Day & night visits to the Eiffel Tower are two extraordinary experiences, but discovering how this Paris landmark survived WW2 is unbelievable.
Setting the scene…
Paris and the Eiffel Tower Shadowed by WW2
The echoes of wartime can still be heard on Paris’ cobblestone streets and dimly lit alleys.
The year was 1940, and the shadows of war hung over the once-enchanting City of Lights, casting a melancholy pallor on its grandeur. Paris was on the verge of a transformation.
The Eiffel Tower loomed over the city like a sentinel, its iron latticework rising into the heavens, a symbol of both France’s architectural prowess and its vulnerability. It was a relic from a more innocent time, and it now stood in stark contrast to the city’s somber reality.
The Champs-Élysées, once a bustling avenue of luxury and elegance, had lost its radiance.
The grand boutiques that once graced its boulevards now bore ‘Fermé,’ their opulent windows shrouded in darkness. The Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of French triumph, appeared to be silently weeping under the weight of occupation.
The scent of war wafted through the alleys and hidden passages, an acrid mixture of gasoline, charred wood, and the faintest trace of gunpowder. The bustling cafes of Montmartre, which used to be filled with laughter and lively conversation, now had an air of hushed conversations and conspiratorial whispers in the corners as patrons dared to exchange words against the oppressive backdrop of the swastika.
And the sounds of wartime Paris were a symphony of contrast. The haunting wail of sirens pierced the night, a stark reminder of what was to come. The night was pierced by the haunting wail of sirens, a stark reminder of the city’s vulnerability. But beneath it, there was the defiant chatter of resistance fighters plotting their next move, and the distant rumble of Allied bombers approaching.
Uncertainty may have pounded the city’s heart. But its streets bore witness to covert gatherings, brave acts, and the tenacity of a people unwilling to give in to the darkness.
During those turbulent times, Paris, the City of Light, held a glimmer of its former radiance, waiting for the moment when it could once again shine…
The Eiffel Tower by Day
As the Nazis triumphed in France in the summer of 1940, Hitler himself strolled the streets of Paris with his trusted confidants, Albert Speer and Arno Breker. An iconic photograph from that day exists, with the trio defiantly posing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, despite this small symbol of Nazi victory, Hitler’s ambitions shifted.
Because the French had cut the lift cables going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, Hitler couldn’t climb it. He settled for a tour of Paris that left an indelible impression on him. He was mesmerized by Napoleon’s tomb, a memory that lingered in his mind for months. In fact, he considered erecting monuments in Berlin surpassing the grandeur of Paris.
Surprisingly, Hitler had no desire to destroy the Eiffel Tower as long as Paris was under his control. But history took an unexpected turn.
On August 23, Hitler succumbed to desperation and ordered the destruction of Paris with the chilling proclamation, “If I can’t have Paris, nobody can.” At all costs. Even if it meant razing it to the ground. While the order was issued, the time and resources needed to carry it out were severely lacking. Bridges and monuments were subjected to demolition charges, but there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
As the liberation of Paris approached, explosives were strategically placed near significant landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower wrought iron lattice work:
However, by August 1944, the situation had changed. On August 24, Allied troops arrived at Paris’s doorstep.
General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, found himself with only 20,000 troops, the majority of whom were unmotivated conscripts. The city was slipping away from him as the police went on strike and the French Communist Party revolted. Many areas of the city were under French control.
Von Choltitz made the fateful decision not to destroy the city. He thought it was pointless, possibly hoping for better treatment from the Allies if he saved the City of Lights. He kept Hitler’s order to destroy Paris in his pocket, never showing it to anyone. He did not issue any directives to enforce it. It was at this point that General von Choltitz realized the extent of Hitler’s insanity.
The next day, on August 25, he surrendered the city to Free French forces cementing his reputation as the “Savior of Paris.”
Eiffel Tower by Night
Surprisingly, Lieutenant General Hans Speidel, the chief of staff at Field Marshal Model’s headquarters, had received a similar order but, like von Choltitz, chose not to act on it. It was a testament to the fortitude of some Germans in France who believed that Paris should not be turned into a wasteland.
Nonetheless, Hitler was unwavering in his pursuit of Paris’ destruction. Luftwaffe raids caused significant damage on August 26, and V2 rockets rained down from Belgium, though their inaccuracy rendered them unsuitable for targeting specific sites within Paris. But The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe were spared.
We had the pleasure of seeing Paris, albeit briefly, and ascending the Eiffel Tower. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For more stories inspired by history, this time of my birth place Romania, please have a look at: