Guide To Paris
The shock-waves following the fall of France in 1940 had hardly finished reverberating throughout the world when the architect of its downfall demanded to see the capital city he had conquered. Adolph Hitler had never been to Paris but was well-informed of its history, architecture and art treasures; there had never been a better time for the Fuhrer to see the city he had heard so much about - the only thing he needed was a guide.
Arno Breker (1900 - 1991), the son of a German stonemason, had come to Paris in 1927 to study sculpture. It was there that he met the leading figures in the art world, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir and Pablo Picasso among others. He was mentored for a time by the renowned Aristide Maillol whose sculptures are scattered throughout the Tuileries Gardens and as Breker's career blossomed Maillol later called him Germany's Michelangelo. Breker returned to Germany in 1934 where his sculptures of athletic and muscular male figures appealed to the Nazi ideals of Nietzschean "supermen" and he became a favourite of Hitler and Albert Speer. Although Breker was gifted a large property where he lived with his wife Demetra, given the title of "Official State Sculptor" by Hitler and became a member of the Nazi Party, it has always been claimed that he was never politically minded and it is true to say that lionised by Hitler, Breker was in a difficult position when requested to provide sculptures for Speer's monumental buildings. Most of Breker's sculptures were destroyed by the allies after the war but he continued to work and in 1985 the Arno Breker Museum was inaugurated. Breker loved Paris which he called his second home and his account of his secondment as Hitler's guide gives the impression that he carried out this task with great reluctance.
Breker at work in his studio with an example of his customary male-orientated sculptures.
An Early Telephone Call
Breker was startled when he heard his telephone ring at the unusual hour of 7.15 a.m. and the voice on the other end of the line instructed him be ready in one hour for a car which would be waiting outside his home. There was no hint of why Breker should be called at such an hour to be spirited away so abruptly and the clandestine nature of the call had all the hallmarks of Gestapo techniques, leaving his wife Demetra distraught at what be in store for her husband. In the nature of the precision which was obligatory in Nazi Germany, the car arrived at the exact time given and two S.S. men ushered the sculptor into the car which was driven to Staaken airport without a word spoken throughout the whole journey. Still with no knowledge of his destination, Breker was instructed to board a JU 52 plane where accompanied by several soldiers they flew for over 3 hours until they finally landed in pastureland surrounded by forest - it was a countryside which Breker recognized immediately as French. Once again, Breker was told to get into yet another vehicle which was driven along a route which was completely deserted and he saw not another soul on the journey. The car finally pulled into a small road off the main highway and in front of a barracks the smiling figure of Albert Speer walked out to meet Breker accompanied by the Nazi architect Hermann Giesler. According to Breker, a malicious Speer who delighted in exploiting people's weaknesses, joked about his too obvious apprehension making the sculptor even more nervous but things began to become a little clearer when the two Nazis led him to a good-humoured Hitler who welcomed Breker enthusiastically. In his usual verbose manner Hitler explained to Breker how Paris had always held a fascination for him, how hostilities between Germany and France had been inevitable and how his plans had worked out to perfection. Hitler also explained that the First World War and its aftermath had prevented him from going to Paris - it seemed that the ramifications of The Great War came into Hitler's reasoning at all times - and finished dramatically with the statement "Now the doors are open for me!"
Minister for Armaments and War Production in Nazi Germany
Instructions from the Fuhrer
In his usual rambling style, Hitler went on to say that his wish was to discover the source of the radiance of Paris and use it as an architectural influence for buildings planned for Berlin. He wanted to learn from every artistic aspect and how to adapt it to German culture - and so on ad infinitum. Typically changing from one subject to another without taking breath, in a jaw-dropping exercise in hypocrisy, Hitler then explained to Breker that he could have marched through the Arc de Triomphe at the head of his troops but he did not wish to inflict such indignities on the French people after their comprehensive defeat. It must have been a relief to his listeners, particularly Breker, when the Fuhrer finally got to the point which was simply an instruction for Breker to be his guide around the city and to pointout the most picturesque and architectural gems of Paris - Breker must have wondered why the whole thing had been carried out in such secrecy but it was with a sense of relief that there was nothing more to it than that. The trip was to begin at 3 a.m. the next morning and Breker never slept a wink that night, awaking to find that he was to be dressed in the uniform of a German officer, which embarrassed him greatly as he never wanted to enter the city which had welcomed him so warmly, as a conqueror. But on Sunday, July 23rd, 1940, it was as a Lieutenant in the German army that Breker led a convoy of staff cars from La Villette into the city of Paris.
