33 Photos Inside The Liberation Of Paris, When The French Capital Was Freed Of Nazi Control

In June of 1940, the vibrant City of Lights turned overcast for four years while occupied by the Nazis, but all that would change with the liberation of Paris.

Arc De Triomphe In 1944

33 Photos Inside The Liberation Of Paris, When The French Capital Was Freed Of Nazi Control

During the 1940s, Europe was on fire as it was consumed by the ravages of World War II. Though Winston Churchill allegedly exclaimed, “Thank God for the French Army,” by June of 1940, Paris had fallen under Nazi control. It wouldn’t be for four more years that Paris would be free from Germany.

The Nazis Take Over Paris

Adolf Hitler In Front Of The Eiffel Tower

Wikimedia CommonsAdolf Hitler in Paris. The Nazis would occupy Paris from 1940 to 1944.

Prior to the onset of World War 2, France constructed the Maginot Line, which was essentially a fortified concrete defense at different points along its border with Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.

The fortification was the brainchild of French Minister of War André Maginot. The Maginot Line required an exorbitant amount of construction resources and, in the end, cost the French about 2 billion francs, which translates to roughly $3.7 billion today.

German General Erich von Manstein, one of Hitler’s closest confidants, realized that German forces needed a creative way to get beyond the defenses of the French Maginot Line.

Manstein orchestrated a subsidiary attack through Holland and Belgium, and continued to advance his soldiers through the Ardennes forest, which was not as heavily fortified as the rest of the Maginot Line. The vulnerable area would be France’s undoing when the Germans broke through using blitzkrieg tactics.

The invasion of Belgium caught the Allied forces by surprise and they scrambled to recover the area under attack by the Germans. Germany’s strategy was successful in putting immense pressure on the French military and by June 1940, France surrendered.

The French government signed an armistice with German commanders that allowed the French government to remain in operation outside of Paris so long as they cooperated with the Germans.

Parliament voted 569 to 80 in favor of dissolving France’s Third Republic. The new administration was then moved to Vichy, a small city south of Paris, under the absolute rule of Philippe Pétain. The armistice with Germany split France in two: the occupied zones and France’s Free Zones.

German troops took over the northern and western parts of the country and detained more than two million French soldiers as prisoners of war. Meanwhile, southern France — where the government operated from Vichy — remained largely unoccupied.

Paris is covered in Nazi paraphernalia after German troops occupy the city.

The once vibrant city turned quiet and bleak under Nazi occupation.

However, not all of France’s former government members succumbed to German control. Charles de Gaulle, a French statesman and army officer, opposed the Vichy government and left his country for London where he began to organize what would become the Free French movement.

The French Resistance

Charles de Gaulle despised the idea of defeat and condemned France’s armistice with Germany.

In a now famous speech broadcast by the BBC in 1940, de Gaulle valiantly declared: “Honour, common sense and the interests of the country require that all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may.”

According to biographer Julian Jackson, the Vichy government tried to launch a smear campaign against de Gaulle in retaliation for his speech. Vichy officials took away his rank as general and plastered his figure on posters featuring de Gaulle behind a microphone surrounded by Jews. But the plan backfired spectacularly, instead popularizing de Gaulle as the one anti-German leader that many across France became familiar with.

His speech roused what was left of the French spirit to fight against its occupiers and spurred the Free French movement both abroad and within occupied areas.

German Tank Destroyed By French Resistance

Getty ImagesCivilians celebrate atop of a burned German tank.

“De Gaulle gave me back honour, the possibility of being able to look people in the face again… To a large degree, his unwillingness to bend, his intransigence are willed. He likes to say that being as weak as he is, intransigence is his only weapon,” the exiled French journalist Georges Boris wrote.

While de Gaulle was leading the French opposition from overseas, young officer Jean Moulin was leading the resistance inside the country’s borders. Later, Moulin proved instrumental in uniting the separate forces within the French Resistance under the banner of Mouvements Unis de la Résistance (MUR).

Unfortunately, Moulin would not survive to witness the liberation of Paris or his country. He was captured by German troops in Caluire-et-Cuire, a suburb of Lyon. He was tortured to death by his Nazi captives before dying on the train that was taking him to Germany.

Footage of the Allied invasion of Southern France.

Meanwhile, Allied forces worked to ensure that only French troops remained at the face of the Resistance and prevented non-white forces from French colonies from joining in the liberation of Paris.

“Once that decision was made,” French historian Olivier Wieviorka reported to The Independent, “it was perhaps important to the Allies, for the same propaganda reasons, that the unit should appear French to the people of France.”

The Liberation of Paris

Arc De Triomphe After Paris Liberation

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesCrowds surround the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Élysées after the liberation of Paris.

Meanwhile, hostility among the French population grew and in August 1944, an insurrection by the French Resistance took over Paris. General Philippe Leclerc’s Second French Division then broke into the capital in American tanks with support from Allied forces.

The streets filled with French civilians, who blocked major streets with furniture and downed trees so that German troops could not escape. Wehrmacht General Dietrich von Choltitz finally surrendered on August 25, 1944. Paris was finally liberated after four years.

Celebrations commence on the streets at the liberation of Paris.

LIFE photojournalist Ralph Morse was part of the press camp that had followed the Allied troops as they reclaimed Paris. He recalled the jubilant singing and laughing that erupted after word had spread that the Nazi garrison had given up.

“It was an amazing sight, an amazing feeling,” Morse told Time. “So many people in the streets, holding hands, everyone headed for the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, the same way that everyone in New York heads to, say, Times Square when something momentous happens. It really was… well, liberating.”

A Dark Side To France’s Liberation

Philippe Pétain And Adolf Hitler

Wikimedia CommonsVichy France’s Philippe Pétain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler.

An ugly side to liberation quickly emerged as the French populace sought revenge against German prisoners or Nazi collaborators.

One journalist described the scenes of men and women getting payback on those they deemed as traitors during the liberation of Paris:

“The crowds lining the sidewalks jeered and spit and jumped into the street to pummel the prisoners with fists and feet and canes and handbags. All the while the young FFI officer escorting the prisoners was running up and down the column, exhorting his countrymen not to abuse the captives: ‘Je leur ai donné ma parole!’ (‘I gave them my word.’)”

Liberation scenes from southern France.

Reprisals were particularly cruel for women who were accused of having relations with Nazis. During the war, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Franco-German babies were born.

As punishment, these women had their heads shaved and were paraded in public. These cruel spectacles were known as “ugly carnivals”, and are regarded by historians as an extreme reaction to the feeling of emasculation that was left among Frenchmen after being defeated and occupied by the Germans.

In an attempt to reconcile these blemishes, the French government released more than 200,000 declassified papers from the Vichy era that revealed new details about its collaborations with Nazi Germany.

“I’ve seen people leaving the archives in tears,” French historian Jean-Marc Bélière told Le Figaro in 2010. “Because they’d found out the details of an arrest, an execution, a betrayal, for example. Some came with the idea that their grandfather had been in the resistance but discovered that was not exactly true.”

While the French were successful in taking back their capital, the psychological damages of being held captive on their own land by the Nazis for four years continue to haunt its history.


After learning about the liberation of Paris, take a look at Eugene Atget’s photos of 20th-century “Old Paris” before it was lost to modernization. Then, discover more of early 20th-century Paris in amazing color.

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