On Sunday, August 25, 2019, Allied tanks, trucks, jeeps and motorcycles once again rolled toward Paris as re-enactors marked the 75th anniversary of the French capital’s liberation. Crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers—including some individuals who had been present at the original event—lined the parade route waving French and American flags, just as the city’s joyful residents had done in 1944 in what legendary American war correspondent Ernie Pyle called “a pandemonium of surely the greatest joy that has ever happened…[on] one of the great days of all time.”
Two-dozen World War II–era vehicles filled with men and women in period French and American uniforms re-created the arrival in Paris of the Free French 2nd Armored Division. In 1944 the unit was under the operational control of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, which had just broken out of Normandy. French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque persuaded U.S. commanders that his division could quickly take the capital, and that it would be politically significant for French troops to do so. Leclerc sent the 9th Company of the division’s attached infantry regiment racing ahead. The company, manned largely by former Spanish Republicans, arrived at City Hall on the evening of August 24 to be greeted by the bells of Notre Dame. The rest of the division French division moved into Paris the following day.
The Allies’ arrival had been preceded by several days of combat between the German occupiers and French Forces of the Interior. The resistance forces’ Paris-based commander, Henri Rol-Tanguy, had led the takeover of the Paris police headquarters on August 19, an event seen as the opening shot in the liberation of the capital.
While the national Musée de l’Armée at the Hôtel des Invalides does a thorough job of covering the broader history of France in World War II, the Musée de la Libération-Général Leclerc–Jean Moulin centers on the story of anti-German resistance and the liberation of Paris. Formerly hidden from view on the upper level of the Gare Montparnasse railway station, the redesigned and expanded museum has reopened in an historic location—the former bomb shelter that housed Rol-Tanguy’s headquarters during the 1944 insurrection. Facing the entrance to the Paris Catacombs at Place Denfert-Rochereau, the rejuvenated museum is expected to draw increased tourist traffic.
Museum director Sylvie Zaidman certainly hopes so. “This period is slipping away from us, the participants and witnesses are disappearing rapidly,” she said. “The museum is picking up the mission to tell the story of this moment in history.”
To better relate that story, the Liberation Museum illustrates the spectrum of French opposition to the German occupation—from communists to followers of Charles de Gaulle, monarchists to anarchists, and professional military members to amateur civilians. Rol-Tanguy was a prewar communist union organizer, for example, while Jean Moulin, a national resistance leader ultimately caught and executed by the Gestapo, had been a high-ranking police prefect.
Zaidman is also determined to shed light on one aspect of the liberation story she feels has been previously underrepresented—the role American troops played in freeing the French capital. Most of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division also entered Paris on Aug. 25, 1944, and helped clear the city of Germans troops. The museum has been in contact with 4th Division historians and has reserved a display case, as yet unfilled, to tell their story. Zaidman has issued a call to anyone who experienced the occupation or the liberation and has original documents or artifacts from that period they would like to donate. The contact for a query is here.
Alain Paternotte, 93, a veteran of the 2nd Armored Division, brought his daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter to the museum’s August 25 opening ceremony. “It’s important for people to be interested in the history of what happened to France,” he said, adding that for younger generations, hearing the stories of those who experienced the war transmits the memory and keeps history alive. Paternotte, who has been active for many years with the 2nd Armored Division’s veterans’ association, said there are about 300 surviving members of the 15,000 who fought in the war.
While the division’s original triumphant entry into Paris was marred by rain, the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the city’s liberation took place, appropriately, under a cloudless sky. MH
Ellen Hampton is a Paris-based historian and author, whose book Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the WWII Front (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006) tells the story of the 2nd Armored Division’s ambulance drivers.