On Hitler’s Last Desperate Plan to Destroy Paris

"Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins."

On August 23rd, the day after Dietrich von Choltitz dispatched Rolf Nordling to contact the Allies, Hitler sent a message to Field Marshal Walther Model and von Choltitz demanding that Paris be held at all costs, and that if it could not be held it should be turned into a field of ruins. Said Hitler:

The defense of Paris is of decisive military and political significance. Its loss would tear open the whole coastal front north of the Seine and deprive Germany of bases for very long-range warfare against England.

Historically, the loss of Paris always meant the loss of France. The Führer repeats his order that Paris has to be defended. . . . The strongest measures to quell insurrection inside the city must be taken. . . . The bridges across the Seine are to be prepared for demolition. Paris must not fall into enemy hands except as a field of ruins.

Von Choltitz was stunned by the message. And he was also ashamed. “Four days ago the factual order might have been considered. But the situation had changed. The enemy was moving rapidly toward Paris. He had captured the bridge at Melun. We had no troops available. The First [German] Army consisted of a few remaining troops and was no fighting force worth mentioning. I had no troops to confront tank divisions.” Von Choltitz believed the order had no military validity and despaired at the outright hatred it contained.

After reading it, he showed it to his second in command, Colonel Hans Jay, an old friend. They were standing on the balcony outside von Choltitz’s office in the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli. As Jay recalled, “In front of us the Tuileries lay in sunshine. To our right was the Place de la Concorde and to our left the Louvre. The scene merely underlined the madness of the medieval command.” Von Choltitz put the order in his pocket and showed it to no one else.

Later that day he called another old friend, Lieutenant General Hans Speidel, the chief of staff at Field Marshal Model’s headquarters in Cambrai. Von Choltitz and Speidel were friends from the prewar army and the Russian front, and von Choltitz considered Speidel very efficient and humane. “Thank you for the beautiful order,” said von Choltitz.

“What order, General?”

“The Field of Ruins Order.” Von Choltitz then went on to tell Speidel what he had done. Three tons of dynamite in Notre-Dame, two tons in the Dome at Les Invalides, and one ton in the Chamber of Deputies. He said he was presently working to detonate the Arc de Triomphe to improve visibility. “Hopefully you agree, Speidel.”

“Yes, yes, General.”

“Yes, but you ordered it.”

“We did not order it. The Führer ordered it.”

“Excuse me,” von Choltitz replied. “You have passed on the order and you will be responsible to history. I’ll tell you what else I’ve ordered. The Madeleine and the Opera are taken together. And the Eiffel Tower. I’ll detonate it so its metal structure will lie in front of the destroyed bridges.”

Speidel finally realized that von Choltitz was not serious and that he was talking just to illustrate the craziness of the order. He replied, “Oh, General, we are thankful you are in Paris.” They remained on the phone together for several more minutes, but then silence prevailed. “We knew,” said von Choltitz later. “We are at home in similar intellectual realms. On the telephone one better not talk about orders you disagree with. Important that we do not discuss the factual content of the order. Speidel knew like myself that it all did not matter anymore and what was left was embarrassment and empty words.”

Von Choltitz learned later that Model’s headquarters had received the order from Hitler but did not pass it on. His staff had found it on the network and given it to him. Some Germans in France agreed with von Choltitz and Speidel that Paris should not become a field of ruins. The same afternoon that he spoke to Speidel, von Choltitz received a phone call from Generaloberst Otto Dessloch, the commander of Luftflotte 3, the German tactical air force in France.

“Herr General,” said Dessloch, “I have orders to discuss with you about the air attack on Paris.”

Von Choltitz was shocked. Was the Luftwaffe going to bomb Paris while it was still occupied? Von Choltitz answered carefully. “I completely agree, but I hope you will come during the day.”

“No, we cannot risk that,” said Dessloch.

“You mean you are going to ignite the city with your ninety bombers at night? How do you think to do that?”

“We have been ordered to discuss that with you. You are supposed to name the targets.”

“Can you guarantee that you will hit the targets that I name at night?” von Choltitz responded.

Dessloch said that they would hit areas of the city, but he could not guarantee they could hit precise targets.

“Yes, do this,” von Choltitz replied. “But one thing is clear. I’ll withdraw my troops. You cannot assume that I’ll allow myself to be burned together with my soldiers by you. You probably know I’ve been ordered to stay in Paris. You’ll be responsible for my leaving the city.”

There was a lengthy pause in the conversation. Then Dessloch replied, “Yes, that probably means it cannot be done.”

“I’m thinking that as well,” von Choltitz replied. Later he wrote that it was obvious that he and Dessloch agreed and “did not wish this senseless and barbaric bombardment of the city.” But with their phone conversation likely monitored by the Gestapo, they had to talk to each other “tongue in cheek” so that everything would seem to be in line with orders.

