Thursday, March 08, 2012

Hitler Visits Paris 1940 - Decides Not To Destroy It

Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt:  The Home Front in World War II is my book club's April reading.  And since it's 636 pages (plus another 100 of notes), it seemed a good idea to get a head start. (I still have to get and read the March book.)

I imagine that I might post a few more tidbits from this history of WW II in the coming weeks.  This part on Hitler's first trip to Paris (I don't know if he made a second trip) particularly struck me.

We learn that Hitler had been 'enchanted' by Paris since he'd been an art student and once the German army had taken France, he thought it would be a good time to visit.  We're told he had studied and fantasized about Paris so much that "he was certain he could find his way anywhere solely from his knowledge of the buildings and the monuments."  (You can see I'm trying to balance the idea of 'fair use' and copyright protection for Goodwin by trying to limit blanket quoting as much as possible.)

They arrived before dawn and went straight to the opera, "his favorite building."
"A white-haired French attendant led Hitler's party through the sumptuous foyer and in front of the curtain.  Hitler, looking puzzled, told the attendant that in his mind's eye he was certain a salon was supposed to be to the right.  The attendant confirmed Hitler's memory;  the salon had been eliminated in a recent renovation.  "There, you see how well I know my way about, "  Hitler remarked in triumph to his entourage.

Hitler, Speer (l)  from Eyewitness to History
From the Opéra, Hitler was driven down the Champs-Elysées and taken to the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Napoleon's tomb.  In the tomb, he trembled with excitement and ordered that the remains of Napoleon's son, which rested in Vienna, be transferred to Paris and placed beside those of his father.  Minutes later, his mood having shifted, he ordered the destruction of two World War I monuments:  the statue of General Charles Mangin, leader of the colonial troops, whose memorial included an honor guard of four Negro soldiers, and the monument to Edith Cavell, the English nurse who became a popular heroine and was executed in 1915 for aiding over two hundred Allied soldiers to escape from a Red Cross hospital in German-occupied Belgium."

It would be interesting to hear the story from the attendant who showed him around.  What must that have been like for him?  Any short story writers out there?  [Trying to find out, just before hitting the publish button, if there was ever another trip to Paris for Hitler, I found a link to Speer's full account of this trip.  It's only a few paragraphs.  There I learned that the attendant turned down a 50 Mark tip that was offered him.  The photo is also from this link.]

While trying to find out if a new Cavell memorial was built in Paris,  I came across this news clip of the dedication of the monument that Hitler had destroyed.  It's tiny.  There's a larger clip of the dedication of the monument to Cavell in London.  It looks a lot like a blogger's video of such an event today.  Wikipedia doesn't include a Paris memorial on their Cavell page.

And Wikipedia's tale of Mangin's statue is different from Goodwin's:
The statue of Mangin was destroyed in 1940 after the armistice. During his tour of Paris, Adolf Hitler visited Napoleon's tomb and the statue, being a reminder of Mangin's machinations in the Rhineland, was one of two he ordered dynamited. (The other was of Edith Cavell.) In 1957 a new statue was erected on the avenue de Breteuil.

Goodwin cites Robert Payne's Life and Death of Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich.  Wikipedia references Louis-Eugène Mangin's Le Général Mangin, (Privately Published, 1990).   Wikipedia's picture of the new statue in Paris doesn't show the four honor guards.

