When most amateur historians think of the people involved in the liberation of Paris, they think of such personalities as Charles de Gaulle or Philippe Leclerc, the men who led the Free French Forces in the liberation. But, Michael Neiberg, in his book The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944, brings forth other lesser known personalities in the French Resistance and foreign diplomats that were instrumental in the liberation. Neiberg tells the story of the liberation of Paris in 368 pages (259 of which is text).
From the book’s publisher:
As the Allies struggled inland from Normandy in August of 1944, the fate of Paris hung in the balance. Other jewels of Europe—sites like Warsaw, Antwerp, and Monte Cassino—were, or would soon be, reduced to rubble during attempts to liberate them. But Paris endured, thanks to a fractious cast of characters, from Resistance cells to Free French operatives to an unlikely assortment of diplomats, Allied generals, and governmental officials. Their efforts, and those of the German forces fighting to maintain control of the city, would shape the course of the battle for Europe and color popular memory of the conflict for generations to come.
In The Blood of Free Men, celebrated historian Michael Neiberg deftly tracks the forces vying for Paris, providing a revealing new look at the city’s dramatic and triumphant resistance against the Nazis. The salvation of Paris was not a foregone conclusion, Neiberg shows, and the liberation was a chaotic operation that could have easily ended in the city’s ruin. The Allies were intent on bypassing Paris so as to strike the heart of the Third Reich in Germany, and the French themselves were deeply divided; feuding political cells fought for control of the Resistance within Paris, as did Charles de Gaulle and his Free French Forces outside the city. Although many of Paris’s citizens initially chose a tenuous stability over outright resistance to the German occupation, they were forced to act when the approaching fighting pushed the city to the brink of starvation. In a desperate bid to save their city, ordinary Parisians took to the streets, and through a combination of valiant fighting, shrewd diplomacy, and last-minute aid from the Allies, managed to save the City of Light.
Neiberg lays a good foundation of the events leading to the liberation of the city. This foundation includes the capturing of Paris by the Germans in 1940 and the establishment of the Free French government in exile under de Gaulle. He then discusses the long years of occupation and the contrast between the deprivations of the majority of Parisians and the luxury of the relative few collaborationists. Neiberg also explains the creation of the French Resistance from small, scattered groups around the country. Although these groups never fully coordinated with each other due to security concerns, Neiberg describes the network of various Resistance groups in Paris that eventually coalesced under the communist organizer Henri Rol-Tanguy.
In Neiberg’s view, any cooperation of the disparate groups was a minor miracle because of the internal politics within the Resistance. Although the communists were the best organized and most numerous, the Allies and de Gaulle’s allies (Gaullists) in the Resistance were leery of the communists and their ultimate goals. For example, the Allies refused to air drop weapons for the Resistance because they thought the weapons would be hoarded by the communists to be used in an uprising against de Gaulle after the Germans were defeated. Neiberg weaves all of the politics into an understandable and easy-to-follow story.
Another fascinating facet of the story is the American reluctance to assign men and resources to the liberation of the city. Most American generals were more concerned with defeating the Germans west of the city and ending the war earlier than spending precious resources, especially fuel, on the liberation. They were under the assumption that the city was doing fine, but their view was dramatically changed by the first-hand account of Major Roger Cocteau (Rol’s chief of staff). Through a daring trip across German and American lines, Cocteau was able to get into contact with the American high command. Cocteau convinced the Americans of the desperate situation in Paris (people were starving because of German restrictions) and the uprising of the Paris police and the Resistance that was threatened to be crushed by the Germans following a truce.
I think that Neiberg explains the Paris uprising of the police and the Resistance in a succinct manner. In addition, he includes details of the average Parisian throwing off the shackles of German occupation by joining in the building of barricades to restrict German movements. But, he does not go into much detail about the retribution meted out to the hated French collaborationists (they were more hated than the Germans). Neiberg mentions throughout the book the general disgust of the French population against the collaborationists, but he gives it short shrift during the post-liberation activities.
The book is an excellent overview of the various forces that helped free Paris from German occupation. These forces included not only the armed forces of the Allies, but also the French Resistance, Paris police, and French citizens.