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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Eyewitness: How Paris was liberated
By Hugh Schofield
Paris

One of the last survivors from the top echelons of the wartime French Resistance, Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont played a key role in the liberation of Paris, whose 60th anniversary is being celebrated this week.

General Charles de Gaulle leads a parade in Paris
General Charles de Gaulle led a huge victory parade in the city

A member of the three-man Military Action Committee (COMAC) set up by the National Resistance Council (CNR), he masterminded the popular insurrection in the capital that hastened the German collapse on 25 August.

On the day of victory he was there in the billiards room of the Prefecture de Police when the German governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, signed the surrender document, and it was on his personal insistence that the role of the Resistance was mentioned in the text.

And later that day he was on the half-track military vehicle that transported the humbled General Choltitz through triumphant crowds to an encounter with General Charles de Gaulle at Montparnasse station.

'Momentous events'

A celebrated photograph shows Mr Kriegel-Valrimont standing behind General Choltitz.

It was worth it all for this! Paris is free, the enemy is our prisoner, the war is going to be won
Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont

Mr Kriegel-Valrimont wears spectacles and civilian clothes: the hidden theoretician of revolt who has finally thrown off the cloak of secrecy to assume his place in history.

Today a robust and lucid 90, Mr Kriegel-Valrimont lives with his wife in rural Burgundy, where he is happy to reminisce about the momentous events of August 1944.

"In Paris we had one great advantage - which was a tradition of popular uprising. There was the revolution of course in 1879, but after that 1830, 1848, above all the Commune in 1870. There was a body of doctrine. We knew how to do it," he recalls.

"On top of that we had all studied military theory - Clausewitz and the others - and had a good grasp of when to act: not too early and not too late. I myself had no military training, but I had become an expert," he says.

Escape to Paris

Born into a Jewish family in Strasbourg in 1914, Mr Kriegel (as he then was) was active on the political left before World War II.

Parisians man the barricades
Parisians built some 600 barricades around the capital

In 1942 he was recruited into the Resistance by Raymond Aubrac and took the nom de guerre Valrimont which he later officially appended to his name.

He organised the left-wing Liberation group in Lyon, where he was captured and interrogated by the notorious Klaus Barbie. He escaped and made his way to Paris.

There his organisational skills were seized on by the CNR, which was set up in 1943 to unite the disparate elements of the Resistance into a single body: the French Forces of the Interior (FFI).

After the Allied victory in Normandy, the showdown in Paris was approaching. From the CNR's military committee, Mr Kriegel-Valrimont ordered a series of strikes.

Paris barricades

His inflammatory texts appeared overnight on fly-posters and underground news sheets.

Then Free French radio began broadcasting, and on 22 August the barricades appeared.

"In 36 hours there were 600 or more," he recalls. "The people were like ants - tens of thousands of them. Some of the barricades were real masterpieces, built by craftsmen and strong enough to stop a tank. Others would have just collapsed, but the German did not know which was which.

"Fear had changed sides, and now the initiative did too. The Germans were the ones on the defensive, and they fell back on a handful of strongpoints."

Hundreds of Frenchmen died in the fighting, and their names can still be seen on memorial plaques across the capital, which are decorated with flowers at every anniversary.

But with General Philippe Leclerc's Second Armoured Division breaking in from the south, the German collapse was swift.

'Not a bad job!'

After three days, General Choltitz was ready to give up the fight and he was brought to the Prefecture from his headquarters in the Hotel Meurice.

Mr Kriegel-Valrimont insists there is no truth to the legend - perpetuated in the film and book Is Paris Burning? - that General Choltitz defied Hitler's orders to destroy Paris.

"The question is meaningless because once we had the initiative he did not have the power to act," he says.

After the surrender, there was the triumph through central Paris. With Mr Kriegel-Valrimont and General Choltitz on the half-track were: General Philippe Leclerc, Jacques Chaban-Delmas - Mr de Gaulle's link-man with the Resistance - and Henri Rol-Tanguy, who commanded the FFI in Paris.

"To say it was unforgettable is meaningless. It was phenomenal. Everyone should have a day like that once in their lifetime.

"When we got to Montparnasse, Rol and I looked at each other. We didn't speak a word, but we both knew what the other was thinking: yes - it was worth it all for this! Paris is free, the enemy is our prisoner, the war is going to be won. Not a bad job!"


SEE ALSO:
In pictures: Liberation of Paris
23 Aug 04  |  In Pictures
Churchill returns to Paris
11 Nov 98  |  UK News


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