Liberation of Paris: Ten things you might not know

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

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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