By Alex Kershaw
We did not arrive at first light as Hitler had done, accompanied by a carefully selected entourage of aesthetes and adjutants, to be greeted by swastikas flying from rooftops and silent streets. Instead, we slip into the city at night, intent on seeing the sights as the Fuhrer did on 23 June 1940, but also determined to explore the darkest corners of the city, the avenues and quartiers where his most ardent followers, namely the Gestapo, had cast long shadows during four years of increasingly brutal occupation.
Der Fuhrer, a former art student, had always longed to see the most civilized city in history. For his first and as it turned out only visit, he brought along his favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, and his pet architects, Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler.
“Paris has always fascinated me,” Hitler confided in Breker, who shared a large Mercedes sedan with Hitler during a whirlwind tour.
Our first stop is the Opera, today at the heart of a bustling shopping district. In 1940, by contrast, the streets around this extraordinary theatre were empty. A lone gendarme saluted Hitler, his new master.
Hitler adored the Opera.
“This is the most beautiful theater in the world.”
Had Hitler explored the area, as we choose to do, rather than rush on to the next conquered landmark, he would have soon discovered 122 Rue de Provence, the address of the most famous of Paris’ many wartime brothels, the One Two Two club, which would soon be much frequented by the SS. The boite’s owner, Fabienne Jamet, loved the young Aryans’ jet black uniforms, appreciated their gifts of flowers and champagne for her best girls, and would always insist the German occupation was the best chapter in a long life as a Parisian hostess par excellence. Typically, her girls were examined three times a week for infection. The Germans viewed the act of sleeping with the enemy while infected as a particularly reprehensible form of sabotage.
Next, we head south through streets line with expensive cars, across the gray Seine to the Eiffel Tower. In 1940, Hitler had wanted to look down on his greatest prize from the top of the tower but when he arrived at the city’s most famous landmark he was told that the French had severed the cables to the lifts. The only way up was on foot. Hitler declined to climb the 1,792 steps. A few hours after he left, the lifts miraculously were working again.
Paris was the greatest prize of the Third Reich, by far the most favored place for Germans to be posted, lose their virginity and spend their leave. And the Germans made good conquerors at first. Tres correct. They paid their bills and left tips. Parisians had expected rape and pillage, not politeness. But then the Gestapo got down to business. As the tide of war turned against the Germans on all fronts in 1943, their security services became increasingly repressive. Assassinations and attacks on German soldiers soared. The SS hit back, sending thousands of Parisians to gruesome deaths.
At the height of Nazi terror in 1943-44, there was perhaps no more feared destination than 93 Rue Lauriston, the most notorious of the Gestapo’s addresses in Paris. Today, there is a small plaque on a wall on the building, a reminder that this was in fact a place of immense evil and suffering. In the cavernous cellar, the infamous Bonny Lafont gang invented gruesome torture techniques when not throwing wild parties on the upper floors for Gestapo and SS bigwigs who wanted to mingle with carefully selected young French actresses.
On a chilly December day, as the light begins to fade, we arrive on the Avenue Foch, the widest and grandest of Haussmann’s boulevards. This was the epicenter of Nazi power, even when Hitler visited. Along the avenue, the Gestapo set up several offices. At Number 72, SS Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces from a grand white villa that is today empty, its shutters closed. At Number 31, just across the street, in June 1942 Theodor Dannecker and Adolf Eichmann planned the Grand Rafle of 16 – 17 July in which over fifteen thousand Jews were taken to the Vel d’Hiver before eventually being sent to death camps. At Number 84, we stop and look up to the small servants’ rooms of a large villa. It was in these cramped rooms on the fifth floor that the legendary Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit”, “Madeleine” and other British SOE agents were tortured until their upscale neighbors could hear their screams.
A short stroll from Avenue Foch, we discover the famous Prunier Restaurant, at the heart of the so-called “Nazi Triangle” – several grand streets and avenues near the Etoile. Our budget is limited so we decide not to indulge, unlike the SS officers and black market barons who spent large sums of occupation currency on caviar and oysters, surrounded by Art Deco opulence.
