Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Paris Burning?

Years ago I saw that great film 'Is Paris Burning' - maybe you did, too about the Liberation of the City in August 1944. Tense almost like a documentary from a book of the same name. I'd always thought it came from the shouts of the Resistance fighters on the streets trying to save their city.

But it came from General Dietrich von Choltitz who had been in charge of Paris for only two weeks.
As American and Free French divisions closed in on Nazi-occupied Paris in late August 1944, Hitler issued a clear order to the commander of Wehrmacht troops in the French capital.
Before evacuating the City of Light, the Führer told von Choltitz to blow up landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe.
As a finishing touch, German sappers were to blow up all 23 bridges across the Seine.

Von Choltitz, who'd served on the Russian Front and razed Sebastopol, did as ordered and had monuments set with explosives. So as the Free French and Allies closed in on the Paris outskirts, von Choltitz was supposed to give the order to activate the mines and blow the city up. It depends on which version of history you read and believe as to what happened next. A popular account holds that Hitler phoned von Choltitz  at his headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice,
in a rage, screaming, 'Brennt Paris? Is Paris burning? By another account, the question was addressed to Hitler's Chief of Staff Jodl at the Wolf's Lair: 'Jodl, is Paris burning?
It wasn't. We can debate over whether Von Choltitz deserves the title of savior of Paris or not, but the fact remains that Paris escaped the fate of Warsaw, which was burnt down to rubble. 

What made Von Choltitz disobey Hitler's orders? Was it his love for the city  or a realization that the war was now a lost cause? Did he want to pave the way for rehabilitation with the Allies in post-war Europe?
In the chaos surrounding the downfall of the Third Reich, von Choltitz managed to escape Hitler’s wrath for disobeying his order. He was taken prisoner by the Allies, but was released after two years and went on to write his version of history in the book “Brennt Paris?” In it he writes that his defiance of Hitler's direct order stemmed from its obvious military futility, his affection for the French capital's history and culture, and the realization that Hitler had by then become completely insane.
This title, translated into English, was taken by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their best-seller, Is Paris Burning? and became a movie in 1966. More recently  French author Cyril Gely adopted some of the material into his play “Diplomatie,”  adapted by German director Volker Schlondorff for his movie 'Diplomacy.'
In Diplomacy the version is that Nordling, the Swedish Diplomat, spent all night in von Choltitz's suite at the Meurice trying to convince him not to blow up the city. Von Choltitz gave the order but the Resistance got to the radio operator and stalled the proceedings. So in the film shortly after von Choltitz gave the command, he leaned out the window of his hotel le Meurice on the rue de Rivoli and shouted 'Brennt Paris?' It wasn't. Nordling convinces von Choltwitz to save Paris by promising to get his wife and children out of Germany into Switzerland to save them from an order Hitler has given that all soldiers families are hostage if he's disobeyed. 

The French gave von Choltitz the Legion of Honor in 1955.
Cara - Tuesday


  1. It's amazing everything that was saved (or not destroyed) in Paris. Of course, then I have to think about everything that WAS lost in WW II (people, art, architecture, culture... on and on).

    The heart is an amazing thing: it can feel incredible joy while bleeding profusely.

  2. I'd no idea how close Paris came to losing its unique monuments, Cara! I shall look out the movie, also.

  3. I just saw the film last night on Netflix. Two old guys talking in a hotel suite, and absolutely riveting. The man who played Choltitz deserves the Oscar. There shouldn't even be a vote.

  4. Cara, like millions of others, I read the book when it came out and marveled at the fact that it was so riveting even though we knew the outcome. I will watch the movie again, too.