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Paris Notebook: What Priorities Reveal

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Choltitz2.jpgOne of the extraordinary stories of WWII is the decision of highly decorated Prussian general Dietrich von Choltitz to surrender Paris intact to the Allies. Hitler had instructed him in person to turn the city into another Stalingrad, defend it house by house, and ultimately blow it up. As the Allies approached from Normandy in the summer of 1944, Paris had been fortified and mined, with tons of explosives under bridges, monuments and major buildings. For his trouble, as the NYT noted in his 1966 obituary, von Choltitz was shunned by fellow German officers until his death.

Let’s think about the latter fact for a few moments. Von Choltitz’s erstwhile military comrades seem to have had a hierarchy of values that placed obedience to the chain of command above any observation that Hitler was mad, and that his direct order would have forever deprived the world of one of its greatest cultural achievements. How sad that even after the war they were unable to think beyond the strictures of their narrow military education, when Hitler’s crimes and folly were apparent to all.

Von Choltitz did not seem so burdened. One might conclude that he had received, either formally or informally, a liberal education that allowed him to think independently, to take into account issues larger than his narrow duty as a soldier to follow orders unquestioningly. He seemed well aware of this fact, as he commented in his postwar de-Nazification trial: “Sentence me to whatever you want,” he told the tribunal, “but please do not classify me as someone who just runs along. I have never followed the crowd. I have always led it.”

It is not this space’s habit to exalt Nazi generals; however, the ability of an individual to think freely, wherever it is to be found, deserves our respect, especially when we have the City of Light to thank for it.

Addendum: A reader adds an anecdote to the von Choltitz story:

I enjoy Dartblog on a daily basis. Thanks for keeping it going. I have two grandsons at Dartmouth, two older ones graduated in recent years and two sons who finished there in the ‘70’s. So, my interest is more than casual.

Your von Choltitz item causes me to pass along an additional fact or two, believed to be accurate, about that era. A friend, whose grandfather was a hotelier in Paris during the German occupation, told me that a substantial number of officers’ wives (and probably some girlfriends) were housed in some of the best hotels while their husbands were posted there. It was choice duty to be in Paris while many less fortunate Wehrmacht officers were occupied by the Russians in the east. As the Allies approached Paris a special train was sent from Berlin to evacuate the ladies around the time “Is Paris Burning?” questions were being sent out from HQ. So the story goes, the RAF bombed the Paris rail yards the night before the train was scheduled to depart and frantic repair efforts delayed its departure for a few days. Not wishing to set off the explosives while the German women were still in the city von Choltitz had another reason to postpone the event. This side story was not mentioned in the Gerd Froebe 1966 film about this set of circumstances. I thought you might be interested in this footnote.

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