The last paragraph of this passage from Goodwin (page 72) is the most noteworthy in my opinion:
As the three-hour tour came to an end, an exhilarated Hitler told Speer:  "It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris.  I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled."  That evening Hitler ordered Speer to resume at once his architectural renovations of Berlin.  However beautiful Paris was, Berlin must, in the end, be made far more beautiful.  "In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris,"  he confided to Speer.  "But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow.  So why should we destroy it?" [emphasis added]
Let's take all this with a grain of salt.  Speer was there, but there probably weren't too many others who were there to challenge his 1970 account.  He was close to Hitler and held various positions including the architect who was to build this great Berlin, Hitler's vision of which seems to have saved Paris from destruction, and he became the Minister of Armaments and Wartime Production.  But the Jewish Virtual History also tells us:
Speer's relations with Hitler deteriorated when Speer disobeyed Hitler's order to destroy Nazi industrial installations in areas close to the advancing Allies. [It seems he didn't want to destroy his own creations.]
He later claimed that he independently conspired to assassinate Hitler, though historians doubt whether he ever meant to execute this plan.
Speer was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946. He had been charged with employing forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners in the German armaments industry. His testimony was notable because he was the lone defendant to accept responsibility for the practices of the Nazi regime — both for his actions and for those not under his control. He was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment in Spandau prison, after which he published his best-selling memoir, Inside the Third Reich (1970). He described himself in this account as a technician unconcerned with politics, but he still took responsibility for his role in aiding the Nazis, and expressed his regret at having done so. Again, he assumed responsibility for those actions beyond his immediate control, and expressed regret for his inaction during the slaughter of the Jews.
Speer died in London in 1981.

Reading history, especially when delving deeply Goodwin as does, gives us perspective on today's events.  Passages like this one remind us that famous leaders are just human beings and what they do has roots in their life experiences.  Hitler's desire to see Paris and his decision to let it stand are an example.  We might wonder, say, what is affecting President Assad's thinking these days?

Knowing history, if we make the wrong comparisons, can lead us astray. The lessons  from World War II that US leaders applied to Vietnam were the wrong lessons.   But careful reading of history and awareness of today can help us avoid past mistakes and can give us insight into current world affairs.

By the way,  No Ordinary Time, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2005.

[U[DATE October 12, 2015: Apparently Hitler did order Paris destroyed in 1944.  See discussion of that in review of the film Dipolomacy about the Swedish diplomat who negotiated with the German General who was governor of Paris in 1944, General Choltitz.]

[UPDATE May 14, 2017: I got an email from British visitor, John Hussey of Liverpool, to the blog asking if would like to add a link to his post on Hitler's visit to Paris.  His is based on a book, Paris, Hitler, and Me, he found in Paris by German sculptor,  Arno Breker (1900 - 1991), who according to the book, was 'invited' to be Hitler's guide in Paris.   Breker is the man on the right in the picture above.  John Hussey's post is well worth reading to complement this post.  You can see it at Paris In Depth - An Unwelcome Visitor.


  1. Hi, Steve,

    FWIW, the guy on the right is the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker, who was Hitler's tour guide on this, his only visit to Paris. Even in the Reich, where anyone who was anyone had a uniform, (note Speer), Breker had to borrow the hat and topcoat from one of Hitler's entourage for the day.

  2. Are you THE Bill Butler, formerly of Seldovia? Actually, Speer wrote in the link from the photo that he too was given the uniform for the day. Note the 'us artists.'

    "Field-gray uniforms had been provided for us artists, so that we might fit into the military framework."

    And reading it more carefully I see it was Hitler's only trip to Paris. More Speer,

    "I felt something like pity for him: three hours in Paris, the one and only time he was to see it, made him happy when he stood at the height of his triumphs."

    1. >>Are you THE Bill Butler, formerly of Seldovia?<<

      Yup. We sold the hotel in Seldovia shortly after I returned to the University in 2002, then Gina and Liv' decided 19 Alaska winters were enough and I retired (again) in 2010. After a whole summer of research, we picked Ashland, where I just finished lunch on the terrace in 68 degree sunshine [/gloat].

      Both Gina and I are tele-commuting for a few hours per week; here are some pix of our new "workplace".

      Regards to the family; come see us next time you're "outside'.


  3. I thought of doing an article about Edith Cavell back when Private Bradley Manning was being tortured at Quantico Marine Base by Obama, attempting to extract a false confession from him regarding his relationship with Julian Assange. Two quotes attributed to Cavell got me thinking about it:

    "Patriotism is not enough," and "I can't stop while there are lives to be saved."

    I read Speer's memoir when it came out. It was fascinating then, over 40 years ago, in its seeming sense of remorse. Trying to re-read it 20 years later, I was angered by Speer's blithe abetting of so awful much evil, and could not finish it.


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