The Blood of Free Men

The Liberation of Paris, 1944


By Michael Neiberg

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As the Allies struggled inland from Normandy in August of 1944, the fate of Paris hung in the balance. Other jewels of Europe — sites like Warsaw, Antwerp, and Monte Cassino — were, or would soon be, reduced to rubble during attempts to liberate them. But Paris endured, thanks to a fractious cast of characters, from Resistance cells to Free French operatives to an unlikely assortment of diplomats, Allied generals, and governmental officials. Their efforts, and those of the German forces fighting to maintain control of the city, would shape the course of the battle for Europe and color popular memory of the conflict for generations to come.

In The Blood of Free Men, celebrated historian Michael Neiberg deftly tracks the forces vying for Paris, providing a revealing new look at the city’s dramatic and triumphant resistance against the Nazis. The salvation of Paris was not a foregone conclusion, Neiberg shows, and the liberation was a chaotic operation that could have easily ended in the city’s ruin. The Allies were intent on bypassing Paris so as to strike the heart of the Third Reich in Germany, and the French themselves were deeply divided; feuding political cells fought for control of the Resistance within Paris, as did Charles de Gaulle and his Free French Forces outside the city. Although many of Paris’s citizens initially chose a tenuous stability over outright resistance to the German occupation, they were forced to act when the approaching fighting pushed the city to the brink of starvation. In a desperate bid to save their city, ordinary Parisians took to the streets, and through a combination of valiant fighting, shrewd diplomacy, and last-minute aid from the Allies, managed to save the City of Lights.

A groundbreaking, arresting narrative of the liberation, The Blood of Free Men tells the full story of one of the war’s defining moments, when a tortured city and its inhabitants narrowly survived the deadliest conflict in human history.


Also by Michael Neiberg
Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I
The Second Battle of the Marne
Fighting the Great War
Making Citizen-Soldiers
Warfare in World History
The Western Front: 1914–1916
The Eastern Front: 1914–1920 (with David Jordan)
Warfare and Society in Europe: 1898 to the Present
Soldiers' Lives Through History: The Nineteenth Century

I dedicate this book to my daughters,
Claire and Maya, and my Parisian goddaughter,
Chiara Noël, in the hopes that for them Paris
will always be a place of peace and happiness.

