The Road to Hell: Part II

Case studies in strategic optimism from the Greco-Turkish War to the end of the World War II.

American troops of the 28th Infantry Division march down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, in the `Victory' Parade on the 29th of August,1944. Unknown /

To understand how the fallacy of liberation has shaped history we need to look back at the origins and the justifications for war in the 20th century. Part II of The Road to Hell looks at the conflict that gave rise to the modern state of Turkey and the justifications for invasion and occupation during WWII.

Not a Great Idea

The Greco-Turkish War (1919)

The disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 was the first major conflict to follow the ‘Great War’ and it set a grim precedent for many subsequent wars of liberation. The origins of the conflict lie in the early modern period but the proximate cause for the war was a series of secret agreements made in the midst of WWI. In 1915, the major European powers – Britain, France and Russia – began secret negotiations over how to divide the Ottoman Empire in the event of an Allied victory. According to the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain would take control of Iraq and the Persian Gulf, France would be given Southern Turkey, Lebanon and what is now the modern state of Syria, while Russia would be granted control over Georgia and a newly created Armenian state.

When Tsarist Russia collapsed in 1917, Britain called upon Greece and Italy to take a greater part in the war by promising them their own post-war ‘mandates’ over Ottoman territory but when the war ended, there was very little political will to make good on these backroom deals. The economies of France and Britain were buried under mountains of foreign debt and their citizens had little interest in bankrolling new colonial projects in the Middle East. 

The same could not be said for Italy and Greece – whose leaders lobbied fiercely for control over certain islands in the Aegean and various cities along the Anatolian coast. Greek politicians, in particular, saw the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire as a chance to make good on a longstanding ideological project – known as the Megali Idea (Great Idea) – to restore the former territories of the Byzantine Empire.

Anatolian Greek citizens of Smyrna

Added to this were legitimate concerns for the safety of ethnic minorities within Turkey – including large numbers of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians who had survived the genocide carried out by the recently deposed Ottoman rulers. Memories of this horrific campaign were still fresh and the haphazard partitioning Ottoman territory more or less guaranteed further violence. Given the threat to Anatolian Christians, there was widespread international support for peacekeeping forces to occupy and administer those Turkish districts with a sizeable Christian population In a submission to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos made his case for the annexation of most of the Anatolian coast.

“It is … inconceivable that Ottoman rule should continue to be exercised in this portion of Western Asia Minor. After the tragic experience of a whole century, it is impossible to entrust the future of the Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire to fresh attempts at reform. These people know only too well that, especially during the last quarter of a century, every time that an attempt has been made to introduce reforms in their favor, the old Turks, like the Young Turks, have begun the application of them by massacring, on a vast scale, the Christians who benefit from these reforms.”

In May 1919, under the pretext of ‘restoring order’ (and with the tacit support of the British Prime Minister) a single division of the Greek army was sent to occupy the coastal city of Smyrna (present day Izmir). At the time, the city was one of the largest and wealthiest ports on the Anatolian coast and was home to 100,000 Greek and Armenian Christians and a similar number of Turkish Muslims. Before arriving in Smyrna the commander of the Hellenic Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Colonel Nikolaos Zafeiriou, warned his troops not to inflame ethnic tensions. 

“Wherever we may go, we must know that we are going to liberate our brethren under alien rule. The enthusiasm filling our hearts is fully justified but any improper manifestation of this enthusiasm will be entirely out of place. We must not forget that when we reach our destination we shall meet Turks, Jews and Europeans of other denominations. Everybody should be treated in the same way. In a little while they will become our brothers as if they were true Greeks.”

Greeks, Armenians and Levantines watch the arrival of the Allied fleet in Smyrna from the Sporting Club. One of the Greek ships is firing a ‘salute’ with its guns.

Crowds lined the waterfront to welcome Greek troops but Turkish guerrillas took advantage of the celebrations to ambush Greek troops as they disembarked. A handful of soldiers and a large number of bystanders were killed in the initial firefight but the real bloodletting occurred over the following hours as Greek troops carried out summary executions of suspected Turkish nationalists while more opportunistic soldiers began looting random homes and businesses in the city’s Turkish quarter. These first chaotic hours set the tone for occupation that followed and ‘improper manifestations’ of Greek patriotism soon escalated into organised violence and ethnic cleansing.

