Book Review: Is Paris Burning

Published March 30, 2012 by vishalvkale

Dominique Lapierre / Larry Collins 

A great book by the authors, but a very difficult one  to review, as it is set in a scenario with which not many Indians are familiar. Secondly, it is a largely fact-based interpretation of historical events, and requires an understanding of the underlying events. Therefore, before getting to the book per se, it is essential to get a feel of the underlying situation in France in 1944, and how it got there. This novel is set in a World War 2 scenario, centering on the liberation of Paris in August 1944 

In May of 1940 the French surrendered to the Germans, who installed Marshall Phillipe Petain as the “head of the government” and gave under his control 2/5th of France {mostly the interior regions}. The regions on the coast and the along the Siegfried line remained under German control. This titular government reigned from “Vichy”, and was known as the Vichy Government 
{This was by no means the only altercation: France and Germany have a long history of war behind them, the most notable being the Franco – Prussian war of 1870 in which the Legendary Count Bismarck won for Prussia [modern Germany – history class 10th]. The result led to establishment of the Third Republic in France, which was not a very popular government from its start in 1870 to its finish in 1940} 
The Vichy Government { June 1940 to August 1944} of France was not very popular, as it was collaborating with the Nazis. Thus, it was a very divided nation that was fighting for its independence from the Nazis, a nation that had for the past 150 years not had a notable period of unity and peace, what with the French revolution, Napolean Bonaparte, the Second republic, Napolean III…. Even the third republic was beset with problems throughout. 
This is important to the book, as will be understood from the review that follows: 
The book starts with the appointment of General Deitrich Von Choltitz as the chief of the German Army in early August 1944. The orders for Choltitz are crystal clear: hold Paris, or destroy every building before leaving. Simple and straightforward! 
The logic for these is explained in the first few pages in the book, as the germans are expecting a push to liberate Paris by the Allied armies, who were moving inwards from the coast of Normandy {D-Day landing: June 1st week – 2nd week}. 
And from this point unfolds a tale of political ambition, sheer callous and brutal planning on both parts, the fragmentations on the resistance side and the status of the german army. The rest of the book concentrates on the the 7 day period from 19th August 1944 to 26th August 1944, giving a blow-by-blow account of the sequence of events that led to the liberation of Paris. 
It describes the allied plan of attack with respect to Paris {which was actually brilliant}, how the said plan was forced to be abandoned, how the resistance – fragmented and ridden with rivalry – planned a last resistance. It describes the leaders of the segment and their motives, with one segment focussed on ostensibly gaining independence even at the cost of 200000 civilian lives, while the other focussing on the fastest possible independence while securing the safety of the civilian population 
It describes the german army, its state of demoralisation and fragmentation from the higher levels to the lower levels, the german planning for the destruction of the city. All of this is given, but not in the form of words – which would have made it a history book – but in the form of the actions of the principal characters. That is the reason why you need an understanding of the background. 
It is evident in the fragmentation of the resistance, their behaviour, their insistence that Paris be liberated before De Gaulle reaches {even if 200000 french are slaughtered in the process}. It is evident in the unilateral offer of peace by a german general defying the orders of the wehrmacht and the fuhrer. It is evident in the desperation of De Gaulle to get to France {being aware of french history helps here… }. It is evident in the serial disobedience / neglection of orders by a series of german officers- and many, many more instances spread throughout the book 
It is not a war story, but rather 2 stories – one a story of naked greed and political ambition set in a war scenario, the second a story of the liberation of Paris. Both of the stories are told in bone-chilling detail. It is the story of the race to save Paris both from the germans as well as from itself. If you can coin one phrase, it is the story of the creation of modern France…. 
Judging anything of such a book would be a capital folly, as it is all in the past, and it is all documented. The interpretation of the same is upto us. But this book has many take-aways that need to be highlighted- like getting an insight into the reasons for the stunning german collapse that started in 1943, the ugly face of politics, how one man can change the course of a nation, how a few determined people can save the day…

This review first appeared on my previous microblogging effort on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: