“Jodl!! Brennt Paris?” – “Is Paris Burning?”
The date: August 25, 1944. The place: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), Adolf Hitler’s heavily fortified underground headquarters in Germany. An enraged Hitler gutturally snarls this question to his Chief of Staff, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl. Then, pounding his fist into the table:
“Jodl! I want to know – is Paris burning? Is Paris burning right now, Jodl?”
Hitler has just learned that that Paris – the capital city of France; the City of Light, the city that could not be conquered by the German army during World War I, but fell to Nazi legions in just four weeks in June 1940; the city over which the Fuehrer danced a jig when he conquered it – has just been liberated by the Allies.
Is Paris Burning? is the classic story of the liberation of Paris during the penultimate summer of World War II. Written in 1965 by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, this inspiring book tells the dramatic story of how Paris was spared from utter destruction, not only by the force of Allied arms, but also (and especially) by the incredible grit, determination, and unbelievable courage of her citizens… as well as the conscience of the man sent by Hitler to burn her to the ground.
The liberation of Paris is one of the most dramatic and inspiring events of World War II. It begins in early August, 1944. The Allied invasion at Normandy is now two months past. Allied armies have broken through the Germans’ initial lines of resistance and are now operating freely in western France. Slowly, inexorably, the Allied noose around Paris is being tightened.
Adolf Hitler, still convinced that “he who holds Paris holds France,” issues the following order: “Paris must not fall into the hands of the enemy, or, if it does, he must find there nothing but a field of ruins.”
On August 7, 1944, Hitler summons General Dietrich von Choltitz, a veteran of some of the bloodiest fighting on the Russian front, to his headquarters at OKW. Choltitz has gained a deserved reputation as the brutal destroyer of cities and a man who efficiently follows orders to the letter. To this steely-eyed, dumpy, nondescript little Wehrmacht officer, Hitler personally entrusts the task of holding Paris at all costs – or burning her to the ground.
A few days later, Choltitz begins his new assignment in the City of Light. Upon arriving in Paris, he immediately orders the German occupation troops to begin preparing the city for destruction. Soon all of Paris’ most beautiful, most historically significant, best known, and most beloved buildings and landmarks have explosives and other incendiary devices attached and ready for detonation at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, inside the city, Paris’ citizenry is abuzz with rumors of impending liberation. As Allied forces draw closer, anticipation grows. Soon the hated Nazis will be forcibly ejected from the City of Light. Finally, after four long years of oppression, Paris’ long nightmare will be over.
The liberation of Paris most definitely is not part of the overall Allied strategy for conquering France! Allied supreme commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower agrees with his planners: taking Paris will be too costly, in terms of time, the expenditure of chronically short supplies, and possible casualties. Paris will be bypassed. The city will be surrounded and its occupying forces forced to surrender, hopefully without firing a shot.
Word soon filters back to Paris’ citizens: Allied forces are not going to enter the city. They plan to surround it instead, thereby rendering German occupation untenable. Parisians find this intolerable. On August 19, 1944, inflamed by their love of the city in which they live, and instigated by Communist insurgents under the command of Colonel Rol, thousands take to the streets. For the first time in over a century, Paris’ streets echo the hallowed words: aux barricades!!
As Paris’ citizen-led uprising spreads, and as their Nazi foes slowly, steadily gain the upper hand, emissaries are sent to Allied commanders with an urgent message: you must come and liberate us!! It soon becomes evident to Allied commanders that it’s both politically and militarily necessary to change their plans. Paris must be liberated by the direct intervention of troops, or the citizen-led insurrection will be mercilessly put down. Soon, a multi-national force of infantry and tanks, under the command of French General Jacques Philippe Leclerc, begins winding its way toward the City of Light.
What caused the Allied change of heart? The impassioned and urgent importuning of Paris’ citizens, already engaged in a fight for their lives? Political pressure from General Charles deGaulle, leader of the Free French and self-proclaimed President of France? Both these factors played a key role. But the key factor behind the Allies’ sudden decision to alter its strategy may have come from none other than Dietrich von Choltitz himself.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this multi-faceted story, masterfully told by Collins and Lapierre, is how Choltitz appears somehow to have cryptically signaled Allied commanders: unless you get into Paris quickly, I will carry out my orders to raze the city.
I won’t give away how this happens; you’ll have to pick up a copy of this excellent book to find out!!
Is Paris Burning? is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, two journalists, one American and the other French, did a masterful job of piecing together this highly complex and often fragmentary story and turning it into a highly readable chronicle of the liberation of Paris.
What makes this book so appealing is that it’s written from a journalist’s viewpoint. The authors do not just concern themselves with the central events and main characters in this story. Much of the book tells of how ordinary people in all walks of life became a part of this modern-day miracle. People like Marie Hélène Lefaucheux, a member of the French resistance, who, upon learning that her husband was being transported to Germany, followed on bicycle the convoy in which he was riding, and later rescued him from a German concentration camp; Alexandre Parodi, the staunchly anti-Communist French resistance member who was forced to stand by helplessly as Communist led insurrectionists began the fight against the Nazis, only to be relentlessly crushed by the superior force of German arms; and the thousands of other citizens who manned barricades, fired at German troops and tanks, threw Molotov cocktails, and frequently sacrificed their lives in defense of the city they loved.
Is Paris Burning? is not a great work of history. In this book, you’re not going to find page after page of in-depth historical analysis of the events of August 1944, or how those events affected the decades that followed them. You won’t learn any new historical or sociological insights. No, instead, you’ll find an exciting and dramatic tale, told from the viewpoint of the practiced eyes of two experienced and very talented journalists. Collins and Lapierre allow you, the reader, to feel like you’re actually there, amidst the tumult, violence, smoke, and gunfire… and the heroism and self-sacrifice of those Parisians who shouted “aux barricades” as they rose up in fury against their Nazi oppressors.
Read and enjoy!!
 Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.)
Other Book Reviews by Mike Powers: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 ; An Army at Dawn ; The Alienist ; Last Man Standing