German troops entering Paris in1940. Hitler humbly declined to be present.
The Sights of Paris
The first stop was L'Opéra where Hitler examined every inch of the building in a state of ecstatic wonder. Wishing to knowé every single detail, Hitler told Breker to ask the single Frenchman present, a caretaker of the building, where the President sat. Breker was shocked to discover that although he had played his part quite well up to this point, in that moment the enormity of being so close to the German hierarchy overwhelmed him, his nerves took over, and for a moment he was struck dumb. Coming to his senses, Breker finally asked the man the question Hitler had demanded and the gardien who had been impassive throughout, stated that he did not know. Unused to not having his way, Hitler demanded that Breker pursue the matter, and the gardien replied that he did not know where the President's loge was but he did know of one room where the president was not allowed to enter. Faced with someone who was prepared to stand his ground, the embarrassing stand-off was expected to end in a typical Hitlerian tantrum but the Fuhrer's good-humour on this day was impenetrable and there were sighs of relief all round when he declared to the whole company - "Here you see gentlemen - democracy (in action)." Democracy was even more in evidence when the gardien then refused a pour-boire (tip) even when it was offered twice.
From L'Opéra it was a short journey to the Madeleine and then down the Rue Royale, passing an empty Maxim's and entering the massive open space of Place de la Concorde. Once again Hitler was enchanted - this time with the Egyptian obelisk and the ornamental fountains. He was particularly attracted to the sculptures of the horses of Marly but seemed competely oblivious to the fact that he was standing on the spot where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and so many others had ended their lives on the guillotine. The Place de la Concorde leads onto the Champs Elysées and even Hitler in his triumphal tour appeared to be disconcerted by the empty streets as a single gendarme stood in the great boulevard. When Hitler reached the Arc de Triomphe he announced grandly that he would build an Arc in Berlin which would dwarf the one before him to such an extent that it would fit inside the Hitler Arch. Hitler's arch was never built but in the late 20th century the French themselves built a gigantic arch at La Défense in which the Arc de Triomphe would fit. Having dismissed the Arc de Triomphe as unworthy of his own greatness Hitler was then driven down the leafy and select Avenue Foch where in the not-too-distant future the Gestapo would set up their headquarters at number 84, which became a place of dread for those who opposed the Third Reich.
Mercury (1702) by Antoine Coysevox at the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens.
Rue Royale from the Madeleine. By Tavik Frantisek Simon.
A contemporary sketch of Marie Antoinette about to go to the scaffold - Coysevox's statue can just be seen top right of the picture.
Breker then directed the cars down to the Seine for a view of the most iconic site of all - the Eiffel Tower as seen from the heights of the Trocadero, where a number of pictures were taken showing Hitler trying unsuccessfully to look humble and trying not to gloat. Posing for pictures just like any other tourist, Hitler failed to notice Le Musée d'L'Homme on the right hand side of the parvis. Inaugurated in 1938, the Museum of Anthropology staff had formed the first Resistance group in Paris in opposition to Pétain's Vichy government and the occupation of France. Formed as early as June, 1940, even as Hitler was strutting around the Trocadero, the staff were working at helping refugees from the Nazis reach safety. The story of the Le Musée d'L'Homme Réseau is one of self-sacrifice and courage with the Museum's Boris Vildé at the forefront; the network was betrayed by Vildé's second-in-command and in January, 1942, the usual penalties were exacted for so-called espionage. Again, if the Fuhrer had looked into the building on his left he would have been able to see incredibly ornate plaster casts of every iconic building in France.
