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Winter Reading: Eleven Days in August

January 8, 2014

Imagine: your capital city has been under occupation for four years. Food is scarce, trains are barely running, electricity supply is sporadic. All manner of opportunists are working with the occupier. Resistance fighters are being swept up by the occupier’s secret police working closely with your police. Some are taken into nearby forests and shot. Shipments of Jews are being shepherded to a transit camp in the suburbs before being bundled into cattle wagons heading for the east.

As forces of liberation approach the city, the occupiers start to panic. You watch as they stream out of the city in commandeered cars full of plunder, from champagne to livestock.

2.35 million of your compatriots are in the occupier’s country. A million of them are prisoners of war, 750,000 are slave labourers and 600,000 have been deported.

Resistance fighters have set aside their faction differences to form a coalition, of which the principal members are communists and the supporters of an army of exiles who accompany two allied powers in the march on the capital. A provisional government has already been declared, but the occupier is still in control of the city – just. They have the heavy artillery and tanks. You have rifles, hand guns, a few machine guns and Molotov cocktails. But by now there are only 20,000 of them. Against them is a whole city ready to rise, united in their desire to be rid of the oppressor. A long awaited insurrection is nigh.

The city was Paris in August 1944. The capital of France was gripped by excitement and fear. Excitement at the coming liberation, and fear that the German occupiers might first destroy their city and massacre the insurgents, just as they were doing in Warsaw at that moment in response to the Home Army uprising.

The momentous events that followed have been vividly documented in Eleven Days in August, a new book by Matthew Cobb, a Manchester University professor who lived in Paris for eighteen years and also wrote a history of the French resistance, The Resistance, The French Fight Against the Nazis.

The liberation of Paris is heavily documented both in writing and pictures. But Cobb’s book is an hour-by-hour reconstruction that surpasses the two books I already have on the subject both in its pace and through the multiplicity of sources – both German and French – on which he draws.

As I read the narrative, I kept imagining such an event taking place in London, my own capital city. Notre Dame became Westminster Abbey. Drancy, the transit point for the stream of Jews and resistance fighters became Earl’s Court.  The Hotel Meurice, where the last German commander, Von Choltitz, was holed up, became the Savoy. And the barricades across Paris were transported to Kensington, Ealing, Brixton and Oxford Street.

Robert Harris in Fatherland, and C J Sansom in Dominion expertly created a fictional Britain overrun by Nazi Germany, but neither captured the wild swings of emotion and high excitement, laced with fear and grief that the citizens of Paris experienced on the eve of their liberation.

For students of the last two world wars there is no shortage of staggering and heart-rending events by which those conflicts are often defined – Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele in World War 1; Stalingrad, D-Day, Operation Bagration, Iwo Jima and Burma in World War 2.

Yet it’s the catastrophes that strike cities, where military meets civilians, and the normal is transformed into terrible abnormality and then into a new normality – sometimes in an instant – that provide the richest source of human evidence, and linger longest in the memory. Paris, Berlin, London, Coventry, Warsaw, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo. And in the 70-odd years since WW2, Saigon, Hanoi, Kigale, Goma, Baghdad, Fallujah, Kabul, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

In a way, the plight of civilians in a great city caught up in warfare can move us more than the mass slaughter of combatants. And Cobb tellingly captures individual perceptions as he sweeps us along the tortured road to liberation. Here he quotes a Swiss journalist, Edmond Dubois after the BBC has announced the liberation as an accomplished fact:

“In front of my windows, to the south-east, there is another extremely violent thunderstorm. The sound of cannon fire is drowned by this celestial racket. In the flashes of lightning, I can make out Paris, which has been proclaimed as liberated, huddled in its isolation and ignorance, fearing the worst, fighting on the barricades, without transport, light or food, a Paris streaming with rain, a Paris turned in on itself, a Paris desperately waiting for the Allies. And yet, tonight, listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, the farmer in Texas, the Swiss mountain dweller, the fisherman in Madagascar, the shopkeeper in Saigon or the notary in Carpentras will feel their heart beating joyously as they whisper ‘Paris is liberated’.”

And here is Walter Dreizner, a German soldier, now a prisoner:

“A flood of abuse swept over us. These curses came from so many throats that they numbed our ears. They turned into a battle cry: from all sides the masses pressed against us with calls of ‘Hang them!’, ‘Murderers!’, ‘Band of Pigs!’, ‘Band of Murderers!’, ‘Thieves!’ and ‘Down with the Huns!’. They hit us, pushed us and spat at us. They were completely out of control. Wild beasts had been unleashed against us and we were their victims, victims who could not defend themselves and were not even allowed to do so. This meant death, a torturous death. The Parisians were in their element. In the midst of this unbelievable screeching we were pushed, hit and forced to the Palais Royale opposite the Louvre. The tall railings around the Palais offered us some protection. We could breathe. I felt as if I were in a cage, but a cage where the beasts were outside, pushing up against the iron bars.”

And finally, from the diary of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, whose husband Andre, a resistance fighter, was packed on to the last train from Drancy, on his way to an unknown destination:

“This is the time of night when I ask myself 20 or a 100 times: Where is his train going? Where is it now? Has it passed into the shadows? Is it still in France, this train that the Resistance should be stopping, this train in which he just has to be locked up? Yet another night in which he is taken from me….”

Deliverance finally came with the arrival of General Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Army, and, in a much less prominent role, American forces. Hitler’s threat to destroy the city proved impossible to achieve, and on August 27th General de Gaulle led a triumphant parade through the heart of Paris after the last German garrisons surrendered.

The agony was far from over for many of his fellow citizens. The 2.35 million French men and women in Germany had yet to be freed. And in an orgy of revenge – both informal and judicial – over 100,000 collaborators were executed in the subsequent months.

De Gaulle and his government put in place a raft of state-controlled institutions that survive to this day. And from time to time, his fellow countrymen have continued to man the barricades.

Eleven Days in August is a chronicle of fear, weakness, sacrifice, agony, nobility, savagery and love. It stands as a testament to the effect of war on a great city, and perhaps also speaks for the traumatised millions in other cities, many of whom never had the chance to speak for themselves in the way that thousands of participants and bystanders did so eloquently when Paris was liberated.

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