15 May 2023

Brennt Paris? Is Paris burning? Paris brûle-t-il?

Searching the internet for any of the strings Brennt Paris? Is Paris burning? Paris brûle-t-il? you end up with novels, plays or movies dealing with Paris, August 1944, and the German general in charge: Dietrich von Choltitz, a.k.a. the man who saved Paris. Here is how he was embedded in the chain of command:

Alfred Jodl
(on behalf of Hitler)
Walter Model
Hans Speidel
Dietrich von Choltitz

The popular story can be summarised as follows:

  • seeing Paris lost to the allies, a raging Hitler ordered it to be destroyed
  • Choltitz refused to obey the barbaric order for love of the beautiful city, and surrendered. 

What follows is a critical investigation, based on the following documents:

[C] Dietrich von Choltitz, --- brennt paris? adolf hitler --- Tatsachenbericht des letzten deutschen Befehlshabers in Paris, UNA Mannheim 1950 (here)

[KTB] Kriegstagebuch des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht (Wehrmachtführungsstab), Band IV (Erster Halbband, Zweiter Halbband),  Eingeleitet und erläutert von Percy Ernst Schramm, Bernard & Graefe Verlag für Wehrwesen, Frankfurt am Main, 1961 (relevant pages here)

[RKG] Reichskriegsgericht, Strafsache gegen den General der Infanterie Dietrich von Choltitz wegen Übergabe an den Feind, 27.3.1945, Militärhistorisches Archiv Prag, Karton 28. (here)

[S] Hans Speidel, Invasion 1944, ein Beitrag zu Rommels und des Reiches Schicksal, Rainer Wunderlich Verlag, Hermann Leins, Tübingen und Stuttgart, 1950 (relevant pages here)


1. Wartime documents

The War Diary of the High Command [KTB], published in 1961, had been written on a daily basis "in real time". On August 20, 1944, the following decision was registered. 

Forces and supplies allowing, the mass of the 5th Panzer Army together with parts of the 1st Army should fight free the connection with the bridgehead Paris, which was to be held in all circumstances. The fighting around and in Paris would, if need be (notfalls), be conducted without consideration for the city (ohne Rücksicht auf die Stadt). [KTB, p. 472]  

It resulted in an official order, issued by Jodl on August 22, of which a copy is preserved among the papers of the Court Martial against Choltitz (March 1945).

[RKG, p.32 of the pdf file]

The last three paragraphs read
Inside the city, at the first signs of uprising, one should intervene with the sharpest possible means, for instance, blowing up blocks of houses, public execution of agitators, evacuation of the district concerned, because this is the best prevention against further spreading. 

The bridges on the Seine are to be prepared for destruction.

Paris is not to fall into the hands of the enemy, or only as a field of ruins (Trümmerfeld).   
Note that these orders allow for (much) "collateral damage" — the "fight without consideration for the city" of the War Diary — but don't aim at destruction beyond military logic.  

Choltitz did not act accordingly, and Model started against him a court-martial procedure for insubordination (by no means the heaviest charge that was possible), including some possibly mitigating factors. In March 1945 the trial was suspended until Choltitz — meanwhile a prisoner of war — could be heard. Of course, this did never happen. 

On the sleeve sheet of the trial [RKG, p.1 of the pdf file], the charge is summarised in four words: Surrender to the enemy (Übergabe an den Feind). More details are provided on the first page [RKG, p.2 of the pdf file]:

  • agreed a cease-fire with the resistance fighters
  • neglected to properly prepare the destruction of bridges, power plants and water works
  • allowed troops to leave Paris instead of using them for defense
  • surrendered to the enemy and ordered his troops to do the same

Only partially do these charges refer to (military) destructions, the point being that Choltitz did not properly prepare them, as he had been ordered. Nothing is said about any order to actually execute the planned destructions.

2. Post-war documents

After the war, both Choltitz and his immediate superior, Hans Speidel, wrote on the subject. Both came out of WW2 surrounded by some ambiguity, which in later years they tried hard to dispel. Choltitz had been court-martialed in absentia and not cleared. Speidel had been involved in the plot against Hitler but only mildly so. He had been briefly arrested, but went free unharmed and is even cited among the witnesses of the trial without any reservation [RKG, p.84right of the pdf file]. So, both had things to explain, and it is generally acknowledged that their accounts contain contradictions and omissions. 

