“One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.”
On August 19, 1944, the Liberation of Paris commenced, marking the beginning of the end of World War II in France. Six days later, on August 25, the occupying German garrison surrendered. That week, in a journal entry found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, how our objects define us, and how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist breaks out of her usual contemplative lyricism and explodes with gorgeous, unfiltered human exuberance over the end of one of history’s greatest inhumanities:
Liberation of France!
JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.
Such joy, such happiness at the hope of war ending. Happiness in unison with the world. Delirious happiness.
At such times we are overwhelmed by a collective joy. We feel like shouting, demonstrating in the street. A joy you share with the whole world is almost too great for one human being. One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.
That same day, Ernest Hemingway — who had been living in Paris as one of the Lost Generation’s famous expats, among whom were Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald — waged a different kind of liberation effort. The Ritz hotel and its famed bar, which Hemingway had come to love as a home and an idyllic drinking spot during his pre-war reign in Paris, had been co-opted as the quarters of German generals in 1940. So, on this fateful August day, Hemingway — arguably the world’s best-known living writer at the time — donned a steel helmet, mounted an army jeep in the dirt roads of the French countryside, and led his small private army as they set out to “liberate” the Ritz.
From Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (public library) comes this missive Papa sent to his soon-to-be fourth wife, Mary Welsh, offering a much grittier but no less emotionally charged account than Nin’s:
On nineteenth [of August, 1944], made contact with group of Maquis who placed themselves under my command. Because so old and ugly looking I guess. Clothed them with clothing of cavalry recon outfit which had been killed at entrance to Rambouillet. Armed them from Div. Took and held Rambouillet after our recon withdrawn. Ran patrols and furnished gen [intelligence] to French when they advanced. They operated on our gen with much success. Entered Paris by Etoile and Concorde. Fought outfit several times. They did very well. Now very tired. Fortunately in phase of advance Rambouillet Paris had official war historian with us. Otherwise everyone would think was damned lie. Most operation chickenshit as to fighting. But could been bad. Now have rejoined division but have to try to write piece tomorrow. Then will put my people under div orders. Very fine peoples. But temperamental. . . .
I was very scared twice when we were holding (sic) screening, or simply furnishing contact is word, that town with 15 kraut tanks, and 52 cyclists as opposition. Some of the patrols we made would scare you worse than Grimm’s Fairy Tales even if there had been no Krauts [ed: What Hemingway called the Germans]. We checked on tanks with bicycles. Would like to drag down but guess will have to let things ride.
After a few lines of almost incongruously placed romantic flirtations, Hemingway returns to the war and adds:
Have strong feeling my luck has about run out but am going to try to pass a couple of more times with dice. Have been to all the old places I ever lived in Paris and everything is fine. But it is all so improbable that you feel like you have died and it is all a dream.
(As charmingly deranged as all of this may be, of course, it comes as wholly unsurprising given Hemingway’s penchant for sorting out his emotional vulnerabilities with shotguns.)