is the city of all free mankind, and its liberation last week was one of the great events of all time.”

Background: Reaching Paris

The liberation of France began on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on France’s northern coast. The Allies began moving south and east, gaining control of French territory and moving toward Germany.

Gen. Eisenhower saw no military reason for entering Paris, feeling that it would drain resources and yield little strategic advantage. But French officers, notably de Gaulle and Leclerc, were determined to liberate the city. De Gaulle had political reasons: he wanted to liberate the city before leftist Resistance fighters could so that he could win the support of the Parisian population.

As the Allies neared Paris, the Resistance movement in the city became emboldened, leading to violent conflicts with German troops. The two sides signed a temporary armistice on Aug. 19 that was set to expire on Aug. 24.

De Gaulle asked Eisenhower on Aug. 21 to liberate the city. Relying on intelligence from Resistance members in the city, de Gaulle believed that the Germans would present only token resistance. Eisenhower was reluctant to enter Paris for political reasons, but, acting on the belief that there may be “bloodshed and destruction” after the armistice expired, he agreed to let the city be liberated, according to Blumenson.

Meanwhile, Choltitz had been instructed by Adolf Hitler to bomb Paris should the Germans be forced out. Though he was a dutiful military man who had overseen the destruction of other cities during the war, he could not bring himself to destroy Paris.

“For Paris to be reduced to rubble in a siege was something Choltitz could understand. That would be a military operation,” writes Kelly Bell in World War II magazine. “But for it to be obliterated merely to appease Germany’s leader was unacceptable to him. Choltitz could no longer delude himself into believing his cause was just, nor would he continue to fight for it.”

Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division, which was created the year before for the purpose of liberating Paris, led the Allies toward the city. It encountered stiff German resistance outside the city on Aug. 24. Angered by their lack of progress, U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley ordered the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to join the fighting. “To hell with prestige,” he declared, according to Blumenson’s account. “Tell the 4th to slam on in and take the liberation.”

Before midnight of Aug. 24, the first French troops finally reached the city, welcomed by the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral. Over the night, many Germans retreated from the city, clearing the way for incoming Allied troops.

Later Developments: Liberating Europe

Though it was a great symbolic victory, the liberation of Paris set back the Allied effort in Europe. Bell writes, “Allied fuel reserves had been depleted, and those German forces that escaped reached the safety of the Siegfried Line. … There would be a great slaughter in the dreary Hurtgen Forest. The British would be crushed at Arnhem. There would be a Battle of the Bulge. Worst by far, innocents beyond counting would continue to die miserably in the death camps of the SS. It was a terrible price to pay for the grandest city in Europe.”

PBS provides a timeline of the War in Europe, which ended less than a year after Paris was liberated, when Germany officially ceased its military operations on May 8, 1945. The U.S. Army Center of Military History provides detailed accounts of the three major operations after the liberation of Paris: the Lorraine Campaign, the Siegfried Line Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge.

Related Topic: Massacre in Maillé

While Paris rejoiced, German forces were terrorizing another part of France, the village of Maillé, in retaliation for the Resistance effort. They destroyed the village with cannon fire and killed 124 villagers, mostly women and children.

In 2008, German prosecutors have spoken to some survivors in an effort to find out who exactly was responsible for the massacre, according to the Guardian.

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