On this day in 1944, after more than four years of Nazi occupation, Paris is liberated by the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. German resistance was relatively light, and General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison, defied an order by Adolf Hitler to blow up Paris’ landmarks and burn the city to the ground before its liberation.
Choltitz signed a formal surrender that afternoon, and on August 26, Free French General Charles de Gaulle led a joyous liberation march down the Champs d’Elysees.
Under Nazi boot heels four years earlier, on June 16, 1940, the government of France constitutionally transmitted to Marshal Philippe Pétain, who had already elected to sign an armistice with Germany. Known as Vichy France, this puppet state would soon deploy its army and navy against the Allies in various campaigns.
French army officer General Charles de Gaulle had fled to London June 17, and appealed by radio for a French continuation of the war against Germany in ongoing broadcasts and planning in exile. On June 28 de Gaulle was recognized by the British as the leader of Free France as the nascent resistance movement was named, and from his base in London de Gaulle began to build up the Forces Françaises Libres, or Free French Forces.
The successful Anglo-American invasion of northwestern Africa in November 1942 resulted in the defection of most of the Vichy troops stationed there to the side of the Free French. More than 100,000 Free French troops fought in the Anglo-American campaign in Italy in 1943, and, by the time of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the Free French forces had swelled to more than 300,000 regular troops.
Two months later, the liberation began when the French Forces of the Interior, the military structure of the French Resistance, staged an uprising against the German garrison upon the approach of the U.S. Third Army, led by General George Patton. On the eve of August 24, elements of General Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd French Armored Division made its way into Paris and arrived at the Hôtel de Ville shortly before midnight.
The next morning, the bulk of the 2nd Armored Division and U.S. 4th Infantry Division entered the city. Von Choltitz, also the military governor of Paris, surrendered to the French at the Hôtel Meurice, the newly established French headquarters, while a triumphant General de Gaulle arrived to assume control of the city as head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic.
As for the insubordinate von Choltitz, he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in the United States until 1947, whereupon he returned to Germany. Snubbed by fellow former officers, he wrote a book, Brennt Paris? (1951), in which he defended his disobedience of Hitler, who he felt had gone mad. His book was the principal source for a best-selling popularization, Is Paris Burning? (1965), by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite! Vive la France!