By Dick Martin
A few years ago, I took my family to Europe to tour the main WWII battlefields. On a couple of nights, we stayed on Omaha Beach. As long as we were going that far, we decided to spend a few days in Paris before we began our battlefield explorations. As we walked around Paris, I marveled at the excellent shape the city was in, despite the German occupation and abandonment of the city. It was obvious that the French Capital had escaped destruction during WWII that many other European cities had experienced. The story of Paris’ escape from destruction intrigued me. I knew there had to be an interesting story behind it. A friend clued me in that Paris escaped Hitler’s scorched earth policy because the man Hitler chose as his commander in Paris was General Dietrich von Cholitz, who disobeyed Hitler’s orders to lay waste to the city as the German Army left.
Cholitz, who has been known as the “Savior of Paris,” was determined to save Paris almost as soon as he was appointed its commander by Adolf Hitler. After three years of distinguished service on the Russian front, Hitler had brought General Cholitz west to head the German effort in Paris. It is thought that he obtained his beliefs about saving Paris from Robert Ley, leader of the German Workers’ Party, on a long train ride from the Fuhrer’s headquarters. At great risk to his family back in Germany, Cholitz disobeyed Hitler’s orders and is credited with saving Paris and saving thousands of prisoners from execution.
There is some skepticism of Cholitz’s actions against the Jews and other war crimes and even in saving Paris. For example, if he had been responsible for destroying Paris, he would be eternally held responsible for it destruction. He felt that it was acceptable for Paris to be damaged in the course of the war; but he wanted nothing to do with its destruction in a Hitler scorched earth policy of the city.
It cannot be argued that he surrendered the 17,000 man German garrison in Paris to the Free French and kept bridges and roads open despite Hitler’s orders. Hitler felt that if he could not have the cultural and artistic nucleus of Western civilization, no one else should have it either. It seems that Cholitz felt the opposite in Hitler’s plans for the city.
Paris did not really have any military value so Eisenhower and the allies planned to bypass it by going south of the city in its eastward advance across Europe. However, General Charles de Gaulle saw differently and thought bypassing Paris would somehow jeopardize his post war ambitions to head the French government. Eisenhower had many different pressures on him influencing his moves in Europe. If Cholitz’s actions in Paris saved the city from vengeful destruction, we can only be thankful and the world is a better place.