We Still Have Paris! The Arts of Diplomacy [II]
There are many moments in history that shape the fate of people and places. But there are some that shape the future like no others. This is the story of what could have been the end of Paris in World War II, as shown in two moving… pictures.
The Germans occupied Paris on June 14th, 1940 without a fight. The event came one month after the Germans entered France and just a few months after the war started. Everyone expected France to intervene against Hitler’s attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939. But the France of the Right was admiring his regime and even the France of the Left was not substantially against it and was also against war and in favour of pacifism, especially after the huge losses from World War I. France made no moves. Moreover, Germany found an open city in Paris and an entire nation believing in Hitler’s victories everywhere. France was divided in two after the occupation: the North, including Paris and the entire west coast, was under German occupation; the Southern half was controlled by a newly formed government with Vichy as its capital, being in fact just a puppet state under the same authority.
Four years passed by quickly and the international scene changed dramatically. Somehow Paris was living in its own pace. The population was more and more affected by the occupation, food was short, rations were shorter, and anyone who could not afford to smuggle food or had relatives in the countryside to provide it suffered the most. There were many factions that were formed over time and tried fighting for the people, so the Resistance began to increase in number and power.
By August 1944, Paris had established the Resistance and the Free French, along with General Charles de Gaulle, declared a traitor by the Vichy Government, to fight for it and in its name. Also, the Allies were heading by that time to France after previously forming the French 2nd Armoured Division in London by the end of 1943 with the single goal to liberate Paris from Nazi occupation. The division was led by General Jacques-Phillipe Leclerc, who, along with General George S. Patton’s 3rd US Army, arrived in Normandy in August 1944.
After receiving information about the planned imminent destruction of Paris with the help of the Swedish consul, Raoul Nordling, from German General Dietrich von Choltitz, who was the military governor of Paris, the Allies decide to head to Paris, even though the city was not a strategic objective. This move followed discussions between Supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and the leader of Free French, General Charles de Gaulle.
Meanwhile, with the Allies approaching, workers in Paris went on strike and the Resistance factions start to attack German soldiers and fortifications. The fighting intensified during several days, but the peak was the night between August 24-25th, when the Allies finally entered Paris – the first were the French factions (with many Spanish soldiers who fled from Franco’s regime) during the night and the American division early in the morning. That night was glorious for the City of Light, bells all over the city rang again after 4 years of silence to celebrate the liberation. And the sound of liberty was never as bittersweet as that night.
But there is more to the story than meets the eye… And we have two splendid artistic representations to show it to us.
“Is Paris Burning?” (1966)
First, we have the film “Is Paris Burning?” (1966), directed by Rene Clement and written by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola, based on the book written in 1965 by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It is a black and white masterpiece that depicts more the inside fight that the Resistance was taking and ends with a symbolic meaning through the powerful images of people dying during the arrival of the Allies. One by one, no name and no sorrow, just man after man getting killed for a much larger purpose – freedom.
Thus, the war does not mean only battle – it means negotiations and diplomacy. We have a very beautiful character named Raoul Nordling who masters the art of diplomacy and helped by his neutral position as the consul of Sweden, negotiates several times with a very tough man, German General von Choltitz, named the governor of Paris by Hitler himself only 3 weeks before the city’s fall… He succeeded in taking the French prisoners under the Red Cross wing and he concludes an armistice between German forces and the Resistance – which does not last, but it was still a win.
All the characters that embody the French, the Germans, and the Americans, have somehow a diplomatic trait, and every struggle is both internal and external. It can truly be stated that they are not either good or bad with some clear line of definition between the two. Moreover, famous actors manage to keep a low profile and not stand out from the crowd more than their role expects them to, thereby not detracting from the movie. After all, the movie is about the people and their struggle, about Paris and its art treasures and historic monuments, about gaining liberty with weighed and assumed risks. The real images from the archives intertwine with fictional ones that are rendered realistically in the movie – especially in the end where we can see mostly real footage. All of that depicts an international war, a city’s struggle, and individual diplomacy. They all lead to the salvation and liberation of the City of Light, which could have been just a “field of ruins” as per Hitler’s final order… and would have been to us today just history.
The other piece of cinematographic art is “Diplomacy” (2014), directed by Volker Schlondorff and written by Cyril Gely, based on his own play written in 2011. The movie is pure fiction and embroiders all the dialogues between the Swedish Consul Nordling and Governor von Choltitz into one big diplomatic approach. It turned into one long conversation during most of the length of the film. But it signals few elements that are very real and usually overlooked, one of which is the fact that the German General was doing his best to keep the appearance, no matter what his personal opinion was of Hitler’s orders, because of a very new law instated by the Fuhrer after the failed attempt of his assassination by his own close generals – the Sippenhaft law that made all the families of German officers hostages, who would suffer and die as a repercussion of any of his orders not being blindly obeyed.
The very well written dialogue is a game of lines between the two and are beautiful and clever. Surprisingly – or perhaps not –, the one who stands out is von Choltitz being remarkably rational and reasoned to all of Nordling’s attempts to make him change his mind about destroying the city, given that it could not anymore be defended from getting into the hands of Germany’s enemies.
The title describes the movie perfectly, it is all about diplomacy, about negotiations, about reasoning for one’s purpose. However, the end is very bitter and unlikely diplomatic. By ordinary lies and ugly deceit that he would save and protect his family, the consul succeeds in making von Choltitz cancel the detonation of explosives and saves the city. But even like that, it was still the general who made the choice that Paris should continue to live on.
Even though diplomacy is made through any means that one has at his disposal, even though the lives of few may sometimes be sacrificed so that many can live, this is not the meaning, nor the purpose, of diplomacy.
Diplomacy is “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way” (Oxford Dictionary). It is about respect, tolerance, and elegance. It is about communication, understanding and interpersonal and international relations. Deceit cancels all of these.
In the end, as in the story about Paris’ liberation, it is all about remarkable people that changed the course of history through diplomacy and negotiations. This makes it possible for all the generations that follow to enjoy the beautiful testimonies of the past, as is the case of the City of Light.
Morris, B. (2016). Why “Is Paris urning?” remains one of the great anti-war epics, Little White Lies. See: https://lwlies.com/articles/is-paris-burning-jean-paul-belmondo-world-war-two/.
History.com Editors. (2010). Paris is liberated after four years of Nazi occupation. History.com. A&E Television Networks. See: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/paris-liberated.
Smith, J.E. (2019). The liberation of Paris: how Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and von Choltitz saved the City of Light. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Grey, T. (2014). “Diplomacy” details how Paris was saved in World War II. The Wallstreet Journal. See: https://online.wsj.com/articles/diplomacy-details-how-paris-was-saved-in-world-war-ii-1412784184?reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink.
Marlowe, L. (2014). Low-key diplomatic heroism saved Paris from Hitler’s wrath. The Irish Times. See: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/low-key-diplomatic-heroism-saved-paris-from-hitler-s-wrath-1.1737865.
Henry, L. (2019). The liberation of Paris. OSU.EDU. See: https://origins.osu.edu/milestones/the-liberation-of-paris-wwii