The liberation of Paris in August 1944 is usually shown as ecstatic crowds welcoming the British and US military. But the French capital was liberated from German occupation by a working class insurrection.
Ordinary people were exhausted and undernourished from four years of occupation. And rationing had got worse after the D-Day invasion in June.
“Which Resistance group you joined was often chance,” explained Matthew Cobb, author of the new history of the uprising, Eleven Days in August. “People joined with friends and people they could trust. “The Resistance wasn’t all organised groups of men and women blowing up trains—and they didn’t necessarily co-operate with each other. But they were highly politicised movements, mostly left wing, and many produced newspapers. Even the young Christians group was left oriented.”
The largest group in the Paris region was the Communist Party (CP) led National Front—unrelated to the modern fascist party—because of the CP’s prewar roots in the trade unions and working class.
Right wing general Charles de Gaulle was seen as the leader of the Resistance. But Matthew said, “Resistance groups were suspicious of De Gaulle—many thought he would be a dictator after the war.”
Much of the French establishment went along with the German occupation. The Nazis established a collaborationist, puppet government in Vichy under Marshal Philippe Pétain.
De Gaulle made a radio broadcast from London calling on France to resist the Nazis. He set up the Free French and a government in exile. “Many people who heard the broadcasts didn’t believe de Gaulle was a real person because his name was an old name for France. He represented a tiny sliver of ruling class interests but he talked left during the war.”
De Gaulle spoke left because he was worried about the role of the CP. It remained influential despite the fact it had lost tens of thousands of members following the pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939. Thousands of individual Communists resisted the Nazis from the beginning, but officially the CP started fighting when Germany invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. Many Communists were tortured, killed or deported to death camps.
CP leaflets and newspapers tended to argue in nationalist terms rather than class politics. But the left wing nature of the Resistance scared the Allies, who sent hardly any weapons.
“The Allies wanted to make sure that weapons stayed in the hands of those they could trust or control,” said Matthew. On Bastille Day, 14 July 1944, hundreds of people demonstrated in Paris’s working class suburbs, waving the French flag, singing the national anthem and chanting “Bread, bread!” Shaken, the Germans took hostages to stop the protests spreading.
Paris was not heavily defended—the Nazis only expected to have to control the civilian population. Approaching Allied troops were expected to avoid the risk of house-to-house fighting in the city, which was of little strategic importance.
On 10 August the Communist Resistance group made a call to arms. But it issued no orders about how to proceed. Leadership fell to Henri “Colonel Rol” Tanguy. He had fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He argued there had to be an insurrection to drive out the Germans. And ordinary people were desperate to end the occupation.
On 10 August 500 rail workers went on strike and occupied their workplaces. The strike spread to 25 depots. “The strikers demanded the release of the hostages taken on 14 July. But they also wanted pay increases and more food,” said Matthew.
The strikers picketed out other depots, though some refused to get involved. The Germans sent 300 troops to threaten the strikers. But the Resistance sent out fighters to threaten scabs. Paris was shutting down. Two days later the police went on strike. People were cynical of the police who had rounded up communists and Jews—but they hated the Nazis more. Overnight 20,000 leaflets appeared calling for strikes to spread. Resistance fighters pasted up posters calling for an uprising.
The Germans fled in any vehicle possible, but they killed Resistance prisoners and Jews as they went.
There were still 10,000 Jews in Paris. Any Jew not in hiding was forced to wear a yellow star. They lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation. But now it was the fascists and collaborators who were afraid and ran away.
Postal workers, water distribution and funeral parlours all came out on strike. They got imprisoned railway workers released. All this had De Gaulle worried. His BBC broadcasts said don’t strike—protect workplaces and fight the Germans.
The rebels wanted to fight as there were still 20,000 Nazis in the city. These included elite SS troops who were determined to fight to the end. The Resistance built barricades, often decorated with pictures of Nazi leaders, so German soldiers would have to shoot at them. They fought with what they could find—mostly First World War rifles.
“You can see in one photograph an unarmed crowd overwhelm a small tank (see right). In the picture is Georges Dukson aged 22 from French West Africa who joined the French army. He was captured and had escaped a German prison camp.
“Hundreds of barricades went up in the working class areas and none in the richest area, the 16th arrondisement. The barricades underlined the class divide between Vichy and the Resistance.”
Hundreds were killed and wounded, but the city was almost totally in the hands of the Resistance by 25 August when French troops arrived and accepted the German surrender. De Gaulle had rushed to arrive in time to claim credit for the victory.
Occupation diaries reveal the brutality of life under Nazi rule
Diaries of participants were invaluable in producing the book, Matthew explained. “They are full of queuing for bread. But people understood they were living through history and kept diaries to make sense of what was happening.”
Many of the diaries were published in the years after the war but then were generally forgotten.
“An exception is Jacqueline Mesnit-Amar who wrote about the deportations of Resistance fighters including her husband. Her diary has been republished and is being made into a film. Albert Grunberg wrote a very moving diary. He was a Jewish hairdresser close to the Communist Party who hid with his brother Sami in the attic of his apartment building. The caretaker looked after them for two years.”
Albert’s diary was full of rage about the radio propaganda of the Vichy government and the horrors of bombing raids.
“Odette Lainville wrote about the two Jewish children she took in,” said Matthew. “There are stories like this all over France—thousands of people hid Jews—especially Jewish children. But I couldn’t find the diaries of ordinary collaborators. If their relatives have got them in drawers they have kept them there.”
Why did the left hand power to De Gaulle after winning?
The liberation celebrations were ecstatic as over a million people poured into the streets on 26 August. De Gaulle arrived in the city intending to virtually ignore the Resistance and instantly become head of the government. He was reluctantly forced to go to meet the Resistance leaders as equals because of the scale of what they had achieved.
The Communist Party was at the head of an insurrection that pushed out the Germans. So why did it meekly allow authority to be handed to De Gaulle?
The Communists used their party’s strength to free France, but not for revolution. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin relied on treaties with the governments of Britain and the US to help defeat Germany.
Communist parties became tools of Russian foreign policy looking for progressive elements in different countries’ leaderships. So they allowed De Gaulle to reassert his right wing politics. He was soon triumphant as the figurehead of the Free French, built up by the BBC and money from the Allies.
- Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (£25) by Matthew Cobb
- A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire (£15) by Donny Gluckstein
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