Long the jewel of European cities, Paris suffered relatively little damage in World War II, but its citizens were humiliated, hungry and mistrustful after 50 months under the Nazis.
The liberation of Paris was both joyous and chaotic. It was faster and easier for the Allies than their protracted battle through Normandy and its gun-filled hedgerows. But the fight for the French capital killed nearly 5,000 people, including Parisian civilians, German troops and members of the French Resistance whose sabotage and attacks had prepared the city for the liberation.
After invading in 1940, the Nazi hierarchy ensconced themselves in Paris’ luxury hotels, and hobnobbed at theaters and fine restaurants. Collaborationist militias kept order, and French police were complicit in the most dastardly act of the Occupation: the 1942 roundup of around 13,000 Jews at the Vel d’Hiv bicycle stadium before their eventual deportation to the Auschwitz death camp in German-occupied Poland.
The Parisians who weren’t deported or didn’t flee used ration tickets to eat, wooden soles on shoes to replace scarce leather and sometimes curtains for clothes. The black market thrived.
The D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, helped change the tide of the war, allowing the Allies to push through Normandy and beyond to other German-occupied lands around Western Europe.
The message went out to the French Resistance in Paris that the Allies were advancing. Resistance member Madeleine Riffaud, now 95, described to The Associated Press killing a Nazi soldier on July 23, 1944, on a Paris bridge. Riffaud was spotted as she escaped on her bicycle, then arrested, tortured and jailed before being freed in a prisoner exchange days before the liberation of the city.
Seventy-five years later, she doesn’t take the killing lightly.
“To carry out an action like that isn’t playing with dolls,” she said.
On Aug. 19, 1944, Paris police officers rebelled and took over police headquarters. On the night of Aug. 24, the first Allied troops entered southern Paris. The grand entrance of Gen. Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division followed by Allied forces would come the following day.
The German military governor of Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, was arrested at his headquarters at the Meurice Hotel and signed the surrender.
Paris buildings still bear the bullet holes of fighting.