Paris, 1944: Vive la Résistance!

Posted by Pete on 25th Aug 2020

Today in 1944, after four, brutal years of Nazi occupation, Paris was liberated by a motley coalition of left-wing Partisans, Spanish Republicans, and Allied soldiers. It was a towering moment in the radical history of modern France.

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view Allied tanks and half tracks pass through the Arc du Triomphe, after Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944 (Source: Library of Congress)

Paris has been a theatre of radical history for centuries.

From the storming of the Bastille to the Paris Commune, the city has always pulsed with revolution.

But even radical Paris has known few days like 25th August, 1944.

Poet John Donne was passionate about Europeans working together rather than against each other - which is exactly what happened in the August 1944 liberation of Paris.

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Ten days earlier, after four, brutal years of Nazi occupation, Parisian workers went on strike against the occupier.

Marching south from Normandy, the Allied armies were now tantalisingly close to the French capital.

The French Resistance decided it was time to take Paris back.

For years, these men and women of the Resistance had been risking far more than most regular soldiers to fight fascism.

Communists, socialists, republicans: they faced torture and execution if captured by the Nazis, but they had fought regardless, and now their hour had come.

Parisian artists are known for their radicalism, like Victor Hugo, who denounced the brutality of the army.

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On 19th August, Resistance fighters began skirmishing with the German garrison.

The next day, street barricades went up all over the city – a hallowed tradition of Parisian radicalism.

Requisitioned cars were zipping round Paris emblazoned with the 'FFI' badge of the French Resistance.

Partisans took over the Grand Palais on the Champs-Élysées and held it against the Nazis.

The fighting was tough, and the Resistance took thousands of casualties, but the city was being liberated by the courage of its own people.

Then, just after 9pm on 24th August 1944, an advance company of the 2nd French Armoured Division stormed into the centre of Paris.

In a wondrous moment of anti-fascist history, most of this company weren’t actually French – they were Spanish.

Known as 'La Nueve', these soldiers were Republican exiles who had fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War before enlisting with the Free French forces in Britain. Thousands of Spanish Republicans also served with the Resistance in France, and many were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

The Hotel de Ville was liberated from the Nazis by an armoured vehicle named 'Ebro' after the Spanish Republican defeat in 1938 – poetic justice against European fascism.

As the Spaniards fought on, liberating the French Chamber of Deputies, the Place de la Concorde, and other sites around the city, more Allied troops poured into Paris.

At 3.30pm on 25th August, 1944, the Nazi garrison surrendered. Paris was free.

Cheering crowds in Paris on 26th August, 1944, after the city's liberation (Credit: Malindine E G. Capt).

From the General Strike on the 19th to the arrival of the exiled Spanish anti-fascists on the 24th, the liberation of Paris in 1944 was a high point for radical politics in the French experience of World War II.

This radicalism has since been struck from the record.

From the prominence of Communists in the French Resistance to the importance of La Nueve to the battle for Paris, many details of the liberation have become inconvenient to conservative versions of French history.

This smudging of the record has been repeated across the world since 1945.

But the Second World War, properly remembered, was a crucible of radical history.

From the International Brigades who resisted Franco in Spain to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the mid-century fight against European fascism was an epic of radical courage and sacrifice.

The true Liberation of Paris belongs to this story. Vive la Résistance!

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