FROM THE MOMENT IT BEGAN, THE LIBERATION OF PARIS WAS an almost mythical affair. Even while some of the city's German occupiers still remained in the city, a visiting American journalist described Paris as "a magic sword in a fairy tale, a shining power in the hands to which it rightly belongs." Even American general Omar N. Bradley, who had never been to the city and had some deeply ambivalent feelings about liberating it, came to understand that Paris meant much more than any other city in Europe, not just to the French but to the Americans as well. Recalling the fever that "seized the US Army" as it approached Paris, he wrote in his memoirs that, "to a generation raised on fanciful tales of their fathers in the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces from World War I], Paris beckoned with a greater allure than any other objective in Europe." In the heated days of August, when the fate of the city still hung in the balance, Albert Camus, writing in the clandestine newspaper Combat, spoke of Paris returning to its historic role of purging tyranny with the "blood of free men." The liberty that the city was buying with its own blood, Camus argued, was the liberty not just of Paris and not just of France, but of mankind itself. Parisians and visitors alike could not help but see in the events of 1944 clear reverberations of the history-making Paris of 1789, 1830, and 1848—revolutionary years when the people of the city had taken a stand against tyranny in the name of democracy and freedom everywhere.1
No other city in the world captured peoples' imaginations like Paris. No other city could have motivated such intense feelings of love from people around the world. And no other city during World War II so symbolized freedom and liberty suffering under the boot of naked aggression and bloodthirsty hatred. When, after more than four years under Nazi rule, Paris returned to French control, church bells across the globe rang out in celebration. As far away as Santiago, where members of the Chilean Parliament joined together to sing La Marseillaise , the liberation of Paris represented the end of one era and the start of another, more hopeful one. A free Paris meant that, even if the war was not yet over, the outcome could no longer be in doubt. A free Paris meant that the end of the Nazis was near.
War correspondents were so awed by witnessing the liberation that men who relied on words to make their living were rendered speechless. One Australian correspondent wrote a dispatch that simply read, "The whole thing is beyond words," signed his name, and sent it to his editor. Time magazine's chief war correspondent walked around Paris with photographer Robert Capa. Their eyes were too filled with tears of joy to report anything for hours. The city also attracted the rich and the famous, many of whom sped to Paris as quickly as they could. Ernest Hemingway assembled his own private platoon and drove through the night to see Paris at the greatest moment of its illustrious history—and to liberate the wine cellar of one of his former haunts, the elegant Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendôme.2
But if Paris in 1944 appeared as a magic sword to foreign journalists and others attached to the liberating armies, it did not seem so magical to those living there. Before the liberation Paris bore only the faintest of resemblances to the majestic city that had once captivated people from all over the world. Four years of Nazi occupation had reduced the City of Light from the world's once-proud capital of art, diplomacy, and fashion to a place that a Swiss diplomat called "black misery" for its inhabitants. Hungry, desperate, and terrified, Paris in 1944 sat on the abyss of yet another period of the violence and bloodshed that had so often marked its history.3
Nor would the liberation of Paris come without a price. Cut off from the outside world for four years, the members of the city's various Resistance cells had developed their own view of what the future of France should hold, including the proper punishment for those who had collaborated with the Germans. Having suffered directly under the Nazi regime, moreover, they believed that they were due a disproportionate voice in deciding France's future. Ecstatic though they were to see Allied, especially French, troops liberate their city, they remained anxious about ceding power that they felt they had earned through their blood. Paris, they wanted the world to know, had liberated itself. Not all of their fellow countrymen agreed with either their interpretation of the liberation or their plans for the future, leading to widespread fears of a civil war once the Germans left. Expatriate English journalist Sisley Huddleston was among those who saw in liberated Paris not just sheer joy but a dangerous political brew that had the potential to be no less savage than the French Revolution's Reign of Terror.4
As Huddleston and others knew, Paris's long and tortured history of revolution and political turmoil hung over the ecstasy of the liberation like a dark cloud. The real and ever-present specter of widespread famine made many Parisians think of the terrible days of the Paris Commune in 1871, when the city was starving and surrounded by Prussian troops. The Commune was part of a bloody civil war that followed the Franco-Prussian War. It left thousands of Parisians dead and bitterly divided the Left and the Right. The 1930s reawakened those divisions and made them even more intense. What would happen if Paris were again cut off from the outside world and on the verge of starvation? Could the liberation lead not to joy and freedom but to a new round of civil war, bloodshed, and revolution? The specter of 1871 hung over the city as surely as the presence of the Germans did, and the lack of food underscored the desperate plight and uncertain future that the city faced.
Those who had seen Paris before the war knew firsthand the depths to which it could sink. In the 1930s Paris had been the scene of constant political chaos and, at times, violence. The rise of fascism on France's borders and the civil war in neighboring Spain both highlighted the complexity of Parisian politics and brought into sharp focus the essential divisions that characterized them. The formation of the antifascist Popular Front in 1936 temporarily united the Left and center of French politics against the growing fascist tide that had already swept Italy and Germany and threatened to sweep Spain as well. Although France avoided the fate of those three nations until 1940, it nevertheless had a powerful and violent fascist movement of its own that shared the anticommunist and antidemocratic beliefs of its fellow travelers across Europe.
