When Paris Lived Again

August 24, 1994

When the Americans, Canadians and British celebrated on D-Day, June 6, the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the French were subdued. It was not their commemoration.

The liberation of Paris by the French 2nd Armored Division, begun on Aug. 24, usually dated as Aug. 25 and arguably Aug. 26, marks the rebirth of France -- the rise of that phoenix from the ashes of defeat, collaboration and again defeat, as the liberator and not just the liberated -- the people as actors and not spectators at their destiny. For the French, these are the days to remember.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was driving the Allied troops past Paris to envelop the German occupation forces. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had single-handedly created a French army on the Allied side to maintain a legitimate French presence among the victors, demanded that his men liberate their capital. His concern was political, lest the Resistance seize the city and impose a regime that would have to be recognized and then reveal itself to be Communist.

The Resistance uprising began Aug. 19. Ike granted de Gaulle's demand and sent in the French 2nd Armored Division under Gen. Philippe Leclerc. The French division was slowed by German resistance and French civilian celebrants. Ike threw in the U.S. 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions as well.

The first French tanks reached the city hall before midnight on Aug. 24. The French and Americans swept in on the 25th. To many, the real hero was the German commander, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, who disobeyed Hitler's order to destroy the city and surrendered it on the 25th, the day the French commemorate.

On Aug. 26, General de Gaulle marched from the Arch of Triumph down the Champs Elysees and to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, braving snipers who might have been collaborators or Communists, and claimed the city for France. Ike arrived three days later.

De Gaulle's reconquest of Paris for republican France was theater, even illusion. Parisians went wild with joy. From such illusions, reality flows. Then they become facts. French postwar reconstruction and legitimacy begin with De Gaulle's march down the Champs. He was a stubborn, difficult, aloof, unpleasant ally, and he willed the redemption of France.

Well might the French celebrate.

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