Fifty years ago next week,

Paris miraculously escaped

Adolf Hitler's order that

it be annihilated. Here,

Dominique Lapierre, who

was 13 when his city regained

its freedom, recalls the

tragic and glorious hours of

one of the most extraordinary

events in human history

'I saw our grocer

climb into one of

the trucks. During

the occupation,

she had served the

German soldiers in

our neighbourhood

first. But the most

astonishing sight

was the stream of

loot flowing out

with the departing

occupiers. Paris

was being emptied

of bathtubs, bidets,

rugs, phones, radio

cases, furniture'

FOR the three and a half million inhabitants of Paris, it was the most

extraordinary of all miracles. This horrible war, which had caused so

many deaths and ruins, had spared their city. As the final hour of the

liberation was approaching, Paris survived, unscathed by the most

destructive war in history. During the 52 months of its occupation by

the Nazis, the city had endured much suffering. But it had not lost its

face or its soul.

That summer Parisians stayed home. The war was raging on French soil

and no-one was able to leave for the traditional country vacation. Most

schools were open. Thousands sunbathed along the quays of the Seine

which had become the world's largest swimming pool. Bicycles and

horsecarts ruled the streets. There were no buses or taxis. The Metro

closed from 11 to 3 every workday and all weekend. Because the city was

practically without gas and electricity, housewives had learned to cook

their families' sparse food over makeshift tin stoves fuelled with paper

balls. Paris was hungry.

To fight against the lack of food, the city had become one big country

village which woke up each morning to the crowing of roosters. They

called out the dawn from bathtubs, broom closets, rooftop pens, garrets,

spare rooms. Like many of my school friends, I raised rabbits on our

apartment's balcony. To feed them, I crept out every morning before

school to chop a few forbidden blades of grass in the nearby public


A new black-and-white wooden sign had sprouted that summer at the main

intersections of the city: Zur Normandie Front, it said. But that

direction wasn't too popular among the Germans still in Paris. Most of

the military convoys which came through Paris were in fact going the

other way.

Our favourite game after school was to rush to post ourselves along

the routes of these convoys and count the various vehicles which

composed this formidable withdrawal. There were even camouflaged carts

drawn by horses. Some trucks were also taking away the military

personnel who had occupied Paris during four years. Standing on the

platforms, the ''souris grises'' (because of their drab grey uniforms,

the Parisians had nicknamed the German WACs ''the grey mice'') were

crying and waving handkerchiefs.

Some men were shouting that they would be back for Christmas. A few

French collaborators were also among those leaving. One day, I saw the

grocer of our street climb into one of the trucks. During the whole

occupation, she had served -- in priority and without ration cards --

the German soldiers living in our neighbourhood. But the most

astonishing sight of all was the stream of loot flowing out with the

departing occupiers. Paris was being emptied by the truckloads of

bathtubs, bidets, rugs, telephones, radio cases, furniture.

The Germans burned what they couldn't take with them. The sky of the

city soon became black with the smoke of the fires which spread the

ashes of tons of archives and documents. For the population of the

French capital, this intense activity was a sign of the imminent

departure of all German forces still in place in their city. Soon,

French and Allied flags began to appear at the windows of apartment

buildings. This premature manifestation unleashed the wrath of the

occupiers. Innocent citizens were executed. The patriots who launched,

on August 19, an armed insurrection to liberate the capital were to

discover that Nazi soliders were still very much present in the city.

French partisans were not aware that some 1500 miles to the east, in

his ''Wolf's Lair'' -- his bunker headquarters of East Prussia -- Hitler

had just announced his decision to defend Paris and reduce the city, if

necessary, to ''a pile of ruins''.

Twenty years later, as Larry Collins and I began our research for our

book Is Paris Burning?, I met in the modest three-room apartment in

Baden Baden -- where he had retired -- the man to whom Hitler had, on

August 7, 1944, entrusted the mission to execute his ghastly decison.

Prussian General Dietrich von Choltitz had been the executioner of the

city of Rotterdam in 1940 and the butcher of Sebastopol two years later.

To enable von Choltitz to fulfil this latest duty in Paris, Hitler had

given him the widest possible range of powers. He would command Paris as

though it were a besieged fortress. ''You will,'' Hitler had told him,

''receive from me all the support you need.'' This was no vain promise.

