Among the many books chronicling Paris’s liberation, Jean Edward Smith’s final work stands out.
The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz Saved the City of Light
By Jean Edward Smith. 242 pp.
Simon & Schuster, 2019. $27.
Jean Edward Smith, the political scientist and biographer, was renowned for writing tomes about such august Americans as Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In contrast, The Liberation of Paris, published by an 86-year-old Smith just before he died in September 2019, chronicles the freeing of the French capital in World War II in a crisp 242 pages.
The city’s liberation on August 25, 1944, following Nazi occupation is well-plowed ground in books ranging from Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s popular narrative history Is Paris Burning? (1965) to Michael Neiberg’s The Blood of Free Men (2012) and Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days in August (2013). Among such works, Smith’s stands out for its tight focus on the roles of three military generals: Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, and Dietrich von Choltitz.
As the Allied supreme commander in Europe, Eisenhower wished to conserve resources and preferred taking back Paris only later in the war. Meanwhile, de Gaulle—the leader of the Free French—argued that freeing Paris posthaste was crucial for his nation’s morale and future. Eisenhower, portrayed by Smith as the rare general with both political and battle skills, in time came around to de Gaulle’s position and gave the honor of leading the way into Paris to General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc’s French Second Armored Division.
Awaiting the Second Armored Division was the German garrison led by Choltitz. Already his command was under daily attack in the streets by the French Resistance. Personally chosen by Hitler for the Paris post, he now had orders to fight to the very last man. In Smith’s telling, Choltitz is an admirable Nazi who refused to sacrifice his remaining troops to a lost cause, left Paris largely intact, and adroitly saved himself by surrendering to the Resistance and meeting with de Gaulle before being handed over to the Allies.
On Liberation Day, de Gaulle organized for the following day a great parade down the Champs-Élysées to Notre-Dame. Leclerc and other French officers, Resistance leaders, and troops of the Second Armored Division accompanied him. Eisenhower stayed clear of Paris and de Gaulle’s triumphant return to the city, touring it by car the day after the parade, a Sunday. He met with de Gaulle that day and pleased him by saying he planned to move his Allied headquarters to Versailles.
Smith grapples with whether freeing Paris lengthened the Allies’ war. He concedes that in supplying the city with food, fuel, and other needs it did extend the conflict, but was not a major factor. Far more significant was Eisenhower’s political decision to make a slow frontal advance of his troops into Germany. “The defeat of the German army,” Smith writes, “was not as important as bringing home the defeat to everyone in Germany,” and thereby avoiding a revival of the Nazi cause.
Smith’s final work is tight, confident, and well-researched. Readers may question why just three men are singled out for saving Paris, but Smith makes a strong case that they were the key players in restoring the great city to its former life. ✯
— Ronald Weber is the author of Dateline—Liberated Paris: The Hotel Scribe and the Invasion of the Press (2019).
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of World War II.