In France, as elsewhere, fascist ideologies were popular not just with avowed racists, although avowed racists there surely were. Extreme right-wing and fascist ideas also had their supporters among conservative Catholics and members of the urban middle class who feared communism's atheism and opposition to private property more than they feared the unknowns of fascism. Paris, with its history of class struggle and its tradition of political agitation, always stood at the center of these disagreements. The outbreak of war with Germany in 1939 did surprisingly little to quell these intense debates, so deep were the hatreds that had built up inside France. Although few people realized all of its implications, the decade of internal fighting had left France unable to meet a challenge from the outside.
The humiliating and disorienting collapse of the French Army in May and June 1940 led to the decision of the French Parliament to ask the aging World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain to assume control of the government. In impossible circumstances, he did so, surrendering the northern and western parts of the country, including Paris, to outright German occupation. A rump state, with its capital at the spa town of Vichy and maintaining formal, if limited, control of the overseas French empire, remained as a legally independent political entity with the authoritarian and antirepublican Pétain as its head of state. Pétain placed the blame for France's failures on Freemasons, Jews, and communists, as well as the weaknesses of the French Third Republic, with its divisive and corrosive party system. He promised a National Revolution to return France to its traditional values—which were, in the Vichy formulation, largely agricultural and Catholic. Revolutionary and democratic symbols like Bastille Day, La Marseillaise, and the French tricolor flag vanished in favor of more traditional, rural symbols. Even France's legendary motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" disappeared in favor of Vichy's "Family, Work, and Fatherland."
In order to achieve their domestic goals, Vichy officials needed to come to terms with the Germans. In October 1940, Pétain coined the term collaboration, which, in his eyes, meant that France and Germany would work together under French recognition of German dominance in Europe. Pétain and Hitler met at Montoire, in the occupied zone, for a meeting and a photo opportunity that cemented the new relationship between the triumphant Germans and the defeated French. Pétain and the collaborationists hoped in exchange for their cooperation to get a guarantee from the Germans of Vichy French sovereignty in the unoccupied zone and in the French overseas empire, a return of the 1.6 million French prisoners of war in German camps, and a reduction of the enormous indemnity the armistice of 1940 required the French to pay to cover the costs of Germany's war in the west.
Defenders of collaboration argued that it promised the best future that France could expect given the collapse of French arms and the inability of Great Britain to defeat Germany on its own. Collaboration also put an end to the fighting, the dying, and the killing; recalling the murderous 1916 battle that claimed 163,000 French lives (and 143,000 German lives), some Frenchmen concluded "better Vichy than Verdun." That Pétain, the great French hero of Verdun, was the man in charge of the Vichy state only made it seem all the more legitimate in the eyes of many of his countrymen. So great was Pétain's reputation that even many of those who vilified his Vichy state refrained from attacking him personally and held out hope that he alone could forge a better future for France.5
The United States and other nations recognized Vichy France as an independent nation, giving it diplomatic legitimacy to match the veneer of legality it had inside France. Vichy's retention of control over the powerful French fleet (based in Toulon and Algeria), and the support given to it by most senior French officials, bestowed upon it the aura of a long-term solution to the new power structure in Europe. To be sure, not all French officials supported Vichy, but the armistice had been a legally binding agreement approved by both the French Parliament and the cabinet that brought with it the force of law; thus did many officers feel honor and duty bound to respect Vichy even if they disliked the circumstances of its birth. For this reason, many of Free France's future heroes, such as Generals Alphonse Juin and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, offered Vichy their support in 1940.6
Most French citizens, stunned by the pace of events in 1940, saw little choice but to accept the new regime. Indeed, until 1943, Pétain had the support of the French people, who grudgingly accepted his Vichy government because he had kept France out of the fighting then raging across Europe. The Vichy regime could plausibly claim to be the legitimate government of France, and it had the recognition of many foreign governments as well. Until 1944, moreover, neither the Soviet Union, nor the western Allies, nor the Free French movement of Charles de Gaulle in London were urging the Resistance to start an uprising. As a result, most Frenchmen saw little choice but to become attentiste, a word that came to signify those who were waiting for something better. An early Resistance pamphlet, "33 Hints to the Occupied," advised, "On the outside, pretend you do not care; on the inside stoke up your anger. It will serve you well."7
For those on the French Right, however, collaboration opened up opportunities to rid France of traditional domestic enemies—the same Jews, communists, and Freemasons whom Pétain blamed for France's troubles. As a result, the war years in France resembled a civil war, fought not so much between Germans and French as between collaborationists and their real and perceived enemies. Vichy officials and collaborationists imprisoned 135,000 people (many for little more than their political beliefs), sent 650,000 more to Germany as "guest workers" under an obligatory labor scheme, and, most notoriously, sent 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Less than 3 percent of those Jews survived.
