Friday, 5 June 2009

Stepping Back into Wartime Paris

Having watched many a documentary about World War Two over the years, this chapter of Paris history has always held a fascination. Seeing grainy black and white footage of goose-stepping German troops marching past the ‘Arch de Triomphe’ and down the ‘Champs-Elysees’ is an image that is clearly emblazed upon my brain. You can only imagine the emotion that Parisians must have felt on the day of the occupation and the subsequent years of struggle they would have to endure in order to reclaim their city. To learn more about this war time era, I decided to join a walking tour of Paris that focused upon the ‘Resistance’ battles and life under Nazi reign.

I met up with our guide Jean-Paul on Pont Saint-Louis, which was only a matter of metres away from Cathedral Notre Dame and from here we would take a short walk to a very understated yet elegant Memorial (Memorial des Martyrs de la D├ęportation) that is dedicated to the over 200,000 French citizens who were deported to Nazi concentration camps during the war. Stepping into the dark bunker-like memorial, you physically begin to feel the oppression of those victims and become noticeably conscious of a sense of freedom when you exit into the bright light of day. It is a fitting start to our tour and is a reminder of a significant part of the human toll during the years from 1940 to 1944.

Although Jean-Paul was quite a young man, he clearly had studied his Parisian war history and as we walked, he provided detailed accounts of street battles that occurred during the liberation. He particularly enjoyed pointing out the numerous bullet holes that still remained in buildings that would otherwise be missed by the average tourist. Likewise, he showed us a significant number of small memorials along the way (usually denoted by a plaque and a posy of flowers), often recognising fallen partisans. As we reached elegant Hotel De Ville, we were reminded of the famous speech made by Charles De Gaulle from its front window on the day of Liberation in 1944. By the time we reached The Louvre, Jean-Paul was recounting how authorities, well aware of the impending Nazi invasion in 1940, were able to safely spirit away thousands of priceless artworks (including ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Venus De Milo’) to safe houses deep in the French country-side. While many works were still plundered by the Nazi’s, it seems that most of the national treasures at the time remained in safe hiding until the end of the war.

Clearly these foreign ‘occupiers’ had a sneaking admiration for the history and elegance of Paris. None more so than German Military Commander Dietrich von Choltitz, who in the final days of the occupation refused Hitler’s command to destroy the city and leave nothing but a ‘baron field of ashes’. Rather than return to Germany, he eventually surrendered at the Hotel Maurice, which had been Nazi headquarters in Paris for most of the war. As we walked through the Tuileries Garden, we could clearly see the building and the upper rooms from which Choltitz had reportedly stood peering out over Paris pondering his fateful decision. Thankfully, this famous city was saved and with the surrender of 17,000 troops, a dark chapter of its history had finally ended.

While today Paris prides itself on it’s style and elegance, the war years could have resulted in a very different contemporary landscape. Fortunately, a walk around inner city Paris can still reveal much about the wartime experience as much of the original settings for these historical events are still there to be appreciated. As I discovered, the streets, the buildings and memorials certainly remain testament to the persecution, struggle and ultimate triumph of the people of Paris during those war time years.

Hotel De Ville

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