In the summer of 1920, under the auspices of extending their ‘zone of security’, Greek forces began pushing east into Anatolia – encountering more and more resistance the further they travelled. Atrocities were committed by both sides as Greek and Turkish forces vied for control of the countryside. Historical accounts of this first phase of the invasion describe the gradual collapse in morale amongst the Greek army and the spiralling cost of the war that saw millions of drachmas ‘absorbed by the Anatolian sponge’. Meanwhile, guerrilla bands, supported by nationalist cavalry, harassed the Greek supply lines – which extended hundreds of kilometres from Smyrna towards the newly established Turkish capital in Ankara. 

In 1920 Venizelos was ousted from office in an electoral upset and the Greek army was purged of many of its most experienced commanders just as the Turkish nationalists began rallying behind their renowned WWI General, Mustafa Kemal. When the Greek army launched a major offensive the following year they met fierce resistance from Kemal’s forces. 

Greek soldiers entrenched at the Battle of Dumlupınar in 1922, In the two weeks following the battle the Turkish Army re-captured all the territories which the Greek army had occupied since May 1919.

Despite shortages in men and equipment the Nationalists held the Greek army at bay for three weeks during the Battle of Sakarya which saw Turkish positions come under repeated assault. In the end, Kemal personally led the counterattack that forced the Greek army to retreat but the losses on both sides were immense. More than seven thousand soldiers were killed and countless more were wounded in fighting that matched the ferocity, if not the scale, of many WWI battles. Entire units on both sides were wiped out and Turkish sources recorded that 70-80% of their officers had either been killed or seriously wounded in the fighting. Kemal, who was never particularly fond of exaggeration or religious metaphors, later referred to the battle as Melhâme-i Kübrâ in reference to the Koranic battle of Armageddon.

It took a year for the nationalists to recover sufficiently to launch their own counter-offensive but, in August 1922, Turkish troops dealt a final, decisive defeat to the Greek army at the Battle of Dumlupınar. The Greek withdrawal quickly turned into a rout as scattered units fled to the coast. In just over a week the Turkish army recaptured all the territory that Greece had taken over the previous three years. Turkish troops reached Smyrna while Greek authorities were still attempting to evacuate soldiers and civilians. Amidst widespread looting and revenge attacks, Turkish troops allowed a fire in the Armenian quarter to consume most of the city. Tens of thousands of residents were killed attempting to escape the inferno.

The destruction of Smyrna marked the end of the war and the culmination of what is still referred to by Greek historians as the ‘Asia Minor Catastrophe’. With the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed to a mutual ’population exchange’ that saw more than million Orthodox Christians deported to Greek territory in exchange for the ‘return’ of hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in Greece. 

What role did the fallacy of liberation play in the catastrophic Greco-Turkish War? There’s no doubt that the humanitarian case made by Venizelos’ was essential to winning approval from the ‘international community’ for the initial occupation of Smyrna. It also seems safe to assume that Venizelos’ concern for the welfare of Christian communities on the other side of the Aegean was sincere. And yet, within months of the initial landings, Greek troops were marching east in an attempt to stamp out the Turkish nationalist movement. Like Napoleon, the Greek authorities overestimated local support and wildly underestimated the galvanising effect that invading armies tend to have on patriotic sentiment. As historian Peter Buzanski observed.

“The occupation of Smyrna gave the leaders of the Turkish Nationalist movement one of the most important issues with which to gather adherents. Prior to May 1919 this movement had few followers and little success. The Smyrna occupation breathed new life into the Nationalists who were ultimately strong enough to establish the Turkish Republic and to fight the Greco-Turkish War, which ended in 1922 with the utter annihilation of the Greek armies.”

A photo of the fire that consumed Smyrna in September 1922 taken from one of the ships used to evacuate Greek troops.

