France commemorates its liberation from Nazi occupation on Wednesday, 60 years after Allied tanks rolled down the Champs-Elysées to end four years of oppression marked by intense hardship and incredible personal valor.
US soldiers liberated Paris from German occupation 60 years ago
Madeleine Riffaud was a young woman at the time of the German occupation of France during World War II. She told Deutsche Welle about her experiences in Paris in the weeks leading up to the liberation of the French capital by allied forces on August 25, 1944.
Paris had been under the Nazi boot for four years by mid-1944 and many Parisians were at the point of starvation. Germany's occupation of France had left the inhabitants of the capital without many bare essentials including bread and butter. It was a common sight to see Parisians cooking meals on campfires in the streets due to the lack of coal, electricity or gas in the city. It is estimated that the average Parisian lost 44 pounds under the Nazi occupation, which began on June 14, 1940.
In those dire times, it was not unusual to see the once overflowing balconies devoid of greenery and blooms, replaced by rabbit hutches housing the prime ingredient for a coveted and potentially life-saving stew.
Burning spirit to fight fed by hardship
Paris was a desperate city by the summer of 1944, full of exhausted and near-starving people but one where the undercurrent of hatred and revenge found citizens willing to embrace these emotions and use them as their own fuel in the fight for their country.
"Paris was starving, without lights, without bread, without clothes," recalled Madeleine Riffaud. The effect of the occupation on this young woman, just 17 at the time, was to radicalize Riffaud and steel her for the fight to come. Taking the codename "Rainer," Riffaud joined the 20,000 strong Résistance in the French capital and became one of the 100,000 or so members nationwide.
"I took the name of a German, out of respect for the author Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poems I loved. We were at war with the Nazis, not at war against the German people. So I became 'Rainer' and remained so to the end of the occupation."
Non-combat role led to involvement
Parisians scatter for cover on August 26, 1944 as a German sniper opens fire on people celebrating the arrival of Allied troops.
Riffaud began her life as a Résistance fighter in the unspectacular but important role of a messenger and deliverer of food to the combat members of the movement. But all this was to change on June 10, 1944. On that day, in the central French village of Oradour sur Glane, members of the German SS massacred 600 villagers, many of whom were friends of the Riffaud family.
"In Paris, the losses had been so heavy that barely any armed action took place. They needed new fighters and after this killing, I was ready to fight."
The feeling was spreading. A city down on its knees could feel the tide turning. The Allies had landed on the mainland on June 6, a source of hope and a clarion call for Parisians to rise up, which they did. On July 14, nine days before Riffaud took her own dramatic steps into the war effort, 100,000 people rallied in the streets, some singing the "Marseillaise," France's national anthem. For the first time, French police did not intervene.
A young girl showed her mettle
On July 23, Riffaud volunteered to kill a Nazi to avenge the deaths and "to show Parisians you can kill the occupier in broad daylight at 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon."
"I went past a bridge. A German soldier stood there alone. The others were further away. I went near on my bicycle. I waited until the man turned to me. I did not want to shoot him in the back. When he looked at me, I shot him twice in the head. He fell without sound, without a word. I had killed him instantly. I did not want him to suffer. The passers-by clapped. They celebrated that a young girl could muster the courage to kill a member of the occupying forces."
Seconds later, Riffaud was arrested. She spent several weeks in Gestapo custody where she was tortured but gave away no information about the group she worked with. Then, on August 24, Allied tanks began rolling into Paris after a three month push from the beaches of Normandy. Riffaud was released and stepped out into a free Paris.
"From the police loudspeakers, the news came: Paris is free. We have won! No more shooting. The SS were everywhere, waving white flags, and the people were flowing out on the streets."
A day later, on August 25, church bells tolled across Paris. The city was liberated.
A lesson to learn
"Today, Germany and France are part of an alliance which builds a Europe together. But, nevertheless, the children must know about the past and what people like us had to do. I myself had gotten involved in the war and lost many friends. However, I feel no hatred to the Germans. If this can provide a message to the young generation, then it is a great thing."