WE DID NOT ARRIVE at first light as Hitler had done, greeted by swastikas flying from rooftops and along silent streets. Instead we slipped into Paris by night, intent on seeing the sights as the Führer did on June 23, 1940—but also determined to explore the avenues and quarters where his most ardent followers, namely the Gestapo, cast long shadows during four years of increasingly brutal occupation.
Der Führer, a former art student, had always longed to see the most civilized city in history. For his first and, as it turned out, only visit, he brought along his favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, and pet architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler.
“Paris has always fascinated me,” Hitler confided to Breker, who shared a large Mercedes sedan with Hitler during the whirlwind tour.
Our first stop is the Opéra National de Paris, today at the heart of a bustling shopping district. In 1940, the streets around this extraordinary theater were empty. A lone gendarme saluted his new master.
Hitler adored the Opéra.
“This is the most beautiful theater in the world,” he declared.
Hitler then rushed on. Had he explored the area, as we choose to do, he would have soon discovered 122 Rue de Provence, the address of the One-Two-Two Club, the most famous of Paris’s many wartime brothels, which the SS would frequent. The club’s owner, Fabienne Jamet, loved the young Aryans’ jet-black uniforms and appreciated the gifts of flowers and champagne they brought for her best girls. She always insisted the German occupation was the best chapter in her long life as a Parisian hostess par excellence. Typically, girls at the One-Two-Two were examined three times a week for venereal disease: the Germans viewed acquiring an infection from an enemy a particularly reprehensible form of sabotage. The building today looks somber, with large dark blue doors straddling barred windows.
Next, we head south through streets lined with expensive cars, across the gray Seine to the Eiffel Tower. In 1940, Hitler wanted to look down on Paris from the tower, but when he arrived he was told the French had severed the elevator cables. Hitler declined to climb the 1,665 steps. A few hours after he left, the elevators miraculously were working again.
Paris was the Reich’s greatest prize, by far the favored place for Germans to be posted, lose their virginity, and spend their leave. And at first the Germans made good conquerors. Très correct. They paid their bills and left tips. Parisians had expected rape and pillage, not politesse. Then the Gestapo got down to business. As the war turned against the Reich, its security services became increasingly repressive, attacks on German soldiers soared, and the SS hit back, sending thousands of Parisians to gruesome deaths.
In 1943-44, there was perhaps no more feared destination than 93 Rue Lauriston. Today, a small plaque on the building— now a rather drab bloc of apartments— reminds passersby this was a place of immense evil. In the cavernous cellar, the infamous Bonny-Lafont gang of collaborateurs invented gruesome torture techniques. Off hours, the gang threw wild parties on the upper floors for Gestapo and SS bigwigs who wanted to mingle with carefully selected young French actresses. On a chilly December day, as the light begins to fade, we arrive on the widest and grandest of Paris’s sweeping boulevards, Avenue Foch, lined by elegant gardens and five-story buildings restored to their honey- and white-stone splendor. This was the epicenter of Nazi power. At Number 72, Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces from an imposing white villa that is today vacant, its black shutters closed. Across the street at Number 31, now subsumed into a postwar building with no visible street number, Captain Theodor Dannecker and Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann in June 1942 planned the Grand Rafle—the Great Roundup—of July 16-17, in which French police took more than 13,000 Jews to a velodrome before they were sent to death camps. At Number 84, we look up to the fifth floor of a large villa fronted by tall, wrought-iron fencing. In those cramped rooms Gestapo operatives tortured legendary British Special Operations Executive agents, including Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit,” and “Madeleine,” until their upscale neighbors could hear the prisoners’ screams.
A short stroll from Avenue Foch, we find the famous Restaurant Prunier. Little has changed in 70 years: one can still glimpse the fur-clad belle monde eating shellfish and caviar at the marble oyster bar and in the opulent Art Deco dining room, as gluttonous Gestapo and Wehrmacht senior officers once did. Our budget is limited so we decide not to indulge.
It’s after dark as we walk the Champs- Élysées. We are headed for the most glamorous address in Paris for senior Nazis, where Hitler would have undoubtedly stayed had he spent more than just a few giddy hours in the city: The Ritz.
Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels and cohort found the hotel, on the Place Vendôme, utterly sumptuous, the service impeccable; its famous brass beds the most comfortable in occupied Europe. The Germans discreetly kept to one wing; the most glamorous collaborators were also in residence. The actress Arletty, famous for her role in Les Enfants du Paradis, shared one of the acclaimed beds with Luftwaffe pilot Hans-Jürgen Soehring, 10 years her junior. “Mon coeur est français,” she pro tested after the war, “mais mon cul est international.” (“My heart is French, but my ass is international.”) Coco Chanel, who kept company with a German intelligence officer, lived in a room overlooking her store on the Rue Cambon.
In the Imperial Suite, Göring examined looted art, some of it taken from Jewish homes on Avenue Foch. A crystal bowl of morphine tablets sat on a side table beside another of precious gems—rubies, black pearls. The Reichsmarschall liked to dance with the hotel’s waiters, then drift into a reverie lying on a replica of Marie Antoinette’s four-poster.
Today the hotel is, if anything, even more impressive than during the war years, when the Ritz and all of Paris were coated in dull gray soot from decades of coal fires. Sadly, we find it undergoing renovation, not to reopen until early 2015, so we move on and enjoy a long cocktail or two in a bistro opposite Les Invalides, the complex that includes a veterans home, hospital, museum, and monuments—among them, Napoleon’s tomb. In 1940, Hitler contemplated the great French dictator’s resting place and then turned to Giesler, the architect, and declared: “You will build my tomb.”
Hitler’s last stop was in Montmartre—a neighborhood, now packed with tourists, atop a hill north of the Seine—for a final look at Paris. By nine o’clock that morning, his sightseeing tour was over. Later that day, Hitler confided in Albert Speer: “In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”
Four years later, Hitler changed his mind. On our last day, we visit the Hôtel Le Meurice, scene of the occupation’s grand climax. Dietrich von Choltitz, the last German military governor of Paris, made his base at the magnificent hotel, which skirts the Tuileries Garden on Rue de Rivoli. As the Allies closed in, legend has it Hitler called Choltitz in room 213 and screamed in rage: “Is Paris burning?”
It was not. Once done listening to Hitler’s rant, the portly Prussian general set about making sure it did not, minimizing damage to the city before surrendering on August 25 to French general Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque at the Montparnasse railway terminal.
Before heading home, we feel compelled to visit at least a couple of places where Nazism’s victims spent their last days. Not far from the Eiffel Tower we find 5 Avenue Elisée Reclus, an elegant mansion bloc. Here the Jewish writer Hélène Berr penned a deeply affecting diary of occupation that became a best seller in 2009, long after her death at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. “There is beauty in the midst of tragedy,” Berr wrote. “As if beauty were condensing in the heart of ugliness. It’s very strange.”
Hélène Berr died five days before the camp’s liberation. Her journey to hell began in the rail yards northeast of the city, a few miles from the 110-acre Père Lachaise Cemetery. During our final hours in Paris, we walk through the grave yard, pausing at the resting place of Edith Piaf, who sang for Germans and French alike during those dark years. Fresh flowers adorn her grave. We continue east to a far corner of the cemetery, Paris’s largest. Here we find several impressive memorials to French victims of Nazi rule and the 200,000 deported to the camps. There are no garish bouquets—just stark marble statues, haunting and unforgettable reminders of four long years when the Nazis enshadowed the City of Light.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.