Feb 27, 2009
This story of the liberation of Paris opens in mid-August 1944 with the covert arrival in France of a messenger for the head of British Intelligence in Paris. The devastating information he carries is that the city will not be liberated until after the Allied armies have swept round in a pincer movement trapping the German defenders inside.
At the same time, the new German commandant of Paris, General Dietrich van Choltitz, receives his orders to burn Paris to the ground before fighting to the last man.
From there, the story widens, encompassing eye-witness accounts from Parisian civilians, members of the resistance, German soldiers and their officers, as well as the officers and men of the U.S. Army and Free French troops.
Starvation, theft, smuggling, espionage, it's all here as the Allies struggle to hold to their original invasion plan, Hitler tries to ensure the city's destruction and von Choltitz tries to save it and stay alive.
However, one of the strengths of the book is that it doesn't dwell exclusively on the generals and their battle plans. The authors give voice to some of the hundreds of untold stories, making the whole book come alive with the sometimes humourous, sometimes tragic incidents that abound in war. From the redoutable Parisienne who follows her husband to Germany and, incredibly, organises his escape from a concentration camp to the German soldier who surrenders to a little old lady after being asked not to fire his rifle in her bedroom, Collins and Lapierre bring out the human face of modern warfare.
In contrast to the courage and humanity displayed by the some of the common soldiery and civilians, some famous names come out of it with their reputations somewhat sullied, Charles de Gaulle, some of his political allies and Ernest Hemingway amongst them. Had the German commandant of Paris been of a similar calibre, de Gaulle and his cronies would have sacrificed thousands of lives, both French and Allied, merely to ensure his post-war political career. Hemingway cheerfully admits to sending French soldiers to their death though his own inaction or cowardice.
Whilst the book is well-researched, I am not convinced by the authors' arguments that General von Choltitz was unwilling or unable to take decisions. He had clearly made up his mind early on that he was not going to be responsible for razing Paris to the ground on the orders of a madman, in a war already lost. Let's face it, you don't get promoted to general by avoiding decisions. Rather than the vacillation claimed by the authors, it is clear the General knew exactly what he was doing. By moving as slowly as possible towards the destruction of the city, he would be buying time for the Allies to save it. In doing so, he was taking an almost unbelievable risk, not only to his own safety, but that of his family following Hitler's recent order that the families of 'traitors' would answer for their loved ones crimes.
Another unfortunate feature of Collins and Lapierre's work is that they committed one of the cardinal sins of journalism. They allowed one of their interviewees, and a politician at that, to 'correct' the manuscript. One can't help but think the opportunity may have been taken to launder some of the facts to present both the politician in question and his party in a better light.
These quibbles aside, Is Paris Burning? is a very creditable effort to put on record the stories of the participants without having to rely wholly on written records. That they took time to track down so many on the losing side is an indication the authors wished to have as complete a history of the liberation of Paris as possible.
If you are interested in military history or wish to witness war as it is really fought in an urban environment, rather than a sanitised Hollywood version, then buy this book.
350 pages, plus an extensive bibliography;
59 black and white photographs;
endplate maps of Paris defences, German, French and American positions.