Hitler in Paris

Hitler pictured alongside Speer, Breker and Giesler. The Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background.

On Sunday 23 June 1940 Adolf Hitler returned to France for his infamous visit to Paris. He was accompanied by his favoured architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler. The artistic aspect of the party was completed by the addition of Arno Breker, Hitler’s most favoured sculptor. Both Giesler writing in ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ and Breker in his memoirs state that the trip took place on Sunday 23 June. However, writing in his book ‘Inside the Third Reich’ Speer erroneously cites the date as 28 June 1940, but as he describes the moment when the armistice came into effect as part of the trip the date of 28 June is clearly an error on his part. Giesler later recalled how surprised he was to be stopped by the Viennese police and escorted to Vienna airport where he was placed on a courier aircraft bound for France. However there was a purpose behind Hitler’s decision to include the artists. At a personal level Hitler cared nothing for the legendary city and was only interested in Paris for its architecture. The civilian members of his entourage were there to envision how the city could be outdone by the new Berlin visualised by Hitler as the greatest and most imposing city in the world. In order to blend into the background the artist and architects were equipped with military uniforms.

Accompanied by this unusual entourage and a film crew Hitler toured the deserted streets of the French capital in the early hours of that infamous Sunday morning.

We are fortunate to have a complete record of the day which was published in the book ‘Ein Anderer Hitler’ by Hermann Giesler which contains a full eye-witness description of his famous visit to Paris on 23 June, 1940. In the process Giesler also provides a full account of his own personal conversations with Hitler concerning sweeping architectural plans for the cities of Berlin, Munich and Linz which it was envisaged would embody the concept Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany).

Giesler begins when he was stopped by a police detail on 22 June, 1940 when on his way to a building site near Vienna, and ordered to drive to the Vienna airport. There, he boarded a waiting Ju. 52 courier airplane which landed on an airstrip in northern France, after which he was driven to Adolf Hitler’s headquarters at Brûly-de-Peche, north of Sedan. The armistice was set to begin the following day at midnight. As soon as they met Hitler lost no time in relating his personal views to Giesler concerning his great triumph and his desire to see Paris as soon as possible.

‘All right, Giesler, at that time you had no way of knowing, but I was confident of my strategic plan, the essential tactical details, and my belief in the fighting power of the German armed forces. From there, the wisely planned timetable advanced naturally. I recall that during the winter [of 1939] I invited you to go with me to Paris; I’ve invited Breker and Speer to come along. With my artists, I want to look at Paris. We will set off early in the morning.’

In company with Arno Breker and Albert Speer, Hitler, along with his staff and aides-de-camp, enjoyed a simple dinner together at two long tables in a simple cottage. Giesler was struck by the lack of triumphalism.

‘There was no triumphant attitude, no booming voices – only sombre dignity. The faces of those in authority still bore the signs of the strain of the past weeks. I considered myself undeserving of the honour of sitting with them.’

The party set off from Brûly-de-Peche at 4 a.m. in the Führer’s private Ju. 52 and landed at Le Bourget airport, where a fleet of open-topped Mercedes awaited them. Hitler took his usual place in the front passenger seat and was joined by Speer, Breker, Giesler, SS Adjutant Schaub and his ordinance officer, Colonel Speidel.

‘The former military attache in Paris drove ahead of us as guide. With our dimmed lights we could only see the silhouettes of the buildings. We passed check points – the guards stepped out and saluted; one could detect that the armistice was not yet fully in force. Adolf Hitler sat in front of me and I remembered the past winter evening when he talked about Paris, and I recalled his confidence that he would view the city soon. Now his wish was coming true. But he did not come to Paris as the Supreme Commander of the German Wehrmacht – he arrived as the Bauherr (construction chief) of the new German cities which he already envisioned with their new aspects. He came here to compare architecture, to experience the atmosphere of the city in the company of his two architects and one sculptor, even though we were accompanied by a military entourage – soldiers who had certainly gained the honour of seeing the French capital with him.’

The stop on the brief tour of Paris was the Imperial Opera House. This magnificent structure was designed by the architect Garnier. Adolf Hitler had familiarised himself with the plans of the building and seemed keen to show off his knowledge. Inside the building, Giesler recalled that it was Hitler who led the way, pointing out noteworthy features of the building.

‘It might be that the disparity between the simple atmosphere of the Führer headquarters in the tiny village of Bruly to this splendid display of the historic Empire amplified the impression it made. Till that point, I was only familiar with the Opera façade and was astonished by the well thought out notion of the basic plan, impressed by the lay out of the expansive rooms: the entry halls, the lavish staircase, the foyers and the splendid, lustrous, gold inner theatre. We were standing in the middle loge. Adolf Hitler was captivated – delightful, remarkably attractive proportions, and what festivity! It was a theatre with a distinct charisma, regardless of its extravagance of the “Belle Epoque” and a stylish diversity including a hint of over-the-top baroque. Hitler repeated that its main reputation rests on these beautiful proportions. “I would like to see the reception room, the salon of the President behind the proscenium box,” said Hitler. A certain amount of hesitation took place. “According to Garnier’s plan, it must be about here.” The guard was at first muddled, but then he recollected that following a renovation the room was removed. Hitler acidly observed, “The democratic republic doesn’t even favour its President with his own reception salon.”

