Somos+, Jose M. Presol, 18 November 2015 — Why Paris? It’s not by chance. By 1814 and 1815 the wars between France and — I think we can say — the rest of Europe, finally came to an end. Everyone had tried to invade and control the city. By 1789 it had become not just the capital of elegance but also the crucible from which ideas emerged that gave rise to what we now think of as Europe and the West (in the widest sense), as well as to all the innovative concepts which evolved into what we now think of as democracy.
It is to Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman and Mediterranean cultures that both America and Europe owe much of their identity and values. But it is to France, to Paris, to which we owe such fundamentally modern ideas as popular sovereignty, separation of powers, human rights, representation through periodic elections, freedom of assembly, of expression, of the press, of movement, as well as the sanctity of the person, of his family and of property.
Paris continued to grow as a symbol of peace, democracy, and human rights. At the city’s Universal Exhibition, held in 1889, the Eiffel Tower made its debut. Three-hundred meters tall and made entirely of iron, a new symbol of the city had been born. A little before that, the surrender of Napolean III to the Prussians led the people of Paris to rise up once again. They took up arms and proclaimed the Third Republic in 1870. In 1871 they proclaimed the Commune, the predecessor to the workers’ struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Franco-Prussian war had not ended well. France was forced to accept an armistice against the wishes of its people. Parisians, now surrounded, preferred to die of starvation rather than surrender.
During the First World War the troops of the not exactly democratic German Empire advanced towards the city. France was bleeding after the battles of Lorraine and Charleroi, where many of its finest youth had fallen. Stopping the advance depended on being able to bring five British divisions and all the French reserve forces to the front. Once again Paris came to the rescue! After sending its youth into the battlefield, Parisians stepped up, and exerted the force and effort necessary to repel this new German army back towards the Marne. The city’s taxi drivers — yes, taxi drivers — tirelessly drove to and from the front, some 160 kilometers each way, ferrying men, arms and munitions.
A short-lived peace was followed by a new invasion from the same point of origin by — as one might expect — the enemies of democracy, now calling themselves Nazis. This time they did invade the city. Intent on humiliating it, they staged constant military parades along the Champs Elysées and raised their red flag with its broken cross above the Eiffel Tower. Rather than humiliating the city, these actions only served to stoke its rage.
At almost the same time that an armistice was signed in June 1940, General de Gaulle crossed the English Channel and announced in London that the Free French would continue fighting. By August 21, 1941 the French Resistance was strong enough to launch an attack in Paris, killing a cadet of the occupying navy. Initially, the invaders did not make much of it, but opinions changed when three days later two officials in Lille were killed. On the same day there was another attack on two soldiers at the Belgian border. And August 29 saw an attack against a barracks of collaborationist French troops headed for the front, which injured Pierre Laval himself.
Little by little, the tide of World War II began shifting in favor of the Allies and victory was achieved in August 1944. The Resistance in Paris was headed by a communist, Henri Rol-Tanguy, and a Gaullist, Jacques Chaban-Delmas (later the French prime minister from 1969 to 1972). Both were fixated on one idea: to hand over to the Allies a self-liberated Paris. This was also General de Gaulle’s idea but one with a broader vision: to hand over his capital to the French Republic and to launch from it, as soon as possible, the Free French Second Armored Division to finish the work of the Resistance.
Destruction is always on the minds of evil people. If Paris were to revolt or was in danger of being liberated, Hitler ordered that it be razed to the ground, exactly as he had done to Warsaw on August 1 after the Polish Home Army uprising. But there were three things the Great Dictator had not counted on.
The first was the Swedish consul-general, Raoul Nordling, who was not willing to see the city destroyed. While he was trying to save as many lives as possible, he served as a tireless intermediary between the Resistance and the military commander of Paris, arranging pacts and truces to give the Allies more time.
The second factor was the commander of Paris himself, General Dietrich von Choltitz, who was appointed specifically to oversee the destruction of the city. But when he saw Paris, he refused, the first time in his military career that he disobeyed an order. After putting up a token resistance to avoid reprisals by the Nazis against officers’ families, he surrendered the city.
But the most important factor was the people of Paris themselves. On August 13 the subway workers and the National Gendarmerie revolted. On August 15 the police joined the revolt. On August 16 postal workers did the same. On that same day all civilian vehicles capable of being used in the uprising were commandeered. On August 17 the National Council of the Resistance agreed to launch a full-scale offensive. On August 18 a general strike was called and the General Prefecture of Paris was occupied. Finally, on August 22 the Ninth Armored Company, an advance unit of the Second Armored Division, entered the city.
At this point history and legend converge. (Afterall, this is Paris.) There is a story that the driver of a Sherman tank, whose side had been painted with the name Madrid, reached his commanding officer by radio and a conversion in Spanish ensued, which went something like this:
“Sir, I have arrived at the center of Paris!”
“So what the hell do you see in the center of Paris?”
“It must be Notre Dame in front of me and the gun range finder tells me it’s a hundred fifty yards away!”
Whether this conversation actually took place or not, the story goes that it was conducted in Spanish because the commanding officer, Captain Raymond Dronne, was married to a Spaniard from Burgos while the tank driver, Carlos Gutierrez Menoyo, was born in Madrid. What the latter did not yet know was that thirteen years later he, as military commander of the Cuba’s Revolutionary Directorate, would die in a failed assault on Havana’s Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957.
For all this and much more. For the writings of Voltaire’s, for the kisses of lovers, for sidewalk cafes, the breeze along the Seine, its beautiful women, Les Invalides, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Montmartre, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur, the Latin Quarter, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries, the paintings of Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec, for the Central Hammam Mosque Hammam and for many other reasons Hemingway described Paris as “a moveable feast.” Paris is a symbol, a banner for all democrats and people of good will. This is why the wicked want to destroy her. They will not succeed. Parisians of all colors, religions and democratic political ideologies will prevent it. And if those efforts are not enough, there are all the people of France. And if those efforts are still not enough, then there are all the democratic-loving peoples of the world.
As its motto “fluctuat nec mergitur” says, “She is tossed by waves but does not sink.”
They will never be able to destroy Paris.