How the Sun Rose Again on the City of Light

Review of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944, by Michael Neiberg (New York: Basic Books, 2012)

On June 6, 1944, British, American, French, and Canadian forces landed on the French beaches at Normandy and began the liberation of France from its German occupiers. Paris, the cultural and political capital of France and the most galling symbol of German occupation, lay roughly 300 km away.

Michael Neiberg's book The Blood of Free Men focuses on the liberation experience of Paris.  Neiberg begins by describing the political geography of Paris, a divided city with collaborationist neighborhoods, areas of union and communist strength, and the German headquarters district. As the invasion proceeded, resistance leaders inside the city wanted to launch an insurrection earlier rather than later as a political and moral action against the Germans. On the other hand, French military leaders such as de Gaulle and Philippe Leclerc, the commander of the first French division to land with the Allies, preferred an insurrection closely coordinated with the approach of Allied armies.

After the initial excitement surrounding the Allied landings in Normandy had worn off, Parisians became anxious about the slow pace of the Allied advance. One wrote in his journal, "What will be left of France if the Anglo-Americans only reconquer it meter by meter all the way to Lorraine?" (15). Neiberg also emphasizes that even in the weeks following the Normandy landings, Parisians largely remained spectators rather than participants in the drama unfolding in northern France. The Normandy invasion also had an impact on the food supply. Allied bombing attacks on the railroad network reduced the amount of food reaching the city, while after the landings the Germans increased the size of their garrison, consuming even more of the city's foodstuffs.

Ironically, military commanders on both sides did not focus their attention on the city. While Allied correspondents, the public in America and Britain, and Parisians themselves eagerly anticipated the liberation of the City of Light, to German, British, and American officers, Paris remained a military afterthought. The low value German commanders placed on Paris was reflected in the small force they deployed inside the city, a force incapable of defeating an Allied attack but large enough to perform internal security duties.

For their part, Allied commanders sought to avoid a costly block-by-block battle inside Paris, preferring to surround and bypass the city in order to maximize their superiority in air support and tanks. These Allied assets, if deployed on a large scale inside the city, would wreak unspeakable havoc on Paris' architectural treasures and the local population.

An assassination attempt on Hitler by German officers combined with the Allied breakout from Normandy in late July served to damage the morale of the German garrison. These highlighted tensions within the German Army. Significantly, the German commander in Paris General Choltitz did not want to be known to history as the man who destroyed Paris as Hitler wanted him to do. Neiberg demonstrates that, contrary to the popular myth that casts the Germans as preparing to demolish Paris on Hitler's orders just as the Allies arrived, the German garrison had made few preparations for an extensive demolition campaign. They simply lacked the troops, expertise, and ordnance for such an operation.

As the Allies drew closer to the city, French soldiers with the advancing Allies and the civilians inside Paris began to feed off the energy and determination of each other to liberate their capital. Parisians finally took matters into their own hands, led by an unlikely group: the Paris police. The police led a wide-ranging strike that began on August 17. German commanders did not initially view the strike as a threat to their control of the city and remained primarily concerned about the advancing Allied armies, now only 30 miles from the Paris suburbs. De Gaulle's supporters inside the city took control of the police strike and the centrally located police headquarters. The fall of police headquarters was important, both as a symbolic blow to German authority and because underneath the building lay the police armory.

As the Resistance, Communists, and Gaullists began to occupy buildings around the city, Resistance leaders called for Parisians to set up barricades on August 21. Like so many other actions taken during that month, the barricades had a practical as well as a symbolic purpose. The obstructions would inhibit German movement on the streets while connecting the insurrection to well-known revolts such as the early days of the French Revolution in 1789 and the failed 1832 uprising memorialized in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The first meeting of the shadow Gaullist cabinet on the twenty-first, complete with secretary and prime minister, also sent a strong political message.

By the night of August 22, Allied commanders had become aware of the growing insurrection in Paris and made an abrupt about-face in their planning. General Leclerc was ordered to take his French division to Paris to forestall a German counterattack and food supplies were dispatched to the city. Soon, French and American units began to enter the city's outskirts, supporting Resistance fighters who drove German units from their positions. Eager to establish his authority within the city, General de Gaulle led a victory parade, with the shadow cabinet and Leclerc's division, even as fighting continued throughout the city. Neiberg's rousing description of the parade effectively captures the mixture of excitement and joy that so many Parisians expressed on that day and draws the reader into the parade and the subsequent mass of thanksgiving at Notre Dame.

The Blood of Free Men is narrative history at its best, combining tension, drama, and a cathartic ending with characters who at times work together and at times work at cross purposes. Neiberg paints vivid pictures of the personalities involved, emphasizing their reaction to events often outside their control. He effectively combines quotes from diaries of Parisians with military orders and directives to shift the action from a Paris café to Allied army headquarters and back. Well-written with a steady pace and engaging photographs from the period, The Blood of Free Men colorfully presents the liberation of the City of Light.