Nazi Liberators on the Eastern Front

Operation Barbarossa (1941)

With the rise of fascism in the 1930s annexations and invasions were again justified by claims of national unity and liberation. Even regimes unashamedly committed to conquest like Adolph Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ felt the need to pay lip service to nationalist ideals in their early land grabs. Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 was predicated on the idea that ethnic Germans living on Germany’s Czech border – the so-called ‘volksdeutsche’ – yearned to join the ‘fatherland’. Likewise the annexation of Austria in the same year was presented as the natural culmination of a pan-Germanic ideology. More symbolically, Nazi authorities followed a wider trend of rebranding their military as the Wehrmacht -literally ‘defence force’.

In 1939, Nazi propagandists justified the invasion of Poland with claims that the volksdeutsch were being persecuted by the Polish government. To confirm this narrative German propaganda units embedded with the advancing troops staged scenes of villagers cheering the arrival of German tanks. Similar scenes, somewhat more genuine, were recorded in Lviv when the German army invaded Ukraine. During the 1930s millions of ethnic Ukrainians had endured starvation and persecution under Soviet rule. As such, many Ukrainians initially looked upon the German army as liberators but whatever relief they might initially have felt soon turned to despair in the face of Nazi atrocities.

It’s difficult to understand how individual soldiers of Nazi Germany managed to rationalise their involvement in a war of genocide and extermination yet contemporary accounts attest to the fact that many German soldiers had no trouble believing that they were on the ‘right side of history’. Years of propaganda aimed at highlighting the scourge of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ had laid the groundwork for Hitler’s expansion into Eastern Europe and many Germans proved ready and willing to support a crusade that promised to free the oppressed masses of Eastern Europe from Stalin’s tyranny. Even the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was framed as a pre-emptive strike against the Red Army which was purported to be massing for an invasion of Germany.

A German soldier receives bread from local Ukrainian women during the Nazi inasion of Ukraine in 1941.

In a book which traces the origins of the myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ historian David Harrisville revealed the extent of the propaganda campaign used to bolster domestic support for the invasion of the Soviet Union. In a chapter titled ‘The Liberators’ Harrisville highlights several accounts by German soldiers in which they describe being welcomed with flowers, milk and bread in Soviet villages and towns. In the face of this surprisingly warm reception the German 46th infantry division issued guidelines to Wehrmacht troops that “special attention must be paid to a good and just handling of the loyal population” who “welcomed their liberation”.  A few weeks later the Nazi high command issued a memo to front-line reporters reminding them that “it must … always be emphasised, that the German soldier does not come to destroy socialism, rather to make an end of Bolshevik enslavement and create social justice.” Likewise the living conditions in Soviet towns and villages were used to retrospectively justify the invasion.

“Newspapers throughout the country carried shocking exposés on life behind what Goebbels termed “the veil.” The Wochenschau conveyed image after image of dilapidated houses, muddy streets, and miserable people. The dire situation of the Volksdeutsch also became a common propaganda refrain. All of these efforts recast the war as an act of humanitarian intervention rather than the genocidal project it actually was.”

As evidence that German soldiers took this rhetoric seriously Harrisville notes that some advancing German units spontaneously freed prisoners from Soviet jails – acts that caused considerable consternation amongst Nazi officials. For the soldiers in question, the opportunity to act as heroic liberators bolstered morale on the long march east. In 1941 Wermacht Private Franz Siebeler wrote to his family.

German soldiers receive a warm welcome from local villagers during the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, 1941.

“Let all of our previous wars be as they may, just or unjust, let them be the machinations of diplomats, one thing however is certain[:] this war against the criminal work of Bolshevism is the battle for a righteous cause” 

For evidence of this, German troops only had to turn to their local allies. The Wehrmacht enlisted enormous numbers of Soviet citizens to serve as hilfswilliger (auxiliaries). New formations – like the Russian and Ukrainian ‘Liberation Armies’ – were also created and allowed to operate under their own command alongside other anti-communist groups like the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN). Somewhere between 600,000 and 1,400,000 Soviets (Both Russian and non-Russians) joined forces with the German army during Germany’s initial invasion of the Soviet Union*. Many were forcibly conscripted but a large number were volunteers drawn from Soviet prisons and labour camps as well as anti-communist emigres and ‘white’ veterans of the Russian civil war.

Harrisville’s research reveals the power of the rhetoric of liberation. Despite years of relentless propaganda denigrating slavs and other racial groups as sub-human, many German soldiers preferred to see themselves as armed missionaries with a duty to liberate those oppressed by Soviet tyranny.

