Saving the City of Light

Publisher's Note

History buffs have been following this summer closely, tracing each day back 70 years. We all remember how heroic D-Day was — against all odds, the Allies took the beaches and then... got really bogged down in Normandy. In fact, it wasn't until this week, 70 years ago, that the good guys finally broke through.

Why do we stop to remember such moments? Entire nations went mad, and the lessons must not be forgotten. That's what makes the events of this week, all those years ago, worth recounting.

On Aug. 9, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, a veteran of both world wars, arrived in Paris as its new German governor. His orders came straight from Hitler: "The city must not fall into the enemy's hand except lying in complete debris." What followed were the 16 tumultuous days depicted in the 1965 book Is Paris Burning? Germans controlled the monuments around Paris, waiting for the order to take them down, while French Resistance fighters, with more courage than bullets, could do little. As the Allies worried about the steep price of a siege, Choltitz suprised everyone. Instead of blowing up the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, the bridges of the Seine and more, he peacefully surrended his troops on Aug. 25.

Choltitz flatly ignored his Fuhrer's order. One man stood up to the madness so many had mindlessly followed. Choltitz was no saint; he killed many Allies and sent Jews to their deaths. But he'd finally seen enough of the darkness and spared the City of Light.

In prison camp, being secretly audiotaped, Choltitz later told his fellow POWs: "We half-took the Nazis seriously instead of saying 'To hell with you and your stupid nonsense.' ... Perhaps we bear even more guilt than these uneducated animals."

One of the lessons of World War II is what horrors can unfold when people who should know better keep silent. In the end, Choltitz followed his conscience, but so many others clung to the ravings of a lunatic until the bitter end. In Overlord, his D-Day history, Max Hastings blamed the German officers who, through "obsession with loyalty, [and their] utter inability to grapple with any greater issues of morality, humanity or the historic interests of the German people" kept on throwing lives away through May of 1945. "Suicide," Hastings added, "for an astonishing procession of German senior officers... became the final expression of their own retreat from reason."

Today, parts of the world have gone mad again; we need history to show us sanity. We must let our consciences be our guide and question authority when necessary. In the summer of '44, with cities from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Dresden to Hiroshima either destroyed or soon to be, the world needed hope — it needed Paris, like a flower blooming over a field of death. ♦