August 23rd and 24th were difficult days for von Choltitz. He was determined to preserve Paris, but had to do so in such a way that he would not be relieved of command. He was aided by Ambassador Otto Abetz, who called on him to say that he was leaving Paris. Von Choltitz and Abetz found themselves in agreement on how to handle Paris, and with the end in sight, Abetz asked, “General, how can I be of help?”

“Mr. Ambassador, how can you possibly help me?”

“General, I will send a cable to headquarters and to Ribbentrop in which I complain about your brutal behavior in Paris.”

Von Choltitz was overwhelmed. He and Abetz had met a number of times before, and he could not believe what Abetz was saying. He jumped up from his desk and put his hands on Abetz’s shoulders. “You really want to do this? Then you are one of us.”

“Yes,” Abetz replied. “That I will do.”

As von Choltitz noted later, the cable Abetz sent to Berlin “protected me from being recalled or eliminated in a way that was typical for the time.”

In Paris itself, the situation was tense. On the morning of the 23rd, a German armored unit not part of von Choltitz’s command was taking advantage of the truce and moving through the city to the east. As it reached the foot of the Champs-Élysées, near the Grand Palais, it was fired on by Paris police, with one soldier being killed. The Germans responded immediately. The Grand Palais was a major Paris landmark between the Seine and the Champs-Élysées. It was one of the largest buildings in Paris, and the site of major expositions since the Universal Exhibition of 1900. It also housed the police of the 8th Arrondissement in the basement.

The German column was determined to avenge the shooting. They launched two small unmanned “Goliath” tanks—four feet long, two feet wide, and one foot high, carrying 50 kilograms of explosives, essentially remote-controlled bombs—at the Grand Palais. When they exploded, the explosions were so great that buildings shook for blocks around and the sound of the explosions echoed across Paris. There was a Swedish circus under way at the Palais, and the lions, tigers, and horses bolted for freedom, as did a collection of prostitutes imprisoned in the Palais by the police.

With animals stampeding and the Germans shooting at will, the situation deteriorated quickly. At noon order was restored when 40 Paris policemen surrendered under a white flag. They were delivered to von Choltitz, who said he would treat them as prisoners of war. Firemen finally extinguished the blaze, but the Grand Palais was left as a shell, with its interior totally destroyed. The episode demonstrated German strength and served to put the Resistance on notice.

Some Germans in France agreed with von Choltitz and Speidel that Paris should not become a field of ruins.

Later on the 23rd von Choltitz was startled when his chief of staff, Colonel Friedrich von Unger, told him that a lieutenant colonel from their military police had come in and suggested that since Paris could not be held, von Choltitz should order a retreat. Von Choltitz saw the officer immediately and raked him over the coals. “I reminded him that he had to follow orders, and that I wished no critique of the situation. Imagine what would have happened if we avoided a decision in this moment. The last bit of a soldier’s honor would have been lost.”

Von Choltitz ordered Unger to immediately assemble all headquarters officers. When they were together, he spoke forcefully. “Gentlemen, I have made the acquaintance of a rebellious officer for the first time in my life. He wanted to tell his commanding general to give orders he does not approve. I have been sent here by the Führer, and I alone am responsible. We’ll do exactly what I order. He who refuses I will force into obedience with a weapon. Everyone take their places and wait for orders. Should I die, and this is an order, Colonel Jay will take my place and the chief of staff, Colonel von Unger, will assist him.”

Von Choltitz said later he had to ask for obedience from those under him because he was better suited to understand the situation and because he carried the responsibility. “Don’t think this game in Paris was easy for me. Circumstances had forced a role on me I really was not suited for. Often my instinct spoke against me, and I felt muddied. Often when I was alone in my room I thought of the clear relationships I had among soldiers and I said to myself: God, how repugnant all of this is.”

The situation in Paris was indeed unraveling. The Resistance was pushing ahead, and von Choltitz did not want to engage in street battles. So he decided to issue a public statement that he hoped Parisians would respect. Using a Luftwaffe airplane, he dropped thousands of leaflets over the city.

FRENCHMEN!

Paris is still in the hands of the Germans! . . . Under our protection it has known four years of relative peace. For us it continues to be one of the beautiful cities of the Europe for which we have fought, we should prefer to preserve it against the dangers that threaten it.

BUT SHOOTING CONTINUES IN PARIS.

Criminal elements insist on terrorizing the city! Blood has been spilled, French blood as well as German! . . . The extent of these riots is as yet small, yet it is approaching the limits compatible with the humanitarian feelings of the German troops in Paris.

It will not be difficult to make a brutal ending to all this! It would be a simple matter to leave Paris after first blowing up all warehouses, all factories, bridges, and railway stations, and to seal the suburbs hermetically off if the city should be encircled. Considering the shortage of food supplies, water, and electricity, this would mean a terrible catastrophe in less than 24 hours!

