New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Blood of Free Men'

Posted Wednesday, June 12, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Blood of Free Men'

 

"THE BLOOD OF FREE MEN: THE LIBERATION OF PARIS, 1944"
by Michael Neiberg
Basic Books, 2012
368 pages, $28.99
ISBN 978-0-465-02399-8
 
reviewed by William D. Bushnell
 
An 18th-century French writer, Sebastien-Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794), once wrote: “Paris: a city of pleasures and amusements where four-fifths of the people die of grief.”  However, by 1944, after four years of brutal occupation by the Germans, the Parisians found little to amuse them and they were dying of starvation.
 
"THE BLOOD OF FREE MEN" is the 11th non-fiction history by award-winning historian Michael Neiberg (six of his books are about World War II in Europe). Using French, British, American and German sources, Neiberg tells a dramatic and exciting story, comprehensive and balanced, vividly describing the City of Light’s precarious years under German and Vichy control.
 
“No other city during World War II so symbolized freedom and liberty suffering under the boot of naked aggression and bloodthirsty hatred,” claims Neiberg (perhaps forgetting about Warsaw and Leningrad). Still, the story of Paris and its liberation in August 1944 is a heady tale of hardship, sacrifice, famine, vengeance and resistance, as Parisians desperately waited for Allied liberation after the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6.
 
With crisp narrative and colorful example, Neiberg describes the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Paris, especially the harsh treatment of its citizens under the savage brutality of the Gestapo, the SS, and the hated Vichy paramilitary force, the Milice. He tells of the complex and often confusing actions of French communists, socialists, monarchists, and Gaullists, all vying for leadership of the impending insurrection, with a view towards seizing control of a new French government afterwards.
 
This is a grim story, as French citizens struggle with starvation, deportation of able-bodied men to slave labor camps and Jews to concentration camps, and the constant threat of betrayal by informers and collaborators, followed by arrest, torture, and summary execution of anyone thought to harbor resistance thoughts. He also clearly describes Parisians’ plans for revenge on Vichy officials, black marketeers and collaborators. One man said he had “a long list of people he was planning to shoot and there wasn’t a German on the list.”
 
As Neiberg relates, however, the Allied forces in Normandy — American, British and Canadian — had no plans or intention to capture Paris. Instead, they intended to bypass the city, focusing on defeating the retreating German army. Only the Free French forces under Gen. Charles de Gaulle wanted to drive on Paris, because as a matter of pride and political expediency, “Paris meant much more than any other city in Europe.”  Of course, de Gaulle had his own undisguised agenda.
 
Neiberg goes on to tell how the Paris uprising began as a spontaneous, unintended event, catching the Germans, the Vichy, and even some resistance leaders by surprise and unprepared. Oddly, as Neiberg reveals, the German commander, infamous Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, known by his nickname “The Smasher of Cities,” had already decided, for both tactical and strategic reasons (and not out of any merciful or altruistic consideration) not to defend the city at all.
 
Still, the Paris insurrection was vicious and bloody, and a lot of old scores were settled by the time the Allies finally entered the city in triumph in late August 1944. Neiberg does a masterful job describing the military and political actions and decisions by major players like Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Choltitz, resistance leaders like “Colonel Rol,” Vichy leaders like Marshall Petain, and the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul in Paris.
 
This is an inspirational story of men and women suffering greatly under terrible oppression, but eventually their courage and perseverance prevailed over evil.
 
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