Just across the road in the centre of the roundabout is another item which would have been of interest to Hitler, although he might well have ordered its destruction if it had been in place when he visited. The statue is of Marshal Foch the Supreme Allied Commander in the final years of the First World War - Hitler's aversion to anything which reminded him of the German humiliation after the war was well known so it was perhaps just as well the statue was not plced on site until 1951.
Given Hitler's liking of American movies it might have interested him to know that Passy cemetery was the last resting place of one of the most celebrated stars of silent movies. Almost forgotten now, Pearl White (1889 - 1938) was the eponymous heroine who was always tied to the railway tracks while an express came round the bend mostly in a series called The Perils of Pauline ; in her day, Pearl White was a household name. In her latter years. Pearl was drawn to the artistic set of Montparnasse and worked on stage in Montmartre and bought a town house in Passy. Pearl White's grave is less visited than previously but occasionally someone places flowers on the grave of black basalt with a single white rose on top.
Therefore, while posing for pictures Hitler missed a lot of things of interest but perhaps it was just as well he knew nothing of the resistance group or Marshall Foch atop his horse.
Hitler poses on extreme left.
Centre is Speer, Hitler and Breker
Right are the whole convoy walking back to their cars.
Crossing the pont d'Iena Breker the directed the convoy through the deserted streets to the Place Vauban and the entrance to Napoleon's Tomb in Les Invalides. Hitler's expression darkened as he spotted the statue of General Mangan who was at the head of the French forces which had occupied the Ruhr in 1921 but he responded only with a muttered "we must not fill the future with memories of that kind" and moved on. After admiring the design of the building, Hitler and his entourage entered the silent chapel and were all struck dumb by the solemnity of their surroundings. Leaning over the balcony which overlooked the monumental porphry tomb of the Emperor Hitler removed hi cap and bowed hs head while Breker translated Napoleon's testament engraved on the marble capstone - "Je désire que mes cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine, au milieu de ce peuple français que j'ai tant aimé." " I wish that my ashes repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people that I have loved so much." There was a sense that they were all witnessing a historic moment in time and Breker silently hoped that Hitler's words on the subject were fitting for the occasion but typically he surprises everyone present by turning to the subject of the Duc de Reichstadt, Hitler's son. Known as L'Aiglon, The Eaglet, Napoleon and Marie-Louise's son, Napoleon II, was raised in Vienna where he died aged just 21 of tuberculosis - probably contracted in the cold and damp chambers of the Schönbrunn Palace where he was buried. In a grand gesture of reconciliation the Fuhrer ordered that the remains of Napoleon's son must be transferred to Paris and placed at his father's side; on December 15th, 1940, Hitler's orders were carried out and late in the evening, an honour guard carrying lighted torches placed the remains in Les Invalides - the only thing missing was a tricolour which was banned in the occupied country.
Returning to the cars, the convoy sped along the quai D'Orsay, past the German Embassy and the Luxembourg Palace. From the Boulevard St Michel they drove up the slope to the Pantheon which surprisingly did not interest Hitler at all - possibly he was suffering from a surfeit of grandeur. Breker was somewhat agitated by at the rapid exit from the Pantheon - such was the speed they were going he was almost through the planned itinerary. Howver, at that point Hitler decided to take a hand and asked to travel along the rue Montparnasse in order to see Breker's old studio, noting on the way the statue of Marshal ney, the Closerie des Lilas and the Quatre Saisons fountains. Passing through the Latin quarter the convoy came across several gendarmes patrolling the empty streets; it was impossible not to recognize the Fuhrer in the front car and the gendarmes saluted accordingly. Notre Dame Cathedral was of course on the itinerary and from there the cars sped on to Les Halles which remained as the ancient market place that Ėmile Zola made famous in his novel Le Ventre de Paris in 1873. Far from the bustling market place teeming with all manner of food merchants (see the picture at top) the vast market was deserted until in the distance someone heard the cry Le Matin! Le Matin! signalling that a newsboy was selling the morning paper. For sme reason of his own Hitler wanted to speak to the news seller but as sooon as he saw the unmistakeable features of the Fuhrer he took to his heels and fled. A little further on the convoy came across a small group of women fish sellers (poissardes) who also fled at the sight of the Germans and throughout the whole of Paris the convoy had only ever encountered a caretaker, several gendarmes, a paper boy and some fish sellers. From Les Halles. it was a short distance to the Louvre, the Rue de Rivoli, which appealed to Hitler's love of symmetry and the Place Vendôme. The silence in the Place was absolute so much so that Breker mused to himself that the peace was only an illusion and that Hitler had only created Une Ville Morte - a dead city.
