Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz (German pronunciation: [ˈdiːtʁɪç fɔn ˈçɔltɪts]; 9 November 1894 – 4 November 1966) was a German general officer who served in the Royal Saxon Army during World War I and the German Army during World War II. He is chiefly remembered for his role as the last commander of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, when he disobeyed Chancellor Adolf Hitler's orders to level the city, but instead surrendered it to Free French forces. He was hailed in many contemporary accounts as the "Saviour of Paris" for not allowing it to be destroyed.
Choltitz later asserted that his defiance of Hitler's direct order stemmed from its obvious military futility, his affection for the French capital's history and culture, and his belief that Hitler had by then become insane.
Dietrich von Choltitz joined 8. Infanterie-Regiment Prinz Johann Georg Nr. 107 of the Royal Saxon Army as a Fähnrich just months before the First World War broke out. His unit served on the Western Front, where he was promoted to Leutnant and became Adjutant of the regiment's third Battalion within a year of joining.
He remained in the Reichswehr during the Weimar Republic, becoming a cavalry captain in 1929. Promoted to Major in 1937, he was made commander of third battalion, Infanterie-Regiment 16 "Oldenburg", a part of 22. Luftlande-Division. In 1938 he was promoted again, this time to Oberstleutnant.
Choltitz first saw action with his battalion in the Second World War at the 1940 Battle of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, making dangerous air landings and seizing some of the city's key bridges, all the while fighting against Dutch forces that outnumbered his. After the bombardment of Rotterdam, during a meeting with the Dutch discussing the terms of surrender of all Dutch forces in Rotterdam, the popular German Generalleutnant Kurt Student was shot in the head; Choltitz was able to prevent the execution of all Dutch officers present during this meeting. His action during this daring assault on Rotterdam earned him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. In September of the same year, he was given command of the whole regiment, and the following spring was made Oberst.
At the start of Operation Barbarossa, Choltitz's regiment was based in Romania, advancing as part of Army Group South into Ukraine. As part of Erich von Manstein's 11th Army, the regiment fought in the siege of Sevastopol. The siege was bloody for his regiment, which was reduced from 4,800 men to just 349; Chlotitz was also wounded in the arm. Promoted to Generalmajor soon after, he was made acting commander of 260th Infantry division in 1942. He was then promoted to Generalleutnant the following year and given command of 11th Panzer Division, which he led during Battle of Kursk.
In March 1944, Choltitz was transferred to the Italian theatre of operations, where he was made deputy commander of LXXVI Panzer Corps and participated in the Battle of Anzio. Transferred to the Western Front in June 1944, he took command of LXXXIV Army Corps, with which he fought against the Allied breakout from Normandy.
Governor of Paris
On 1 August 1944, Choltitz was promoted to General der Infanterie, and on 7 August was appointed military governor of Paris. At a meeting in Germany the following day, Hitler instructed him to be prepared to leave no Parisian religious building or historical monument standing. After Choltitz's arrival in Paris on 9 August, Hitler confirmed the order by cable: "The city must not fall into the enemy's hand except lying in complete rubble." A popular account holds that Hitler telephoned Choltitz a week later at his headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice, in a rage, screaming, "Brennt Paris?" ("Is Paris burning?") By another account, the question was addressed to Hitler's Chief of Staff, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, on 25 August at the Wolf's Lair: "Jodl, is Paris burning?"
On 15 August 1944, the Paris police went on strike, followed on 19 August by a general insurrection led by the French Communist Party. The German garrison under Choltitz fought back but was far too small to quell the uprising. Choltitz brokered a ceasefire with the insurgents on 20 August, but many Resistance groups did not accept it and a series of skirmishes continued on the next day.
On 25 August, Choltitz surrendered the German garrison of 17,000 men to the Free French, leaving the city largely intact. Because Hitler's directive was not carried out, Choltitz has been described by some as the "Saviour of Paris".