We discovered that the German high command had sent von Choltitz

artillery reinforcements and demolition units to accomplish the mission

of blowing up the 45 Paris bridges over the Seine and a whole set of

industrial objectives in and around the city.

Two armoured SS divisions, the 26th and 27th Panzer, as well as the

mortar named Karl, a terrifying weapon which von Choltitz had used to

smash Sebastapol, had also received instructions to rush to Paris.

If the Allies didn't change their plans to bypass Paris, and rush to

its rescue, the French capital was likely to experience hell. In Is

Paris Burning? we reconstruct in great detail the dramatic suspense of

these tragic hours which threatened Paris with an apocalypse. Why didn't

the apocalypse take place?

There are probably many answers. One of the most interesting comes

from a careful analysis of the personality of von Choltitz during that

summer of 1944. The conqueror of Rotterdam had just arrived from

Normandy where he had witnessed the annihilation of his troops under the

deluge of fire from Allied guns and planes. In his short encounter with

Hitler, in the Wolf's Lair, he had been confronted with a man more than

ever a prisoner of his megalomania. Sure enough, Hitler had jumped out

of his box like the devil to promise his visitor the final victory. But

in the depth of his artificially-lit bunker, his raucous barking voice,

which had galvanised and terrorised hundreds of millions of people, was

that day no more than a surrealist growl.

Von Choltitz had come to meet a leader. He had found a lunatic and

this deception was to play a big role in his behaviour. Of all the

scenes we patiently reconstituted, one of the most significant took

place during the morning of Wednesday, August 16, 1944. The mayor of

Paris, Pierre Taittinger, had received some alarming reports that the

Germans had begun to mine the bridges and a number of the city's

monuments, such as the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies and the Eiffel

Tower. He telephoned the Hotel Meurice, where the Commander of the Gross

Paris had his headquarters, to request an urgent meeting with General

von Choltitz.

As the Frenchman was vibrantly trying to convince the Prussian general

to spare his city, von Choltitz, who suffered from asthma, was suddenly

shaken with a fit of coughing. Half-choking, he got up and pushed his

visitor toward the balcony of his office. The fabulous panorama which

sprawled before their eyes offered Pierre Taittinger all the arguments

he needed. The mayor of Paris raised his arm toward the towers of Notre

Dame, the spire of the Sainte Chapelle, the sculptured facades of the

Louvre, the golden dome of Les Invalides, the elegant silhouette of the

Eiffel Tower.''Often,'' he said, ''it is given to a general to destroy,

rarely to preserve.

''Imagine that, one day, it may be given to you to stand on this

balcony again, as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments to our

joys, our sufferings, and to be able to say: 'One day I could have

destroyed all this, and I preserved it as a gift for humanity.' General,

is not that worth all of a conqueror's glory?''

Von Choltitz remained silent for a long moment. Then he turned to the

mayor of Paris, his voice softer now. ''You are a good advocate for

Paris, Mr Taittinger,'' he said. ''You have done your duty well. And

likewise I, as a German general, must do mine.''

The day before this meeting, after having conducted an inspection of

his forces, the Commander of the Gross Paris had asked his chauffeur to

drive him to the Champs Elysees for a surprising purpose. He had entered

the famous tailor, Knize, to buy a heavy civilian winter overcoat. I had

found the bill for this strange purchase in the papers of his former

secretary who had retired in Munich. We pressed von Choltitz to tell us

why he had made such an acquisition in the middle of a torrid summer. He

pondered for a long time.

''I knew that the winter which was to follow was going to be a very

cold one,'' he finally said. Uberta von Choltitz, the general's wife,

showed us with pride this overcoat that she had reverentially preserved.

The label bearing the words Knize -- Men's Tailor -- Paris, London,

Berlin, along with the name of General Dietrich von Choltitz and the

date (August 15, 1944), was still knitted on the inside pocket.

This anecdote is a revealing indication of what von Choltitz's

psychological attitude was. In the depth of his conscience, he had

already chosen the course of action he was going to take at the moment

of truth. Unless his reinforcements reached his command before the entry

of Allied troops, he would not execute Hitler's destruction orders and

perish with his soldiers in a final holocaust.