By 1942 Parisians had become used to seeing Swastikas around the city.
The rue de Rivoli had Swastikas the full length of the symmetrical buildings which Hitler admired so much.
The final stop on the tour of Paris was via Pigalle up the slopes of Montmartre and on to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur where Hitler looked down upon the city of Paris spread out before him. Construction of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur was begun in 1875 and it was completed in 1914. There is some irony in the fact that the Basilica was built as an expression of hope for the future following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and its completion coincided with the start of the First World War.
Standing on the heights of Montmartre, it was a time of reflection for Breker at least, as his duties of guide to the Fuhrer came to an end; there were several things which came to his mind, one of which was that throughout the whole journey the convoy had no guards whatsoever and was never threatened in any way; he also recalled Hitler's words as they stood before the Basilica - "It is an absolute necessity to preserve this marvel of western culture spread out before us. It is necessary to keep it intact for posterity."
Despite Hitler's professed love of Paris and its art treasures he knew very well that many of those treasures were being looted by many of his high-ranking officers throughout the occupation of the city. Chief among the looters was the avaricious Hermann Goering who chose oil paintings from galleries around the city and stacked them in the Orangerie at the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens before they were taken by train to Berlin. But in 1944 as the war turned in favour of the allies the future of the art treasures of Paris became even more perilous and the Hitler that had strutted around Paris admiring the art and architecture of the city showed himself for his true self as a spiteful and malicious despot.
In July, 1944, Hitler ordered General Dietrich von Choltitz to take up the post of military governor of Paris and his first instruction was to mine every building of strategic importance also The Palais du Luxembourg, the bridges across the Seine, the French Foreign Office and every building of any historical or religious value; incredibly, a tunnel beneath the city was filled with U-boat torpedoes that would have destroyed anything left standing. In an act of unparalled vindictiveness it was clear that Hitler's sentiments about "western art" on the heights of Montmartre had been long forgotten as he prepared to destroy all the things he professed to admire. By August, 1944, Paris was in dire peril and von Choltitz had carried out his orders professionally and thoroughly - all that was needed was the order to set the detonators and the Paris we know today would not exist. However, von Choltitz was reluctant to go down in history as the man who destroyed one of the world's finest cities and as Hitler screamed down the phone in his now famous rant "Is Paris burning ?" believing that the Fuhrer was insane von Choltitz prevaricated over and over again. He handed the city over to the Free French on the 25th August, 1944, and forever after became known as "Saviour of Paris".
Dietrich von Choltitz - the saviour of Paris.
Adolph Hitler's guided tour of Paris was remakably similar to the one that we had on our coach trip sometime later with one or two minor differences - for instance, Hitler's trip minus any traffic took a mere three hours while our coach trip took considerably longer as it crawled along through the Parisian traffic jams. But the fact is that Hitler never really "saw" Paris at all - his trip through abandoned streets was a surreal experience reminiscent of being a player in a film-set about a post-apocalyptic planet and in a way that's exactly what it was. Hitler never seemed to grasp that the true "luminescence" of Paris that he wanted to capture so much lay in its people, in the cafés, the museums, the markets and the general hustle and bustle of life on the streets. Hitler never returned to Paris and never understood that strolling the streets of Paris in complete anonymity is a finer thing than all the Panzers and Stukas and fancy uniforms of his toytown empire.