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Tenacity of a European Diplomat and the Open-Mindedness of a German General May Have Saved a European Treasure
We often think of history as inevitable outcomes, but sometimes we forget that many things we hold dear were held in the balance in history. In late summer, 1944, the L'Arc de Triomphe, la Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, and the many ancient and modern streets of Paris could have been blown into oblivion in less than one day. Towards the end of August, 1944, the allies had retaken many of the Reich's former strongholds such as Rome and Tropoli. And now the allies were on the borders of German-occupied Paris about to storm and retake the most famous French city.
When the Reich realized they had no chance of resisting the allies from liberating the city from German occupation, Adolph Hitler made a final ultimatum: make Paris a "scorched-earth". In other words, destroy the city and lay it waste. It would be destruction on a massive scale which would not only destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world but also murder potentially millions of lives. And yet there was neither strategic nor tactical advantage to razing Paris, only killing and mayhem. And the many monuments and art would be lost forever. Whether Hitler's order was out of pure insanity continues to be debated, although one thing is certain. The order was made most likely out of malice towards the allies and the rest Europe when it became obvious Hitler and Germany would be defeated and not as a puzzle piece towards any larger strategy to win the war.
For 3 to 4 days, General Von Choltitz, then German general in charge of Paris, orchestrated his young soldiers and engineers to plant hidden explosives under the many bridges over the Seine, the main waterway which runs through Paris. Explosive U-boat torpedoes were also deployed in tunnels under the city that, if ignited, would destroy Paris from the ground-up. At the same time, Resistance fighters had tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the deployment. At the beginning of the film, General Choltitz meets with his top commanders to begin the process of laying waste to Paris.
Then, the General receives an expected visitor, Raoul Nordling of the Swedish Consul in Paris. (In fact, the man who visited the general was Pierre Charles Tattinger, the mayor of Paris. For dramatic purposes, the characters of Tattinger and Nordling may have been combined into a single person.) The film becomes a dialogue between Nordling and Choltitz in which Nordling has to find a way to persuade the general that destroying Paris is not only a heinous criminal act even by wartime standards but also not in his best interests. After each of Nordling's arguments, Choltitz counters with other arguments, such as he cannot disobey orders from the Reich, particularly those of Hitler, no matter how monstrous they may be. Eventually, Choltitz offers Nordling a trump card which the diplomat can't seem to counter, unless he has something else up his sleeve to persuade the general.
A brilliantly written and acted film based on the play of the same name by Cyril Gely who also adapted the screenplay. André Dussollier as Nordling and Niels Arestrup as General Choltitz offer tour-de-force performances about a meeting which determined the fate of an historic city. Although we know the ending, we don't always know how we arrived there. "Diplomatie" ("Diplomacy") shows us how we got there.
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