It was in a plush villa on the shore of the Tegernsee Lake, near

Munich, that I met the man who was to provide the title of our book. In

August 1944, General Walter Warlimont had been the deputy chief of staff

of the OKW, the general staff of the Wehrmacht. This position enabled

him to take part in the two daily strategic conferences that Hitler held

in his Wolf's Lair.

Warlimont had regularly transcribed in his personal diary the account

of the events which took place during these crucial days. For the day of

August 25, 1944, I read the following lines: ''It was a little after 1pm

when the conference began . . . The operations report of Army Group B

for the morning of August 25 was sprawled before the Fuhrer. It said

that the Allied Forces had reached the very centre of Paris.

''Hitler immediately exploded in one of those bursts of anger which

become more and more frequent. He shouted that it was inconceivable that

the enemy could have entered into the city with such ease . . . He

screamed that he had given all the necessary orders for the city to be

destroyed. He suddenly turned to Jodl (his Chief of Staff) and asked:

'Have these orders been executed? Jodl, is Paris burning?' . . .''

Hitler would not receive an answer to this terrifying question.

All telephone and radio communications with Paris were interrupted.

For a very good reason: the tanks of de Gaulle's Free French Second

Armoured Division and the soldiers of the US Fourth Infantry Division

had just liberated Paris after some very tough fighting. At the very

instant Hitler asked his question, French assault troops were capturing,

in the Hotel Meurice, von Choltitz himself and his whole headquarters

staff. Fortunately, the German general offered no resistane to signing

the unconditional surrender of the Gross Paris.

Everywhere, revelling crowds had begun to invade the streets and the

avenues to acclaim their liberators. I had managed to escape my parents'

vigilance to run to the Champs Elysees. An American tank with a big

white star painted on its flank had just stopped in front of the Grand

Palais. I saw a blond giant, his fatigues all covered with grease and

dust, emerge from the turret. My first American!

I was submerged with happiness and emotion. I began to run toward him.

I wanted to tell him our joy, our gratitude, our love. But as I was

running, I suddenly realised that I wouldn't know what to say to him

because I didn't speak any English. In my school we had been forced to

learn German during the war. As I arrived in front of the tall, smiling

American, I suddenly remembered I did know at least two words of

Shakespeare's language. I shouted to him: ''Corned beef!''

He burst out laughing, climbed on to his tank and disappeared inside

to emerge immediately with a huge box of corned beef which he presented

me as the most glorious of all trophies. And what a trophy it was indeed

for a young Parisian schoolboy who had not seen the colour of meat for

many months!

That summer, there was a popular joke in Paris which said the meat

ration of the population had become so small that it could be entirely

wrapped in a subway ticket -- provided the ticket had not been punched,

in which case the meat would fall out through the hole.

The following day -- Saturday, August 26, 1944 -- the most fantastic

spectacle they were ever to see filled my schoolboy eyes: that of the

triumphant parade of the liberation on the Champs Elysees, with at its

head the proud and tall silhouette of Charles de Gaulle, the man whose

voice we had heard during four years, without ever seeing his face.

All along the world's most beautiul avenue, it was one big ocean of

two million cheering people. Crowds lined the rooftops, windows,

balconies, trees, lampposts, packed the sidewalks, screamed de Gaulle's

name as he walked by.

Little girls ducked out to hand him bouquets which he passed back to

the men behind him.

A whole city was pouring its love over the man who had been the

incarnation of hope, the symbol of victory, during 52 months of Nazi

tyranny. But no joy is untrammelled. As the parade turned out of the

Champs Elysees into the Place de la Concorde, a shot rang out.

At the sound, a heavy gunfire started all over the big square.

Thousands of people fell to the pavement to seek shelter. My mother

pushed me under a half-track. Somebody in the crowd screamed: ''It is

the fifth column!''

The officer of a tank immediately aimed his gun on the beautiful,

columned facade of the Hotel Crillon, counted from one to five, and

opened fire. The fifth column of the Hotel Crillon exploded in a cloud

of dust and fell on the pavement.

That night, on the turret of his tank, a young American GI by the name

of Irwin Shaw wrote a letter to his mother. Maybe the words used by this

young man, who soon would be a famous writer, summed up the unique day

throgh which he had lived: ''Mother,'' he wrote, ''the war should end


[CPYR] 1994 Dominque Lapierre, NYTS. Dominique Lapierre is co-author,

with Larry Collins, of Is Paris Burning? which is considered the

definitive work on the liberation of Paris.