Often we visit places where history happened, where battles were fought, kings crowned, feats of daring or honor performed. I have written before about how much I love that in Paris, how much I love walking through the city with a constant reminder of its history, of the decisions made by its leaders and conquerors. But this week, I visited perhaps the most important place in Paris’ history, a place where a decision was made to not act, and in this absence, the city was saved.
My boyfriend studied history at college and is always sending me books on the history of Paris. Obligingly, I read them, and to his credit, I usually love them. The most recent book he recommended was one called Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It follows the last weeks of the German occupation during World War II, ending with the allied liberation. Though replete with tear jerking stories of noble French men and women fighting back to reclaim their city, what really stands out is the portrayal it offers of Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer handpicked by Hitler to come and raze Paris to the ground in the event of an Allied advance or internal rebellion. Renowned for his capabilities in this respect and previous war cruelty, he would be the perfect candidate to prevent the city from falling into enemy hands “except lying in complete debris.” But what happened is another story. The authors conducted weeks of interviews with Choltitz and what these revealed is a man who became tormented between his military duty, and the knowledge that in doing so he would commit a crime that the world would never forgive. He would stand on the balcony of the headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice and watch little children playing in the Tuileries Gardens, in between the Louvre and Palais Bourbon, and could not bring himself to destroy this. Every bridge was rigged to explode, as well as all the important monuments and buildings. One word from this man and Paris would be destroyed beyond recognition. And inside of the Hôtel Meurice, Dietrich von Choltitz chose not to give the order, delaying long enough that the FFI and Allied Forces reached Paris and liberated the city.
James is visiting this week, so we went to have tea in the Hôte Meurice, which far surpasses any hotel I have ever entered. We sat in the main parlor, where the German officers where paraded out and imagined the American soldiers – boys from Iowa and Nebraska – wandering under the gilded chandeliers. Then we left and strolled home through the centuries-old beauty that is Paris, appreciating afresh the fact that the city still exists all around us.