Delusions of a 5th Column in Crete

Operation Neptune (1941)

Overconfidence and self-righteousness would end up playing a significant part in the decimation of Nazi Germany’s most elite military unit. Having annexed Poland in less than a month and defeated the combined French and British armies in Europe in 1940, the German army was hastily re-deployed to rescue their Italian allies from a Greek counter-offensive in the Balkans. In the space of only three weeks the German army swept across the Bulgarian border and drove south through the Peloponnese – pushing back a combined force of Greek, British and ANZAC troops with ease. In late April 1941 the surviving Allied troops were hastily evacuated to the southern Greek island of Crete. 

Buoyed by this more or less unbroken chain of military victories, the German High Command green-lit a risky airborne invasion of Crete to finish off their conquest. The Luftwaffe’s elite paratrooper corps – the fallschirmjäger – were assigned to spearhead the invasion. These units were as well-equipped and trained as any in the German army. In order to qualify as a paratrooper volunteers had to demonstrate an exceptional level of fitness and undergo an intense three-month training program.

In 1941 morale was high and among the paratroopers, and their journey overland to Greece seemed to confirm self-righteous Nazi propaganda. One of the officers earmarked for the operation – Friedrich von der Heydte – described the reception that his unit received en route from Germany to Greece.

“In Hungary we were received with politeness, in Rumania with Gusto, and in Bulgaria with real enthusiasm. It was evident that friendliness towards the Germans increased with the distance we progressed from our own frontier. In many villages people stood in the streets presenting us with baskets of fruits and strawberries and throwing cigarettes into our vehicles”

While a mass assault by paratroopers had never been attempted, the German Luftwaffe remained confident of victory. So confident that they barely made the effort to gather the necessary intelligence for their invasion. Overflights by German aircraft failed to discover the thousands of Allied soldiers dug in and camouflaged at strategic points across the island. Moreover, the Luftwaffe’s intelligence corps grossly misread the political sentiments of the Cretan population. In his account of the invasion, and the occupation that followed, historian Antony Beevor marvelled at the briefing provided to German paratroopers on the eve of the invasion by the Luftwaffe’s head of intelligence, Maj. Georg-Hans Reinhardt. In addition to underestimating the number of Allied defenders by a factor of four, Beevor wrote that:

“Reinhardt’s summary predicted an enthusiastic welcome from the civilian population, even that a pro-German fifth column would emerge, and in reply to the challenge ‘Oberst!’ would utter the password ‘Bock!’. He and his staff had either dismissed out of hand or failed to read the general briefing document completed on March 31 for the invasion of Greece. There the relevant passage read: ‘The Cretans are considered intelligent, hot-blooded, valorous, excitable as well as obstinate and difficult to govern. The agricultural population is accustomed to using arms, even in everyday life. Vendetta and abduction are still customary and criminality is high. In case of invasion account must be taken of obstinate resistance by the civilian population’.”

Setting aside the fantasy of an underground pro-German militia, the expectation of a sympathetic Cretan population is not as baffling as it might appear to us eighty years down the track. In the inter-war years Crete had been a bastion of the republican movement which had been inspired by the former Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. In 1935 Venizelist rebels had attempted to overthrow the Greek monarchy and, in response, Greek authorities attempted to disarm the entire Cretan population. Even in the midst of a war of national survival, Cretan loyalty continued to be regarded as somewhat suspect by officials in Athens. On the basis of this political tension Reinhardt assumed that the Cretan population would side with German invaders against the Allied garrison (who happened to be sheltering the Greek King, George II). This assumption proved catastrophically misguided.

Three Cretan fighters

‘Obstinate resistance’ turned out to be quite an understatement and, in many instances, German troops were set upon by local villagers before they could untangle themselves from their parachutes and harnesses. In addition to the fierce counter-attacks by ANZAC forces, Cretan civilians attacked scattered German paratroopers with hand tools and old muskets and then salvaged weaponry from the battlefield in order to continue the fight. German losses were immense. Nearly 2000 German troops were killed on the first day of the operation and the invasion would almost certainly have been called off were it not for miscalculations by Allied commanders which allowed the paratroopers to capture an airfield on the island’s west and bring in reinforcements. 