The reconstruction of France after this civil war bequeathed a series of myths to an already wounded French nation. Perhaps the most persistent posited that the Germans had forced unwilling French officials to commit atrocities against other French people. Another suggests that the vast majority of French people supported the Resistance from an early date. Neither one is correct, but both proved useful in reuniting France after 1945 and preventing a repetition of the discord of the 1930s. It was easy for postwar French politicians, some of whom had worked for Vichy, to blame Nazi Germany for all of the crimes and horrors of the war years, but such allegations were historically nonsensical. For decades afterward, the skeletons in the closets of France continued to haunt the nation, reigniting debates and reheating leftover passions. The skeletons also underscored how much more complicated the truth was than the myths.8
The story of the liberation of Paris is the story of much more than the Germans and the French. It is a story of the Germans who physically held the city, the willing collaborationists who made that hold possible in order to serve their own agendas, the various and diverse people inside Paris who hoped to break that hold, and the advancing Allied armies, who had given surprisingly little thought to Paris. Each of these groups brings to the story its own plans for the city and its own agendas. In some ways, the Germans are the least important of the actors in this story. Most members of what became the French Resistance, made up of more than a dozen different groups, had considerably more hatred for the collaborationists among their own countrymen than they did for the Germans. They knew that the Germans were headed at the end of the war for defeat, punishment, and occupation. The collabos, however, would have to answer for the crimes they committed against their fellow citizens inside France. Most members of the French Resistance and others with scores to settle looked forward to a postwar épuration, a purging of those who had worked with the occupiers. The potential of the épuration to turn violent and get quickly out of hand frightened Parisians who worried that the liberation might mean not the end of the bloodshed, but just the start of a new phase of violence.
For their part, the Germans saw Paris quite differently than they saw most other conquered capital cities. In German eyes, especially the eyes of the Nazi leadership, France was an obstacle that the German Army needed to overcome before it could turn the full power of its military might east to fight the Slavs, whom the Nazis despised. Haunted by the two-front nightmare that Germany had faced in the last war, German diplomats had even cut a deal with the Soviet Union in 1939 to ensure that the Wehrmacht could focus on just one front at a time. German generals had deep respect for the French Army before 1940; only after they had defeated it could the Nazis truly think about shaping a world order.
Most German generals were as surprised as most French and British generals at their ability to do in six weeks what the German Army a generation earlier had not been able to do in four years. Still, success in France did not make the Germans eager to reach for too much. Knowing that Great Britain's continued belligerence meant that the two-front dilemma remained, and knowing that a war with the Soviet Union was becoming ever more likely, German leaders wanted a calm, easily manageable France. Thus to the Germans, Pétain's offer of collaboration came as a welcome gift. The Germans could remain in direct control over much of France, including its clear center of gravity in Paris, but the French themselves would do most of Germany's work. Paris figured so lightly in Hitler's own plans that he visited the city only once, getting his picture taken like any other tourist at the Trocadéro opposite the Eiffel Tower, but not even staying long enough to eat a meal. In an ideal world, the Germans hoped to occupy Paris as lightly as possible. The gentler the occupation, and the more reliable the French collaborationists, the less need the Germans would have to devote resources to its security. German officials courted the French Right accordingly; during his visit, Hitler agreed to transfer the body of Napoleon's son, the Duc de Reichstadt, from Vienna to Les Invalides as a gesture of affection for Paris and a symbol of his admiration for another man who had dreamed of continental conquest.9
As the war dragged on, and as the Russian Front demanded more and more of Germany's best combat units, Paris increasingly became a rest center for worn-out units and a destination for second-line soldiers. An artificially inflated currency exchange rate between the franc and the mark (to the latter's great favor) meant that German soldiers could live unusually well in Paris and buy luxury items—often from Parisians who were impoverished as a result of the German takeover—that they could never have owned in Germany. They could also take possession of apartments once owned by the city's deported Jewish community or those imprisoned for running afoul of the new regime.
German soldiers in Paris could enjoy pleasures unlike any they could have known in their native Germany. First-class tickets to the city's artistic and cultural wonders were theirs for the asking. For the most part, only Germans could drive cars or ride in taxis in Paris because of the lack of gasoline. Parisians had to content themselves with walking, taking the Métro, or riding the bicycles that soon filled the city's streets. Even then, Parisians had to cede their place on public transportation and yield on the sidewalks to German officers. Many extended the same courtesy to German enlisted men out of reflex or out of fear. The allure of Parisian women may have trumped all of the city's other legendary charms; German soldiers could now approach these women with money in their pockets and an aura of power surrounding them. Few of these women could have envisioned the bitter reprisals they would face once their German lovers left.
Like most occupiers, the Germans took the best of the best whenever they wanted to do so. The Luftwaffe took over the city's most beautiful palace, the Palais du Luxembourg, formerly the home of the French Senate; its magnificent gardens became parking lots for the Luftwaffe's vehicles and, eventually, for German tanks. The city's best hotels served as residences and headquarters for German officers; the dining room of the elegant George V hotel (named for the British king who had allied with France in World War I) became a fancy mess hall for senior German officials. Theaters began to put on shows in German, often with distinctly anti-Semitic themes, although French theater continued with little direct censorship. The German commander of the military district of Paris took possession of the French president's box at the famous Longchamp racetrack, and his officers took the first-class seats alongside well-connected collaborationists. Street signs, too, began to appear in German, and even the clocks were adjusted one hour to conform with German time. The Germans also banned the flying of the French flag, the playing of the French national anthem, and the celebration of French republican holidays.
