New museum brings Paris liberation out of the shadows
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On the 75th anniversary of Paris’s liberation from Nazi occupation, a new museum is opening its doors in the French capital, hoping to bring that experience to life for a new generation.
Twenty metres below ground. 100 steps down a concrete staircase. Visitors to the new Musée de la Libération de Paris (Paris Liberation Museum) begin their trip with a literal descent into history. Deep beneath the Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, they will now be able to access a place never before open to the public. This was the command post where Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, leader of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) in the Île-de-France region, helped mastermind the liberation of Paris.
Originally a government bomb shelter built in 1938 but left unused during the Nazi occupation of Paris, from June 1940 onwards, Rol-Tanguy discreetly installed his staff in this inhospitable and damp basement, behind a heavy armored door, on August 20, 1944, as the Paris uprising began.
Left more or less abandoned after the war, major renovation work has been carried out to restore the command room to how it would have looked as Paris battled for its freedom. Though the original furniture may be gone, it is in many ways as if the FFI had left barely yesterday. The electrical panels remain, as do the cables running from them, while the walls still bear the original inscriptions pointing the way to Rol-Tanguy’s headquarters.
The command post is the centre piece of, to give it its full name, the new Musée de la Libération de Paris - musée du Général Leclerc - musée Jean Moulin.
The name comes from the two main protagonists of this museum. Leclerc, the nom de guerre of Philippe de Hauteclocque, led the 2nd Armored Division of the Free French Forces which entered Paris as Rol-Tanguy’s FFI fought the Germans from within. While Moulin was a hero of the resistance, tasked by Charles de Gaulle with uniting the various groups of partisans in their struggle against the occupiers.
It is not the first iteration of the museum, which used to sit above Montparnasse train station and suffered from a chronic lack of visitors: barely 14,000 a year.
“It was inaugurated in 1994, but it was a bit difficult to access and not at all suitable. The number of visitors was not nearly at the level the city wanted,” Sylvie Zaidman, the director of the new museum told FRANCE 24.
“There was a desire to put this story in the spotlight, but that was not possible at Montparnasse.”
With the 75th anniversary celebrations approaching, the Paris mayor’s office decided a relocation was needed. Next to the catacombs, already a popular tourist destination, and above Rol-Tanguy’s historic command post, the new site was perfect.
But the location is not the only change. The entire layout of the museum has undergone a complete redesign. No longer will visitors be taken through different rooms dedicated variously to Leclerc and Moulin, as they did at Montparnasse.
Instead, their stories have now been intertwined, forming a common thread that leads to the liberation of Paris.
"Visitors will follow the lives of these two men and discover the history of the Second World War through them,” said Zaidman.
Heroes of the liberation
The museum was born out of bequests and donations from friends and relatives of Leclerc and Moulin and it is around these incredible collections that the exhibition is built.
Personal items belonging to these two heroes of the liberation give visitors an intimate window into their lives; an armchair Moulin may have relaxed in in between fraught missions attempting to unite France’s fractured resistance groups, a suitcase he carried during the occupation containing untold secrets – the object too fragile to risk opening.
A little further along is the pea coat worn by Leclerc when he led his Free French troops in campaigns in Chad and Tunisia as most of Europe still suffered under the Nazi yoke, as well as the walking cane he carried with him at all times.
“In the end they are two men, certainly not ordinary, but normal,” said Zaidman. “On the one hand, you have Jean Moulin, a republican, secular, with the career of a prefect (the French State’s representative in a department or region). And on the other there is Philippe de Hautecloque, born into a traditional Christian environment and very proud of his aristocratic origins who chose a career in the army. These are two important figures who would never cross paths and who are the opposite of one another. That’s what’s interesting.”
But the journey does not end with the lives of these two men. It also gives voice to others who played a part, or simply bore witness to, the liberation. The resistance member Madeleine Riffaud has donated the small note book in which she wrote down her thoughts while in a prison cell in Fresnes in 1944. Then there is the spectacular tricolor dress, emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, made by Marguerite Sabaut, a Parisian mother, as the liberation neared.
It is the dress she wore on the Champs-Élysées on August 26, 1944, as she watched a triumphant Charles de Gaulle make his return to the French capital.
"She had also made a small pocket out of a cross of Lorraine she had had signed by a member of the FFI and a soldier of it 2nd Armored Division - a symbol," said Zaidman.
In all, more than 300 objects make up the collection, along with archive videos and testimonies. Informative, without being overly exhaustive, modern but without losing its soul, this new museum, free to enter, should finally make the liberation Paris part of the city’s tourist circuit.
This article was adapted from the original in French.