Hitler and his entourage then came out the front entrance in order to view the famous façade in daylight. They then moved on to the Madeleine, which did not move Hitler and the entourage was soon on the move through the deserted streets. ‘Slowly, in a wide circle, we drove around the fountains and the Luxor obelisks at the Place de la Concord. Adolf Hitler stood up in his car to obtain a panoramic view. He gazed across the large square toward the Tuileries and the Louvre, then across the Seine River to the building of the Chambre des Députés. At the beginning of the Champs-Élysées, he asked to stop. Gazing at the walls of the Admiralty, he could now observe the column gable of the Madeleine through the short street space of the Rue Royal, it was now really effective.

Adolf Hitler took his time to absorb all this – then a brief signal with his hand and we drove slowly along the somewhat rising Champs-Élysées towards the Étoile with its commanding Arc de Triomphe. Critically appraising everything, his eyes looked at the road construction, which he could see through the tree-lined streets around the Round Point. All his absorbed concentration was on the Arc and the road system on which the surrounding area of the Étoile was planned. He took in the reliefs on the right and left side of the Arc with one short glance (they capture the story of the Marseillaise), and the chiselled inscriptions (the French would not forget any of their victorious battles). He knew every detail from historical literature.

Adolf Hitler shared his thoughts about this early morning journey with Geisler who later recorded what Hitler had said to him.

‘The well-appointed expanse of the Place de la Concord impresses naturally since the square extends to the Tuileries Gardens to the Louvre, with views over the lower course of the Seine all the way to the ministries and the Chambre des Députés. Optically, it also includes the development towards the Madeleine and the wide open space of the start of the Champs-Élysées. From a man’s perspective, that’s nearly limitless. The view from the Concorde was beautiful, with its fountains and obelisk in the foreground, toward the Admiralty, the rue Royal with the Madelein in the background.’

From the Étoile they drove to the Trocadero, viewing the colossus of the 19th Century, the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine from the large terrace of the Palais Chaillot. It was here that Hoffmann took his iconic photographs which feature Geisler and Hitler. Giesler recalled that he entered into a long conversation with Hitler at that point in the proceedings.

‘Adolf Hitler told me that he considers the Eiffel Tower not only as the beginning of a new standard of buildings, but also as the start of an engineering type of tectonics. “This tower is not only synonymous with Paris and the world exhibition at that time, but it will stand as an example of classicism, and marks the commencement of a new era.” By this he meant the era of modern technology with new horizons and dimensions (Groessenordnungen), at that time unachievable. What came next were wide-spanned bridges, buildings with large vertical dimensions which because of exact engineering calculations could now form iconic structures. But only through harmonisation between engineers, artists and architects could he see the possibility of enhanced creativity. Classicism, which we have to aim at, can only be reached by tectonics with new materials – steel and reinforced concrete indeed being definitive and essential.

‘We drove on and stopped briefly at a well-proportioned city palais, which was to be the future German embassy. Adolf Hitler gave particular orders for its renovation with the support of French conservators.

‘Adolf Hitler next showed his disappointment with the Pantheon at the top of the Latin Quarter by leaving the building abruptly. Out in the open again, he shook his head and heaved a sigh.

‘“My God, it does not deserve its name, if you think about the Roman Pantheon with its classical interior, the unique lighting from the wide open ceiling – it combines dignity with gravity. And then you look at that” – and he pointed back – “more than sombre even on this bright summer day.” As they returned to their car, a few women spotted them, crying out: c’est lui – that’s him.

‘We turned around and drove through the rue de Castiglioni to the Place Vendôme, with its famous column on this magnificently shaped square, then the rue de la Paix to the Place de l’Opéra, with a lofty view of the vivid, although somewhat theatrical, facade of the Opera, now in bright light. “Certainly,” he said to me later; “it is very decorative, a bit too rich, but obviously conforming to the style taste of that era. In planning our architecture, we will aim at a classicism of sterner, sharper forms, according to our character. What I have seen in Paris forces me to compare the achievements of the German architecture of the same period: Gilly, Schinkel, Klenze, Hansen and Semper, and Siccardsburg with his Vienna Opera – I am of the opinion that they can hold their place. Not to mention the great creations of the baroque architects like Lukas Hildebrandt, Fischer von Erlach, Balthasar Neumann, Prandtauer and others. What the Germans miss is continuity and persistence in their architectural aims, but this is still recognizable in the Germany of the Middle Ages with cathedrals and domes of the city communities, and the baroque buildings of the royal houses.”’

Geisler next recalled the trip to Montmartre where Hitler barely glanced at the Sacré Cœur. From the elevated terrace in front of the church, he wanted to consider the vista of Paris he had just visited. ‘Adolf Hitler believed that, as far as he could view the concentration of Paris from here, the monuments and places stood out only weakly from the monotony of living quarters and functional buildings. The great cohesion from the Louvre to the Étoile, the Île-de-France with the Notre Dame, the flowing of the Seine to the Eiffel tower is just barely maintained. Actually, only this tower, meant and built for an exhibition, maintains – regardless of its filigree transparency seen from here – its reputation. What he said is that the Tower justifies its existence in this city only by the deliberately planned vertical tendency – an astonishing feature for that epoch. Naturally, for the city of Paris it meant a symbolic novelty, a city with such a deep historical tradition from the Romans to the very significant eras of the kings, the revolution, the empire, the buildings of the republic after Napoleon III; they are all meaningless, of no importance for the overall structure of the city – with the exception of the Eiffel Tower.’

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