I initially wanted to review Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights by Martin Dugard last February, but then Vladimir Putin launched his troops against Ukraine and I had to shuffle my publications calendar. As you will see, there are fascinating parallels between the fate of France in World War II and the current situation in Ukraine, if only at the leadership level.
After the invasion of France by the Germans in May 1940, the country is in disarray and its statesmen have given up. In the ashes of defeat, a temporary brigadier general will rise to the occasion. Fleeing his homeland on board an airplane provided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle left with a “[…] hastily packed suitcase contain[ing] four shirts, one pair of pants, and a single photograph of Yvonne and the children, whose current whereabouts he does not know.” I couldn’t help but think of the same predicament in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself on February 24th. As did de Gaulle, he chose to fight, but from home.
Other parallels can be drawn between these two war leaders. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian President has proved to be a master communicator and one can reasonably assess that his talent has largely contributed to the resistance of his countrywomen and countrymen. In his time, de Gaulle was not much different. Picture him walking to deliver one of his radio speeches at the BBC on Portland Place in London. “The general’s hair is slicked back tight against his head. He dresses for movie cameras instead of radio—leggings, polished boots, crisp tunic cinched tightly around his narrow waist with a wide belt—as if this moment is being filmed for posterity”, writes Martin Duggard.
“Everything about Charles de Gaulle’s life has changed in just one week.” The same can be said of the man who valiantly resisted the Russian assault in Kyiv. Since the focus of the book is to detail how the Allied chased the Nazis from France, de Gaulle occupies a central place in the book. And there is a striking similarity between the courage shown by de Gaulle in fleeing France to fight another day and Zelensky’s decision to stay in Kyiv to inspire his people and share their sacrifices.
This capacity to depict with profound empathy the psychology of de Gaulle is also applied to every character called at the bar of history in Taking Paris. And this is one of the most revealing and compelling quality of Martin Dugard as an author.
As the story unfolds, German field marshal Rommel goes from an acclaimed hero to a lonely and sick warlord living on borrowed time. You also sit in a meeting between Churchill and de Gaulle during which the two men share a bottle of Scotch or take place around the British Prime Minister’s table where creamy soups are not welcome but ice cream and chocolate sauce rank at the top of the dessert menu. The author also offers a sneak peek on the flight of a Liberator Mark II bomber in which the British warlord is bothered by a kerosene-fueled heater whose presence should keep him sleeping comfortably but which could also make the aircraft explode.
Such details might seem superfluous in the big realm of things. But I am a firm believer that men and women are the prime drivers of history and that victories are built on small details, such as the creature comforts of a leader travelling to meet his counterpart or the resilience of a limping SOE (the Special Operations Executive) agent escaping Klaus Barbie, one of the most sadistic and infamous butchers of the Gestapo. These fragments of humanity can contribute to victory or decide the course of a defeat. And who can resist smirking upon learning that Winston Churchill drank no less than 42 000 bottles of Pol Roger champagne during his lifetime?
Taking Paris also reveals the mettle of those exceptional characters who proved pivotal in changing the course of history. One can think of Winston Churchill, him again, whose support of de Gaulle was essential in fostering the rise to power of the oftentimes irritating French officer. And there is George S. Patton, who joined a group of “Basement Conspirators” – US Army top-shelf officers who saw an instrumental role for armored divisions in winning the coming war, contrary to the dogmas of the military establishment. Over time, Patton and his fellow visionaries would be proven right.
In these troubled times when a war whose consequences are still unfathomable has replaced a global pandemic as a source of daily concern, Martin Dugard also offers a powerful lesson of hope for the worried reader. In the bleakest moments when Nazis had painted their colours on almost all continental Europe, the words of Saint Paul rang true, since “[…] as [he] wrote to the Romans, suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope.” Suffering, a wise man once told me, is a key ingredient in success and resilience.
The story told in this book resonates in a very powerful manner, because the source of the courage we observe in Ukraine is inexhaustible in the hearts of men and women who decide not to give up – no matter the sacrifice. And that’s what makes history such an inspiring catalogue of bravery.
If you are on the verge of despairing about the fate of the world, Taking Paris is the best antidote. And it is written masterfully.
Martin Dugard, Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights, New York, Caliber, 2021, 400 pages.
I would like to thank Ms. Shona Cook, Publicity Manager at Random House Canada, who generously sent me a copy of the book. I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Hannah at the Dutton imprint for her precious collaboration.