Liberation of Paris: Ten things you might not know

From the "purifying" of thousands of women, to Jean Cocteau's cigarette, here are ten facts about a momentous moment in French history that you might not have known about.

Liberation of Paris: Ten things you might not know
The liberation of Paris in August 1944. Photo: AFP

It’s been 76 years since Paris was liberated from the German occupation.

From the 19th to the 25th of August 1944, fighting broke out around the French capital, leading to the surrender of the Nazi troops, and to the triumphant return of General Charles De Gaulle.

Here's a quick round-up of some of the more unusual aspects of the historic battle.

1.    It all started with a strike

The battle for Paris began with a strike from the railway and Metro staff on August 10th, followed on the 13th by policemen and postal workers.

The strike became general on August 18th, with fighting soon breaking out everywhere across the city. 3000 of the police officers who had gone on strike invaded the Préfecture de Police on August 19th, which became the first building to be officially liberated. 

Makeshift barricades were constructed in the city centre. Photo: AFP

2.    More than 600 barricades built

During the battle for Paris, the locals and resistance fighters started building barricades all around the city, just like their ancestors had done during the 1848 French revolution.

More than 600 of these barricades were set up to defend against the German forces. However, unlike in previous uprisings, they were mostly built in the centre of Paris, and not in the eastern, working class areas.

Made out of every kind of material the fighters could find in the streets, the barricades did not present much resistance to the sophisticated military equipment of the Germans, but they managed to distract them from the Allied troops making their way into the capital. 

3.   The German Commander who saved Paris

Here’s something that's still disputed, but at least in part Paris was saved by General Von Choltitz, the German Greater Paris Commander.

Hitler had asked him to blow up bridges and monuments in the capital, but the general disobeyed, saying the Führer had clearly gone mad.

His decision to “spare” Paris helped preserve some of the most important historical and cultural heritage of the city. Although the general's version of the fall of Paris is disputed by some on the French side, who claim it was the allied advance and the uprising that forced the Germans to flee so quickly they didn't have a chance to destroy the city. 

The depiction of him as the saviour of Paris has been described as a “falsification of history” by surviving French resistance fighters.

4.   Metro Station Bastille turned into a hospital

As many fighters were injured in the fighting against the German occupants, people had to improvise and set up medical centres everywhere, with scarce medical resources.

The Red Cross, helped by volunteers, played an active part in this process, setting up medical facilities wherever they could.  Bastille Metro station is one of the most famous examples, as it was turned into a hospital during those four days, with nurses going in and out with injured fighters.

De Gaulle's triumphal parade through the city specifically excluded France's African troops. Photo: AFP

5.   The American request for white soldiers

In 2009, the BBC uncovered documents that revealed another, less glorious side to the Allied forces.

De Gaulle wanted the armoured division that would lead the troops into Paris to be completely made up of French soldiers.

American generals accepted his request, but on the condition that it would be made up only of white soldiers. Therefore, the troops that paraded into Paris were not representative of the Free French Forces, which were made up two thirds of African soldiers.

And since there was not enough white soldiers, some of the fighters on De Gaulle's division ended up being Spanish. 

6.  20 000 women shaved to “purify” Paris

After the Liberation, around 20,000 women had their heads publicly shaved for having had relationships with German soldiers.

They were forced to parade in the streets and were humiliated, as part of a ritual of purification of Paris. The majority of them were punished for their love affairs with the enemy, but some were also accused of collaboration and of spying for the Germans, and condemned to death.

It is also estimated that between 75,000 and 200,000 children were born to French women and German fathers. 

7.    An act of surrender in a poolroom

General Choltitz offered the act of surrender of the German troops on August 25th.

He met with France's General Leclerc, the head of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior or the resistance) in the poolroom at the Préfecture de Police, and officially handed Paris back to the French.

Later that day, General Choltitz also signed different orders of surrenders in Gare Montparnasse. These orders were to sent out to all the German officers fighting in Paris. 

8.   Snipers disrupted the Liberation Parade

On  August 26th, France's victorious General Charles de Gaulle, marched down the Champs-Elysées with his troops.

Parading across Paris, he then reached Notre Dame Cathedral. That’s when shots were fired around him by snipers, causing a wave of panic in the crowd.

The snipers had been hiding on the roofs of the surrounding buildings, hoping to reach De Gaulle. Luckily, no one was killed, but the gunmen were not caught.

9.    Fighting continues after liberation parade

During the Liberation Parade on August 26th, Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech, saying Paris had suffered but was now freed from the enemy.

However, the French capital was not quite free from fighting. Clashes continued with stubborn German fighters for two more days. The period of “purification” of Paris that followed was also marked by violence, with arbitrary executions and revenge killings of those perceived as pro-German.  

10.   Jean Cocteau’s cigarette shot

The well-known author and cinema director Jean Cocteau had been sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Crillon to watch the Liberation Parade, when the cigarette he was smoking was suddenly torn in half by a bullet.  The shot had meant to kill him after he was mistaken for a German sniper.

Later that year, Cocteau appeared in front of the Cinema Purification Committee, after being criticised for his actions during the Occupation, but he was quickly cleared of any wrongdoings. 

To learn more about the Liberation of Paris and the resistance fighters who took part in it, head to the Musée de la Libération de Paris – Musée Général Leclerc – Musée Jean Moulin in Paris' 14th arrondissement. For more info, click here.

by Léa Surugue


Member comments

  1. remember these same French Police were the ones who planned and organised the round-up (raffle)and transfer of thousands Paris Jews including children to their eventual deaths. As far as I am aware none were tried or convicted after the war and spent the rest of their days tranquil with early retirement & good pensions

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.