The liberation of Paris in August 1944 is one of the most compelling World War II stories. It lifted the spirits of the French people and had long-term political implications for them in the postwar world. As noted historian Jean Edward Smith relates in his authoritative and beautifully written The Liberation of Paris, a complex series of decisions, including those by two generals from opposing armies to change their strategies, led to the saving of many lives and the preservation of irreplaceable cultural treasures.
Paris, unlike other cities, was not bombed, but daily life was difficult for everyone except those who had money or collaborated with German occupiers. Thousands of French Jewish citizens and those from other countries residing in Paris were sent to concentration camps. The Germans exploited the French economy and workers. But by 1944, when Parisians understood that the Germans were losing the war, resistance hardened, and Charles de Gaulle, who had established a government in exile, moved in various ways to strengthen his position. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, had known de Gaulle before the war, had lived in Paris himself and was aware that partisan conflict in Paris could lead to communist control of the city. Despite opposition from his advisers, Eisenhower agreed to send some Allied troops to help French troops reclaim the city.
At the same time, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the newly named German commandant in Paris, concluded, after a meeting with Adolf Hitler, that his leader was an “insane man.” Although seriously concerned about the fate of his family if anything should go wrong, he defied Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris and got cooperation from most of his fellow officers and diplomats. Time was of the essence, and one wrong move could have doomed the effort.
This expertly crafted narrative is a gem, a model of how important and complex events can be conveyed for enlightenment to a general audience.