There is an uncomfortable past lurking behind some of Paris’s most famous landmarks, linked to the dark years of the Nazi Occupation from 1940-44. While its most obvious traces have been erased, you can still revisit this history through the stories of the people who survived and the legacies of those who perished.
The dark years of the Occupation from 1940-44 dragged on as a series of frustrations, shortages and humiliations. It’s hard to imagine how different life was for Parisians back then, what with the curfew in effect from 9 o’clock in the evening until 5 o’clock in the morning; the rationing of food, tobacco, coal to heat people’s homes, and clothing, and the overwhelming sense of fear and oppression.
Not only was Germany’s Third Reich flag hoisted high over all the French government buildings, signs on the main boulevards were replaced in German, and the public clocks were reset to Berlin time. And the French press and radio were only allowed to contain German propaganda.
Nonetheless, the French people gathered their courage and the first demonstration against the Occupation took place on 11 November 1940, a bold move made by young Parisian students. This courage strengthened over the years, despite the devastating challenges.
One of the main dates that lingers in people’s minds follows the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, when the French Resistance in Paris launched an uprising on 19 August 1944, with the city eventually being liberated on 25 August. An estimated 2,000 Parisians were killed fighting for the liberation of their capital.
Here is a selection of sites that played a major part in the liberation from this dark and oppressive past.
Le Meurice is a luxurious five-star hotel in the heart of the 1st arrondissement, nestled between the Place de la Concorde, Musée du Louvre, and the Tuileries Garden. Its dreamy interiors flaunt extravagant Louis XVI décor and have been dazzling celebrities for centuries. While Le Meurice is one of the most elegant hotels in the world, oozing 18th-century opulence, its more recent history is entwined in a darker past.
Le Meurice was, at one point, the headquarters of General von Choltitz, the Nazi who had been instructed by Hitler to leave the city in a ‘heap of burning ruins’. However, General von Choltitz soon realised the battle was lost, and given that he did not want to be captured by the Resistance, he eventually ignored Hitler’s orders and organised a truce.
On 25 August, he travelled to Montparnasse train station, the headquarters of General Leclerc, where, in the billiards room of the station staff, he and Leclerc signed a surrender. At this point, the occupation of Paris was officially over.
The Eiffel Tower
The end of the occupation was celebrated symbolically on the morning of 25 August, at the most iconic site of Paris, Le Tour Eiffel. After fierce resistance near Les Invalides and L’École Militaire, which saw some French soldiers killed and several tanks destroyed, the Germans had nonetheless been overcome. It was at this point that a huge French Tricolour flag was hoisted on the Eiffel Tower to symbolise the regaining of power and to show their national pride.
Place de la Concorde
It took De Gaulle no more than two hours to reach Paris following this truce – and it was when he gave one of the most memorable political speeches of the 20th century.
In this speech, before a huge crowd of Parisians at the Hôtel de Ville, he is remembered for the heartfelt conclusion: ‘Paris! Paris humiliated! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But now Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, by her own people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and aid of France as a whole, of fighting France, of the only France, of the true France, of eternal France.’
The following day saw de Gaulle lead a triumphal march (on foot!) from the Arc de Triomphe down the long Champs-Élysées, all the way to the Place de la Concorde, before finishing at the cathedral of Notre-Dame where he took part in a Te Deum (hymn of praise).
Les Champs Elysées
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is more than just an enormous 1.9km (1.2 miles) long and 70 metres (230 ft) wide avenue spanning the 8th arrondissement of Paris. It’s also an artery linking the Place de la Concorde and the Place Charles de Gaulle, that has always heralded the Arc de Triomphe.
While it revels in glamour and chic in our contemporary world, this stretch has known darker times. Not only did the Germans hang swastika flags on the Arc de Triomphe when they were in power, but they also organised military parades with a marching band on the Champs Élysées and Avenue Foch, for the benefit of the German army photographers and newsreel cameramen to show off their military prowess.
However, after the Allied invasion of Normandy that took place on 6 June 1944, the French Resistance in Paris launched an uprising on 19 August 1944. They seized the police headquarters and other government buildings.
The city was finally liberated by French and American troops on 25 August, and General Charles de Gaulle led a triumphant parade down the Champs-Élysées the following day – a celebration that still lives in recent memory for it was at this point that a new government was formed.