Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Jodl, I want to Know. Is Paris Burning?"

On March 31, 1889, the then tallest man made structure was declared opened in Paris. Twenty days later, one of the most enigmatic and brutal leaders to have lived on the earth was born in a small Austrian town called Braunau-am-Inn. In August 1944, this man had ordered that structure, the Eiffel Tower, to be destroyed. His order was not carried out. The story of how the landmarks in the city of Paris escaped destruction is told in the book “Is Paris Burning?” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

Two months into the Allied landing in Normandy, the Allied forces had broken through the German lines and were freely roaming in parts of France. Paris lay ahead of them. The German dictator Adolf Hitler, who had survived an assassination attempt on July 20, was becoming increasingly agitated; perhaps mad, with the passage of time. He believed that Paris is the key to France, and he who holds Paris will control France.
Adolf Hitler was very proud of the German conquest of France. He visited Paris on June 23, 1940, just a few days after the city had fallen.
The Allies, on the other hand, knew better. As the war stood, Paris had no military value. It could be surpassed with ease and surrounded, forcing the Germans inside the city to surrender without a fight. A frontal attack will involve a large number of casualties which was not worth for a militarily insignificant target.

But, there was a different aspect to the story, which the Allies had not realized. On August 7, 1944, Hitler had summoned General Dietrich von Choltitz and appointed him the military governor of Paris. His orders were to hold to the city at any cost, and if the city was to fall, to destroy the landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower. If Hitler could not have it, no one would.

Choltitz, somewhat reluctantly, started to prepare. However, when the explosives were placed in important places, the French people understood what was happening. The underground raised the cry “aux barricades!” and rose against the Germans. However, their forces were less prepared to fight. They wanted to force the Allies to change their plans and liberate Paris.

Meanwhile, despite the decision by the Allies, the leader of the Free French, General Charles De Gaulle, wanted the city to be liberated. Furthermore, in a strange twist of choices, even Choltitz wanted the Allies to liberate the city so that he will not be able to carry out the dreadful order of Hitler. Increasingly suspicious of people around him, Hitler once asked General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces high Command, whether Paris was burning. It was not; it never did.

Collins and Lapierre, American and French respectively, have done several books together. But this book remains to be the best. It has scores of stories about big and small people, all interwoven into a saga on the city of Paris during its last days of German rule. It is a piece of living history, written from a journalistic eye. It is easy to read, and is a thrill to read as well.

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