Nevertheless, fierce fighting continued for another two weeks. Despite having to contend with constant counter attacks and shortages of ammunition and supplies, German troops of the 3rd Paratroop Battalion still found time to gather up and execute more than forty residents from the nearby town of Tsalikaki as reprisal for earlier attacks by Cretan guerillas. Many similar atrocities were committed by the German occupation force following their victory – including a massacre in the village of Kondomari which was recorded by a German war correspondent. These atrocities ignited blood feuds among the fiercely militant Cretan population – leading to a cycle of ambushes, assassinations and reprisals which continued throughout the long occupation of the island.

Male residents of the Cretan town of Kondomari are photographed before their execution by German paratroopers. Hundreds ofCretan civilians were killed in reprisal for resisting the German invasion.

While the Battle of Crete was ultimately a German victory, the enormous cost paid by the invaders can be largely attributed to wishful thinking by German planners who saw themselves as commanders of a liberating army and assumed that the enemy of their enemy would welcome their intervention. In Crete, as in many other places since, the assumption that a marginalised population would prefer arbitrary foreign rule over an unjust domestic regime proved to be profoundly mistaken.

A Disgraceful and Bloody Rampage

Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (1941)

Imperial Japan also couched their plans for conquest in the language of liberation and pan-Asianism. Under the aegis of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ Japanese foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka declared that Japanese troops would enable “the liberation of the peoples of the Orient from the shackles of Western Europe.” In the words of historian Jeremy Yellen.

“Japanese planners justified protectorates in the same way the colonial powers justified League of Nations mandates: they would help countries such as Burma prepare for future independence”. 

Some of the territories occupied by Japan were, in fact, granted a measure of autonomy. In Indonesia, Japanese forces released prominent independence activists from prison (including a 41 year old political activist named Sukarno, who would go on to become Indonesia’s first president) and appointed them to a Central Advisory Board to bolster the legitimacy of the occupation. In Burma, the Japanese military helped train a national army and assisted with the formation of local political institutions. In the Philippines, the provisional government was allowed to print its own banknotes, draft a constitution and establish a national legislature. The Greater East Asia Ministry also selected local elites from their captured territories and sent them to Tokyo to be educated and indoctrinated into the ideology of Imperial Japan.

While policies like these offered encouragement to independence movements throughout Southeast Asia, the reality of Japanese occupation resembled the worst excesses of the European colonial era. Millions of civilians in Southeast Asia died in famines caused by the Japanese seizure of crops and millions of others were pressed into service as ‘rōmusha’ (labourers) for the Japanese war effort. While the toppling of European colonial governments paved the way for post-war independence movements, this can only be considered a side effect of Japan’s own ruthless colonial project. Concessions to local independence movements and the piecemeal promotion of a ‘political consciousness’ among local populations were vastly overshadowed by the violent and repressive nature of Japanese occupation. Responding to a wave of revisionist history aimed at minimising Japan’s involvement in Second World War atrocities, Japanese historian Saburō Ienaga reminded his audience that “To call Japan’s disgraceful and bloody rampage a crusade for liberation is to stand truth and history on their heads.”

Leaders and delegations to the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo, 1943. Among the attendees were Zhang Jinghui, Prime Minister of the Empire of Manchuria, Wang Jingwei, Ba Maw (Burma’s Head of State, Subhas Chandra Bose (Head of State of the Provisional Government of Free India), Jose P. Laurel (President of the Republic of the Philippines), Wan Waithayakon (Prince and Envoy from the Kingdom of Thailand)

Once Allied forces went on the offensive in 1942 Japan struggled to dictate terms to its appointed officials. By 1943, Japan’s government was willing to promise full independence to some of its puppet regimes but, by that point, most of their appointees could see which way the wind was blowing on the battlefield. Despite intense pressure from Japanese officials the Philippine National Assembly even refused to declare war on the United States. Likewise, in Burma, the newly created National Army rose in revolt against the Japanese occupation force and turned to its former British overlords for assistance.