General von Choltitz later claimed in his memoir of 1951 that he defied Hitler's order to destroy Paris because he loved the city and had decided that Hitler was by then insane. It is known that the Swedish consul-general in Paris, Raoul Nordling, held several meetings with Choltitz, during which he negotiated the release of political prisoners. The all-night confrontation between the two men on the eve of the surrender, as depicted in the 1965 book and 1966 film Is Paris Burning?, and again in the 2014 film Diplomacy—in which Nordling persuades Choltitz to spare the city in return for a pledge to protect his family—was reported as factual in some contemporary newspaper stories, but lacks a definitive historical basis.
Captivity and later life
Choltitz was held for the remainder of the war at Trent Park, in North London, with other senior German officers. Many of the men's private conversations were surreptitiously recorded by the British in the hope that they might reveal strategic information. In one such conversation, Choltitz admitted "... executing the most difficult order of my life in Russia ... liquidation of the Jews. I executed this order in its entirety nonetheless ..." (recorded on 29 August 1944). Selected transcripts were dramatized in the History Channel 5-part series The Wehrmacht (2008). In the episode The Crimes, General von Choltitz is quoted as saying in October 1944,
We all share the guilt. We went along with everything, and we half-took the Nazis seriously instead of saying "to hell with you and your stupid nonsense". I misled my soldiers into believing this rubbish. I feel utterly ashamed of myself. Perhaps we bear even more guilt than these uneducated animals.
After Germany's surrender, Choltitz was transferred to Camp Clinton in Mississippi. No specific charges were ever filed against him, and he was released from captivity in 1947. In 1956 he visited his wartime headquarters at the Hôtel Meurice in Paris. Reportedly the long-time head barman of the hotel recognized the short, rotund man with "impossibly correct posture" wandering around the bar as if in a daze. After the manager of the hotel met him in the bar, he asked to see his old room. After seeing his old quarters for no more than fifteen minutes, the old General declined the manager's offer of champagne and left the hotel.
Choltitz died in November 1966 from a longstanding war illness in the city hospital of Baden-Baden. He was buried at the city cemetery of Baden-Baden in the presence of high-ranking French officers, including colonels Wagner (Military Commander of Baden-Baden), Ravinel, and Omézon. Baden-Baden was the French headquarters in Germany after the end of the Second World War.
- Is Paris Burning?, a French-American production of 1966, with Gert Fröbe playing Choltitz.
- Diplomacy, a French-German film of 2014 directed by Volker Schlöndorff, based on the play Diplomatie by Cyril Gely. Depicting events in his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice the night before the Liberation of Paris, Niels Arestrup portrays Choltitz.
- Secrets of the Dead: Bugging Hitler's Soldiers, a PBS documentary which examines how MI19 spied on senior German prisoners of war.
Awards and decorations
- Iron Cross (1914)
- 2nd Class
- 1st Class
- Wound Badge (1914)
- in Black
- in Silver
- Knight's Cross of the Military Order of St. Henry (26 December 1917)
- Knight's Cross, 2nd class of the Albert Order with Swords
- Knight's Cross, 2nd class of the Civil Order of Saxony with Swords
- Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918
- Wehrmacht Long Service Award 1st to 4th Class
- Sudetenland Medal with clasp "Prague Castle"
- Clasp to the Iron Cross
- 2nd Class (14 May 1940)
- 1st Class (19 May 1940)
- Infantry Assault Badge (17 September 1940)
- Wound Badge (1939)
- in Gold (25 March 1943)
- Eastern Front Medal
- Crimea Shield
- Order of Michael the Brave, 3rd class (6 October 1942)
- German Cross in Gold (8 February 1942)
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 29 May 1940 as Oberstleutnant and commander of III./Infanterie-Regiment 16
His Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross was presented and is registered by the Luftwaffe-Personalamt (LWA—Air Force Staff Office). The Heerespersonalamt (HPA—Army Staff Office) received Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross nomination for Generalmajor von Choltitz on 19 January 1943 for his leadership of the XVII. Armee-Korps. The HPA did not approve the nomination on 27 January 1943.
- Grand Officer of the Order of the Star of Romania with swords (Spring 1943)