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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 01:49 GMT 02:49 UK
Paris liberation 'myth' erases Allies

By Allan Little
BBC Paris correspondent

General Charles de Gaulle leads the victory parade
De Gaulle utilised the liberation of Paris to revive French pride
It was the French police and fire brigades who opened this week of celebration with a short, solemn ceremony at the eternal flame beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

They honoured the police officers who launched the Paris uprising on 15 August 1944.

By now the people of Paris could hear the guns of the Allies approaching from the west. The Americans, British, Canadians, Free French and others had fought their way from the beaches of Normandy, where they had stormed ashore nine weeks earlier.

Resistance leaders inside the Paris police force ordered their colleagues to go on strike. From that moment onwards the Germans began to lose control of the city.

The moment of surrender, on August 25, is caught in an astonishingly vivid piece of colour film.

General Leclerc, the commander of the Free French, who had led his forces into Paris earlier that day, sits in the front of a Free French armoured jeep.

Behind him, dejected and defeated, almost slumped onto his seat, sits General Dietrich Von Choltitz, the German Governor of Paris.

Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont
Mr Kriegel-Valrimont now lives in rural Burgundy

He is being taken to the Gare Montparnasse, where, minutes later, he will sign the act of capitulation, or surrender.

But behind General Von Choltitz stands a tall young man in civilian uniform, glasses, and Free French armband.

He was Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont, a former law student who had joined the Resistance during the long years of the German occupation and was now a member of the National Resistance Council.

This week we found him in his home in central Paris.

'Worth it'

Now 90 years old, his recall of that dramatic day is razor sharp.

"Von Choltitz was sitting in front of me," he told me.

"He was a defeated man, with his head hanging down, completely defeated.

"I was 30 years old. I was coming out of a long and terrible fight with horrifying losses but these sacrifices were worth it.

"We felt very strongly that we had done what we were meant to do."

But the Paris uprising did not begin in earnest until the people of Paris could hear the guns of the approaching Americans in the west.

By the time the people took to the barricades, the approach of the Allies made liberation a near certainty.

Parisians celebrate liberation
Liberation! French citizens wave American flags

What mattered was who should liberate.

There is not much doubt that Paris would have been liberated within days even if there had been no popular uprising.

But France needed a redeeming event to restore French pride, to wipe away the stain of 1940: the surrender, and the years of collaboration that followed.

The founding myth of Gaullist France was that France redeemed itself by liberating itself.

So the version of events that France celebrates this week is one in which the role of the Allies is almost invisible.

'True and eternal France'

General de Gaulle stated this plainly in one of the most famous speeches of his great career.

Within hours of arriving in liberated Paris he went to the Hotel de Ville and said this:

"Paris - liberated by itself, liberated by its people, with the support of the armies of France, with the backing of the whole of France, of the true France, of eternal France."

Later in the speech he made only a passing mention of the Allies - and the myth of self-liberation would become the moral basis of de Gaulle's leadership of the post-war republic.

But just because the uprising was later mythologised, it does not mean the uprising was a myth.

In those 10 days, 1,600 died.

All over the city there are little stone plaques recording the places where resistance fighters fell in the 10-day uprising of August 1944.

Their courage was not myth.

Whatever their motivation, their example restored French pride and helped a humiliated people draw a line under the horrors of the occupation - and move forward.

In pictures: Liberation of Paris
23 Aug 04  |  In Pictures



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