In the same way that Nazi propagandists felt compelled to justify the German invasion of the Soviet Union on humanitarian grounds, Imperial Japanese authorities also felt the need to cast their war as a crusade of liberation. Most popular accounts of the war in the Pacific barely mention Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and, when they do, it’s usually to highlight the gulf between Japanese propaganda and the conduct of the Japanese army. However this half-hearted attempt by the Japanese authorities to whitewash their imperialist agenda still illustrates the necessity of attaching geopolitical objectives to a righteous cause. 

The Ransom of Liberty

The Liberation of France (1944)

Even the celebrated liberation of France by Allied forces in 1944 was not without controversy. In the lead up to the Normandy invasion there were concerns in London and Washington that the arrival of Allied troops might trigger a civil war in France between rightwing groups aligned with Petain and the Vichy administration and the more communist-inspired resistance groups. At the time, the commander-in-exile of the Free French Army, General Charles de Gaulle, was looked upon with suspicion by Allied commanders. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recommended that a liberated France be administered by Allied authorities under the aegis of the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT). This scheme would have given Allied authorities direct control over currency, transport and the appointment of government officials until elections could be held. In the meantime, French authorities would have been subordinate to U.S. military tribunals. 

By the time Allied forces landed in France the country had been under Nazi rule for four years. The brutality of this period had both widened existing divisions in French society and created entirely new rifts as individuals dealt with the threats and deprivations of daily life under occupation. Every French citizen had been forced to collaborate with the Nazis in one way or another and even the various French resistance organisations remained deeply divided according to their political ideologies and their preferred methods of resistance. Throughout the occupation, Communist paramilitary groups like the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans fought clandestine wars with rightwing factions within the resistance. 

When they weren’t engaged in turf wars with one another these groups used violence and intimidation to undermine Nazi authority. Somewhat counterintuitively they did this mainly by killing French civilians – ostensibly targeting collaborators and members of the Vichy puppet regime. One member of the resistance, Bernard B. Fall, later explained the method behind the madness.

“Any sound revolutionary warfare operator most of the time used small-war tactics—not to destroy the German army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But, above all, they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.”

The Allied reconquest of France brought renewed suffering to the French population. In the lead up to ‘D-Day’ and the landings at Normandy, Allied bombing designed to disrupt France’s rail network killed more than 20,000 French civilians and, over the following year, the ground offensive devastated countless French towns and cities – especially in the Calvados département on the Normandy coast. During this period Allied commanders showed almost no regard for the lives of French civilians and widespread allegations of rape and sexual assault accompanied U.S. troops wherever they went.

Waves of recrimination swept across France in the wake of the Allied armies. As German forces withdrew, Free French authorities and paramilitary organisations arrested tens of thousands of prominent collaborators and issued warrants for countless others. The more fortunate suspects were imprisoned or subjected to rituals of public humiliation but thousands of others were convicted by military tribunals and executed on the spot. 

An infamous photo by Robert Capa shows an angry mob marching a woman and her infant child down a Paris street.

Having been thoroughly discredited by their collaboration with the Nazis the French police were often powerless to prevent vigilante mobs from imposing sanctions on collaborators or settling scores with one another. This so-called ‘épuration sauvage’ (wild purge) resulted in the execution of at least six thousand men and women before the liberation of France was even complete (another four thousand were executed in the months following).

The liberation of the French capital, which had been suffering from acute food shortages for weeks, was not even considered a priority by U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower who wanted to bypass the city to avoid delaying his eastward advance.

Nevertheless, the commander of the Free French Army, General Charles de Gaulle, demanded permission to liberate the French capital. Eisenhower remained unmoved until word arrived that an uprising by resistance groups within Paris had already begun. Reluctantly, the Allied commander allowed a small detachment of French troops to attempt an assault. These troops – elements of General Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd French Armored Division – quickly joined forces with resistance fighters and succeeded in evicting the last, die-hard remnants of the German garrison. 

The relative ease with which the city was retaken has often been ascribed to the mercy of the German Garrison commander, Dietrich von Choltitz, who claimed in his memoirs that he refused Hitler’s instructions to destroy Paris and make a final stand in the rubble. But the city’s survival had far more to do with the chaotic state of the German army in 1944 than any last minute crisis of conscience. The Luftwaffe could barely protect its own airfields – much less carry out major bombing operations – and Choltitz’s troops were far more interested in escaping the Allied onslaught than carrying out Hitler’s scorched earth policy.