It’s after dark as we walk along the Champs Elysees, navigating through more crowds of frantic Christmas shoppers, headed for the most glamorous address in Paris for senior Nazis and where Hitler would have undoubtedly stayed if he had chosen to spend more than just a couple of giddy hours in the city. The Ritz.
Goering and Goebbels and others among the Third Reich’s top leadership found the hotel, on the Place Vendome, utterly sumptuous, the service impeccable. During the occupation, the Germans discreetly took up residence in one wing while regular guests had access to all but a couple of the suites. The most glamorous of France’s collaborators were also in residence. The actress Arletty, famous for her role in Les Enfants du Paradis, shared one of the famous brass beds with Hans Jurgen Soehring, ten years her junior. “Mon coeur est francais,” Arletty protested after the war. “Mon cul est international.” (My heart if French…. [but] my ass is international). Coco Chanel also made the hotel her home during the war. The window of her room actually overlooked her store on the Rue Cambon.
In the Imperial Suite, Goring examined looted art, some of it taken from Jewish homes on Avenue Foch. A crystal bowl full of morphine tablets sat on a side table beside another full of precious gems – rubies, black pearls. The morbidly obese Reichsmarshal liked to dance with the hotel’s waiters then drift into reverie lying on a replica of Marie Antoinette’s four poster bed.
Sadly, the hotel is undergoing renovation – it is due to reopen this summer – so we move on quickly and enjoy a long cocktail or two in a bistro opposite the Les Invalides where Napoleon’s tomb lies beneath a magnificent dome. In 1940, Hitler stared at the great French dictator’s final resting place for several minutes and then turned to Gieseler, the architect, and declared: “You will build my tomb.”
Hitler’s last stop was in Montmartre. After a last look at Paris, his group drove to the airport. By nine o’clock in the morning, the sightseeing tour was over. Later that day, Hitler confided in Albert Speer: “In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”
Four years later, Hitler had changed his mind. On our last day, fittingly, we decide to visit the Meurice hotel where the grand climax of occupation was played out. Dietrich von Choltitz resided here as the last German military governor of Paris, making the magnificent hotel his base. As the Allies closed on the city, Hitler apparently called him on a telephone in room number 213 and screamed in rage: “Is Paris burning?”
It was not. Once Hitler’s rant had ended, the portly Prussian general, Choltitz, set about making sure it did not, minimizing damage to the city Hitler had professed to admire more than any other, before surrendering to French general Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque at the Gare Montparnasse on August 25.
Before heading home, we find ourselves compelled to visit at least a couple of places where Nazism’s victims spent their last days. Not far from the Eiffel tower we find an elegant mansion bloc, 5 Avenue Élysées Reclus. It was here that the Jewish writer Helene Berr penned a deeply affecting diary of occupation that became a best seller in 2008, long after her death. “There is beauty in the midst of tragedy,” Berr wrote in the darkest days of the German occupation. “As if beauty were condensing in the heart of ugliness. It’s very strange.”
Hélène Berr died just five days from the end of the war in Bergen Belsen, where Anne Frank also breathed her last. Berr’s journey from Paris to hell had started in the rail yards to the north east of the city, a few miles from the Pere Lachaise cemetery. During our final hours in Paris, we walk though the fascinating graveyard, pausing for a while at the grave of Edith Piaf, who sang for Germans and French alike during Paris’s darkest years. Fresh flowers adorn her grave. Then we head even further east to a far corner. Here we find several impressive memorials to the French victims of Nazi rule and the 200,000 who were deported to concentration camps. There are no bouquets of garish flowers – just stark marble statues, haunting and unforgettable reminders of the four long years when the Nazis occupied the City of Light.
Where to go and stay
The area around Rue Cler, close to the American University of Paris is full of great and affordable restaurants, among the best being Le Petit Cler, 29 Rue Cler, where you can gorge on the perfect Croque Monsieur. Another wonderful street for food, wine and shopping is the Rue de Cherche Midi; the restaurant at 22 Rue de Cherche Midi, named after the street, has a loyal neighborhood clientele. Take a short walk north toward the Seine and you will find Bon Marche, 24 Rue de Sevres, a true foodie’s heaven. And don’t forget to check out the newly renovated Picasso Museum, 5 Rue de Thorigny, before knocking off the more traditional sights such as the Louvre.