. . . . You may rely on the humanitarian sentiments of the German troops, who will not act unless driven to the end of their patience. You may rely on our love for this marvelous center of European culture, on our sympathy for all reasonable Frenchmen, for the women and children of Paris, but if all these things are not considered sacred by the populace itself, there would no longer be any reason for us to remain tolerant.

We demand the immediate and unconditional cessation of acts of violence against us and against citizens. We demand that the citizens of Paris defend themselves against the terrorists; that they maintain in themselves their right to order and calm, and that they go about their daily work in a peaceable manner.

This, and this alone, can guarantee the life of the city, its victualment, and its salvation.

COMMANDANT OF THE WEHRMACHT OF GREATER PARIS.

The combination of the incident at the Grand Palais and von Choltitz’s public appeal helped subdue the violence. The Allies were coming and the Resistance was also running out of ammunition. Figures compiled by the Paris police indicate that in the first four days of the revolt the police had lost 62 men and the German Army 68. Most of those losses occurred before the truce Nordling arranged. The bulk of the casualties were in the Resistance, where 483 had been killed and nearly 1,200 wounded. Most of the fighting had taken place in working-class neighborhoods. In the fashionable 16th Arrondissement no one had been wounded and no one killed. This made the Resistance look a bit like a civil war.

Another problem was the growing food shortage. Again it was rich versus poor. In the fashionable parts of Paris food was always available, at exorbitant prices. In poorer sections there was almost none. In addition, the city’s gas had been turned off, and electricity was available only a few hours each day. The lack of electricity affected the city’s water supply as pumping stations needed power. All of this meant the desire for the liberation knew no bounds. The Paris police were instructed to put their uniforms back on and to be prepared to defend “republican institutions.”

Firemen finally extinguished the blaze, but the Grand Palais was left as a shell, with its interior totally destroyed.

Said differently, as the Allies approached, the mood in Paris changed significantly. The Resistance newspaper Combat captured the mood when it wrote, “The Paris that is fighting this evening wants to command tomorrow. Not for the sake of power, but for justice; not for the sake of politics, but for morality; not for the sake of dominating the country, but for its greatness.” By contrast, the Communist newspaper L’Humanité kept up the appeal for violence. “Attack is the best form of defense. Harass the enemy. Not a single Hun should leave insurgent Paris alive.”

Late that evening, von Choltitz had a lengthy telephone conversation with Model’s headquarters. Speaking to General Günther Blumentritt, who had been chief of staff to Rundstedt and was now Model’s operations officer, he explained that the situation in Paris had begun to spin out of control, and because of the barricades that had been constructed, it was impossible to move supplies to various German strongpoints throughout the city.

“There is shooting everywhere,” said von Choltitz. He was vastly exaggerating—most of the city was absolutely quiet—but he continued: “The shootings and other retaliatory actions called for by the Führer can no longer be implemented. In order to blow up bridges, we need to battle our way to them; in the case of 75 bridges, this is no longer possible. Any such measure could drive the majority of the still passive population into the hands of the enemy.” Von Choltitz was covering his back by lying. But he wanted this information on the record.

Field Marshal Model was not surprised by von Choltitz’s position. He too knew that Paris was not defensible, and that if he were going to halt the Allied advance, surrendering Paris was a useful first step. Later that night he spoke to Alfred Jodl, chief of operations at Hitler’s headquarters. Jodl told Model that the Führer was enraged that Paris might be lost, and he wanted it held at all costs. If the Wehrmacht “could not crush the despicable rabble” on the streets of Paris, it would “cover itself with the worst shame and dishonor in its history.”

Model was unimpressed. He had already decided to form a new defensive line on the Marne and the Somme east of Paris. “Tell the Führer that I know what I am doing,” he once again told a speechless Jodl. Model knew that to defend Paris would be to destroy Army Group B’s ability to regroup and halt the Allied advance. That, he believed, was more important. He did not intend to overturn von Choltitz’s approach.

That same evening von Choltitz placed a call to his wife in Baden-Baden. Unfortunately, she was out at the famous opera house there watching a performance of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Notified that she had a telephone call, she left the performance and hurried home, only to find that her husband not had been able to hold the line open. He left a message. “We are doing our duty.” That was it. She would not see her husband again until November 1947, when he was released from American captivity.

______________________________________

From The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, De Gaulle, and Von Choltitz Saved the City of Lights by Jean Edward Smith. Copyright © 2019 by Jean Edward Smith. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Jean Edward Smith
Jean Edward Smith
Jean Edward Smith taught at the University of Toronto for 35 years, and at Marshall University for 12. He has also been a visiting scholar at Columbia, Princeton, and Georgetown. He is the author of Bush, a biography of the 43rd president; Eisenhower in War and Peace; FDR, winner of the 2008 Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians; Grant, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist; John Marshall: Definer of a Nation; and The Liberation of Paris: How Eisenhower, De Gaulle, and Von Choltitz Saved the City of Lights.





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