Still, in the early months the Germans did what they could to conduct the occupation as lightly as possible. Rather than brutally oppressing the conquered French, as many Parisians had feared, the Germans came to Paris in 1940 trying to seem agreeable, appearing as lambs rather than wolves. Few German soldiers wanted to ruin the cushy and privileged assignment they had doing occupation duty in Europe's most beautiful city. At least in the early months of the occupation, one Parisian recalled, German soldiers were "sweet and affable. . . . They smiled at children, gave them candy (which they had taken from us), paid properly in the stores (with money they had assessed from us), gave their seats to ladies, and picked up the gloves [that women] had dropped." They also applied surprisingly few restrictions on French literature, art, and drama. Nor did Parisians have a curfew until April 1942. All in all, Paris had, at least in the early stages, avoided some of the worst aspects of occupation. It had certainly avoided the miserable fate of conquered and contested cities in Eastern Europe like Warsaw, Leningrad, and so many others. In Leningrad alone more than 1 million Soviets died, most of them civilians. Collaborationists took much of the credit, often blaming the British for continuing the prosecution of an unnecessary war and a blockade that shut off much of France's commerce (and food supply) from the outside world.10
Over time, of course, German avarice and collaborationist vengeance began to take their toll. As one Briton living in France during the war noted, the occupation began "'correctly,' but degenerated into an orgy of assassination. We were plunged back into the horrors of the Middle Ages." Three events in particular changed the character of the German occupation and concurrently undermined the legitimacy of the Vichy system. The first was the new regime's targeting of its traditional enemies and scapegoats. As early as September 1940, the Germans began taking a census of the Jewish population in France and dissolved the French Communist Party. By the following summer, Germany and the Soviet Union were at war, meaning that the Communist Party became an even more intensive target of German and Vichy repression. The communists went underground and formed the core of what became the key arms of the French Resistance inside Paris: the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI), the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), and the Comité Parisien de la Libération (CPL).11
Mass arrests of communists and laws banning Jews from public service soon followed. Anti-Semitic propaganda, such as that published in the right-wing journal Je Suis Partout and dramatized in films like Le Juif Süss, appeared across France. As they had done in Germany, the Nazis—with the help of their Vichy collaborators—forced French people to either acquiesce in the persecution of their fellow citizens or be exposed as Jewish or communist sympathizers. While some brave French people did hide Jews or wear yellow stars on their own clothes to protest the discrimination, most stood by, unable or unwilling to help.
The worst of the collaborators looked for ways to make money from the plight of their fellow citizens, buying and selling the possessions of the deported and often denouncing others for personal gain. In most cases, the Vichy state began its anti-Semitic actions well before the Germans did the same in the occupied zone, suggesting that indigenous French anti-Semitism, rather than German pressure, accounted for the hatred. Roundups of France's Jews began in May 1941 in both zones, starting with foreign-born Jews who had come to France in the 1930s seeking liberty, equality, and fraternity from Nazi tyranny. In July 1942 the Paris police rounded up 3,031 Jewish men, 5,802 Jewish women, and 4,051 Jewish children, almost all of them French citizens. They went first to a cramped indoor bicycle racetrack called the Vélodrome d'Hiver, or, as most Parisians called it, the Vel d'Hiv. From there they went to the notorious camp at Drancy, located in an unfinished housing complex in the northeast suburbs of Paris. Drancy had no heat in winter, no electricity, and just one working latrine for the entire complex. From Drancy, the Germans sent both French and foreign-born Jews to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them died in the gas chambers. Collaborationists not only looked the other way but were often eager participants. Political prisoners, too, increasingly went to jail and to concentration camps, most often starting at the squalid and unsanitary prison at Fresnes, located just south of Paris near Orly airport.12
The muscle for these operations came not just from Germans and the Paris police but also from the violent paramilitary Vichy force known as the Milice whose members swore a personal oath to Pétain. Its chief was a veteran of World War I named Joseph Darnand, described by one man who knew him as "exceptionally brave but completely unintelligent." Darnand, on the far right politically, was one of the truly despicable people of the new regime who saw in Vichy not the subjugation of France, but an opportunity to use the power of the new state to murder his real and perceived enemies. He had close links to France's most violent and vicious collaborators, including the man who nominated him to head the Milice, Xavier Vallat, Vichy's minister for Jewish questions. The Milice, 30,000 strong and largely funded by Germany, attracted thugs and dedicated fascists from a variety of backgrounds, including middle-class youths and members of the French aristocracy. They had in common a hatred for communism, Jews, and the members of the French Resistance, whom they labeled "terrorists." The Milice's oath included the words, "I swear to fight against democracy, against Gaullist insurrection, and against Jewish leprosy." The members of the Milice were active within occupied France as well as in Vichy itself, and most Frenchmen came to despise them even more than they despised the SS, the Gestapo, or the German Army.13


On Sale
Oct 2, 2012
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Michael Neiberg

About the Author

Michael Neiberg is a professor of history and the Henry L. Stimson Chair of History and Security Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. The author of several award-winning books, Neiberg lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

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