After receiving a hero’s welcome, General de Gaulle reignited the eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe and led a procession of French troops to mass at Notre Dame. When de Gaulle’s staff car came under fire from snipers on the rooftops along the Place de la Concorde ‘The General’ refused to take cover. He later blamed these final outbursts of violence on communist agitators. On the 25th of August, 1944, de Gaulle gave a rousing speech at Paris’ city hall designed to restore some sense of national unity.

Parisians take cover as gunfire breaks out during the brief battle for the city.

“Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!”

When the last pockets of resistance were overcome de Gaulle was faced with the daunting task of filling the power vacuum. Although his own popularity was assured there was no central authority in Paris, no national government and no reliable way to ‘restore order’. Thus, on the 27th of August, de Gaulle made a request to Eisenhower for ‘the temporary loan of two U.S. divisions to use. . .as a show of force and to establish his position firmly’. Two days later, units of the 28th U.S. Infantry Division and the 5th Armoured Division (neither of which had participated in the battle for Paris) were diverted through the city on their way to the front line. Seen in this light, the iconic images of U.S. troops on the Champs Élysées appear a little less triumphant and a little more ominous. Indeed Nazi propagandists used U.S. newsreel footage of the parade to show that Paris had simply traded one occupation force for another.

The final liberation of France triggered another wave of retribution – the épuration légale (official purge) – which ultimately led to the arrest of another 120,000 suspected collaborators. In the process of purging tens of thousands of Vichyites de Gaulle walked a fine line between the demands for justice and the necessity of retaining competent public officials. The net needed to be cast wide enough to appease former members of the resistance who might otherwise take matters into their own hands but exceptions also had to be made in the interest of social stability.

In the end, de Gaulle proved adept at knitting together France’s rival political factions and he succeeded in disbanding resistance groups or incorporating them into the structure of the French army. Six weeks after Paris was taken U.S. President Roosevelt finally recognised de Gaulle’s interim government but, in private, he instructed Allied commanders in Germany to establish supply lines that bypassed France in case the region lapsed into civil strife.

All this is to say that even the most celebrated military liberation of the 20th century came dangerously close to triggering a civil war. Over the intervening decades the Allied liberation of France has been sanitised and romanticised beyond recognition but the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the trauma of liberation was recognised even at the time. An editorial written from the ruins of Caen in late 1944 drew attention to the amnesia which had begun to set in.

“For the success of our allies, Calvados has paid an unbearable tribute. Entire villages have been pulverized, towns razed, cities wiped out…. We do not complain. Fate determined that we should become the ransom for Liberty, and we have strong enough hearts to accept this holocaust with pride. We only ask that we not be forgotten. And yet, we are being forgotten.”


Greco-Turkish War 1919 – 1922
Peter Buzanski (2007) – The Interallied Investigation of the Greek Invasion of Smyrna, 1919
Victoria Solomonidis (1984) – Greece in Asia Minor: 1919 – 1922
Konstantinos Travlos (2020) – Salvation and Catastrophe The Greek-Turkish War, 1919-1922
Giles Milton (2008) – Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: the Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance
Peter Kincaid Jensen (2010) – The Greco-Turkish War, 1920-1922 

Nazi Invasion of Eastern Europe, 1941
David A. Harrisville (2021) – The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944

Nazi Invasion of Crete, 1941
Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte (1958)- Daedalus Returned 
Antony Beevor (1991) – Crete: The Battle and the Resistance
Karel Margry (2018) – Reprisal at Kondomari

Japanese Imperialism (1937 – 1945)
Jeremy A. Yellen (2019) – The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War

Liberation of Paris, 1944
Bernard B. Fall (1965) – The Theory and Practice of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency
William I. Hitchcock (2018) – The Price of Liberation
Matthew Cobb (2013) – Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944
Mary Louise Roberts (2013) – What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France 

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

1 Responses to ‘The Road to Hell: Part II’

  • Excellent. Really love the photo of the three Cretan fighters. Also the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ is jargon the Victorian State Government would be proud of.

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