A. Choltitz

Choltitz is responsible for the catching phrase Is Paris burning? Adolf Hitler, which is the title of his 1950 apologetic book. 

Though the book is presented as a Factual Account (Tatsachenbericht), the famous telegram of the title is only reported by anonymous hearsay. Choltitz writes 
Only afterwards was I informed, by high ranking officers fully aware of things, of a telegraphic question from headquarters: Is Paris burning? Adolf Hitler. I did not see it, and it was therefore not answered. [C, p. 66]
Later novels and movies promote this radio telegram of dubious existence to a genuine telephone call by a raging Hitler. Fictional spin-offs also never fail to render some sarcastic sentences by Choltitz as if he had spoken in earnest. Choltitz again (telephoning with Speidel):
"Let me tell you what I have ordered. I had three tons of explosives stored in the Notre Dame, two tons in the Dôme des Invalides, one ton in the Chambre des Députés. I'm about to blow up the Arc de Triomphe because of the field of fire." (...) I did not engage in any debate, and continued: "Let me tell you what I have planned. The Madeleine Church and the Opera House will be dealt with simultaneously." I got carried away, and added: "The Eiffel Tower will be blown up in such a way that it lies as a barrier in front of the destructed briges." Then it became clear to Speidel that I was not speaking in earnest, and that I only wanted to make clear into what insane situations a subordinate soldier is brought by such orders. [C, pp.64-65]

As for his orders, Choltitz renders the Trümmerfeld order of August 22 very briefly as follows:

Paris must be turned into a field of ruins. The commanding general must defend it to the last man and, if necessary, he dies in the ruins.

This succinct phrasing might create the impression that the wilful destruction of Paris was a primary goal, wheras it was taken into account merely as a consequence of stubborn defence. For comparison: there was never an order to destroy the historic town of Caen in Normandy, but as a result of heavy fighting it was nonetheless left in ruins, a mere three weeks before the events in Paris (photo below).

It's useless to try and decide whether or to what extent Choltitz was guilty of disobedience. After all, the court-martial investigating this question shortly after the events could not (or refused to) decide. Given his lack of means, the fighting under his command may have been more than symbolic; at his very headquarters, three soldiers and a staff officer were killed.

Many elements in Choltitz's account are confusing, to say the least. Thus he writes

The day after the arrival of the Destruction Team, on August 15, the order came by radio to destroy the bridges of Paris. [C, p. 28]

This is a week before the High Command had even decided to have the bridges prepared for destruction!  

B. Speidel

Speidel as a NATO general (1963)

The post-war Choltitz is counted among the "good Germans", and this holds even more for Speidel, who rose to the highest level in NATO. 

Unlike the court-martial, he mentions an order to actually destroy the bridges and other military objects that had been (or should have been) prepared.

On August 23, Army Group B received of Hitler the order to destroy bridges and other important objects in Paris, "even if blocks of houses and works of art are destroyed in the process". (...) General von Choltitz had the destructions not executed and, doing so, he saved from destruction unique works of architecture in the magnificent city. [S, p.165]   

He even adds to the Ruins Order a second Destruction Order, after Paris was lost, therefore not involving Choltitz at all.

As soon as the High Command of the Army was informed that Paris had been lost, Adolf Hitler ordered the use of long-range artillery (still possible at the time), of V-weapons and all available air units against Paris. Hitler thought of the Destruction Order as a "moral means of fight". Its execution would not only have caused the loss of many thousands of lives, but would also have destroyed unique works of art in the "Ville Lumière". (...) The Chief of Staff of Army Group B [i.e., Speidel himself — C.I.] prevented the transmission and the execution of this Destruction Order, against Hitler's wish. Thus Paris was, in the nick of time, saved from destruction. [S, pp. 166-167]

In Choltitz's account, an air attack on Paris was ordered while he was still in charge, and it was cancelled because of the many German positions scattered throughout the town. [C, pp 71-72]

Speidel's account, like Choltitz's, is not without raising some questions. If he is to be believed, he blocked on two occasions orders he was supposed to pass on, twice saving Paris from destruction. In their respective books, Choltitz and Speidel agree in claiming that the Trümmerfeld order was never transmitted to Choltitz, who only caught it accidentally. [C, p. 65; S, p.165] It is very difficult to make sense of this. One possible conclusion could be that Choltitz is famous for not executing an order he was not given!