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France, La Rochelle, Hotel de Ville
Image by hdes.copeland
La Rochelle, Hotel de Ville, Juin 2004.
Though the Liberation of Europe had begun this month 60 years before, the Allied invasion at Normandy would sweep south and east, leaving the residents of La Rochelle as hostages to the Nazi occupation. Paris would be liberated by August, the Russians would take Warsaw and Berlin would fall before brave and honorable La Rochelle would be set free.
Once an independent and wealthy seafaring city, La Rochelle has a profound memory of its own destruction in the religious and empire building wars of the 1600’s. Rather than surrender its charter and its rights, La Rochelle’s 25,000 inhabitants vowed to withstand a siege. It would last nearly three years and the survivors would witness the draining of their harbor to break their resolve. The effort to break La Rochelle was led by King Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. When the siege ended and the city finally surrendered, less than 5,000 of city’s inhabitants remained alive. Most of the 25,000 had starved to death.
In the end, the city’s walls were leveled by order of Cardinal Richelieu with only the harbor gates remaining today. The charter was surrendered and the freedoms that its Huguenot citizens had enjoyed were stripped away. It was reduced to a fishing village and a point of departure for tens of thousands of Huguenot refugees who would be expelled from France over the next 75 years. When the restrictions were finally lifted by the crown, in the 1720’s as an international port to compete with the English and the Dutch, and the French nation given to renewed religious toleration…it was too late to fix what the crown had broken. La Rochelle prospered to a degree, but France was well on it way to revolution.
La Rochelle was also a place of exodus. Descendants of Huguenots around the world may recall images or traditions that involve passing through La Rochelle. That is where thousands of Huguenot families were split apart as they were expelled from France to an unknown fate in Ireland, New Holland, Carolina, the West Indies and the Cape Colony. The broken city of La Rochelle and the exodus of refugees from its wharfs was to Huguenots and those that followed its tradition a repetition of the Roman destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the expulsion of its people. By the early 20th century La Rochelle was chiefly known as a preferred resort of 19th century monarchs and its historic harbor favored by international yacht enthusiasts. History would make a new mark on the ancient seaport city.
In 1940, the city of La Rochelle was occupied by German army and naval forces. This was after the fall of Dunkirk where French and British troops were forced to abandon Europe. The Free French Forces evacuated with British forces while right wing political factions in France capitulated to Hitler. At first the occupation of La Rochelle might be described as beguine. Resistance to the transfer of authority to an occupying force appeared to be more a trial of wills, than outright confrontation.
German military interests were largely confined to using the Atlantic ports of France, like La Rochelle, to build and support submarine pens. These were important as they began the siege of Britain. The people of La Rochelle knew well in 1940 what the toll could be for the English once this siege began. La Rochelle was only a small city, but it could still make a difference in favor of those about to face this enemy.
La Rochelle by day was mildly uncooperative. By night, the entire populace was an arm of the French Underground. They were an annoyance to the Germans who remained largely unaware of how well organized they were against the occupation in its early days. Eventually, Gestapo and SS officials took interest in La Rochelle. The very likable and elderly mayor of La Rochelle, Léonce Vieljeux, appeared to be more an old coot that a menace to the occupiers. As a retired member of the French reserves, he refused to take orders from a junior officer, especially if the officer was of the prevailing army. Mayor Vieljeux managed to explain away many coincidences which only annoyed the Germans more. One tale describes German frustration over how Allied bombing raids were so accurate in and near La Rochelle, especially after certain roofs had been repainted.
Another story, which may or may not be true, says when asked for a list of Jews in La Rochelle, the mayor and other officials politely explained that La Rochelle had no Jews; it had been, in his words, a totally Protestant city for hundreds of years. Finally when pressed further, one official reportedly showed the rolls of what is still called the Huguenot Temple in La Rochelle where the ancestors of every resident of the city could be traced. There were no Jews in La Rochelle, they protested. There were Jews in La Rochelle, but their names and family legacies had been carefully made to appear as if they were Huguenots from the beginning of time. It was dangerous fun. La Rochelle’s history demonstrated that it should practice patience and courage as it faced this latest enemy. Local officials were eventually removed by the Germans. The mayor was expelled from the city. He continued to work with the Resistance but outside the city.
On the sixth of June 1944, a new battle to retake Europe had begun. The long awaited return of the Allies commenced. German forces were now facing the largest military invasion in history. Its better military leaders, including Erwin Rommel, saw the beginning of Hitler’s ultimate defeat that day. Lesser military and political officials were more concerned with retaliation and revenge. New Nazi overseers were sent to La Rochelle to root out the French Underground which had become quite successful in the area. The 90 year old former mayor had returned to the city in spite of orders that he was banned. He was arrested and sent first to a jail at Poitiers and then further east to a concentration camp where he was executed a month after Paris was liberated.
As the Allies blazed the Voie de la Liberté or Road to Liberty, La Rochelle became more isolated as its jailers dug in deeper. The Road to Liberty would bypass La Rochelle until the day after their remaining military leaders unconditionally surrendered to the Allies in the ruins of a defeated Germany. Only then did the Germans free La Rochelle with their surrender to Allied forces finally sweeping west.
La Rochelle had stood true to its honor as a city of refuge. It had defended others, even strangers, through patience and perseverance. It made sacrifices for honor, in blood and treasure. The people calculated their risks to maintain their cover by carefully marking non-military buildings to be destroyed during Allied bombings along with military targets. Declaring that La Rochelle had no Jews allowed time for the safe exit for some of its citizen while also placing city leaders in certain peril. This was a risk the people of La Rochelle willingly took. As its history reminded them, the price would be high. But the cost of standing as one in the defense of all would be even greater.
In 1948, in a rare example of an acknowledgement of a single city’s contribution to the Liberation, the French government recognized the entire city of La Rochelle for its heroism throughout the longest occupation endured by any French city in the Second World War. In a unique presentation, honoring its martyrd mayor and others, the city and its collective citizenry were awarded the Croix de Guerre. The full and true story of La Rochelle is far more interesting than the one I am telling.
I learned part of this story from a plaque I read within the courtyard of La Rochelle’s 16th century Hotel de Ville. It was located just beyond these walls and beneath these flags. It was a cloudy day in June, 60 years after the Voie de la Liberté for them was delayed.
Praça do Hôtel de Ville / Hôtel de Ville Square
Image by Marcio Cabral de Moura
Originalmente essa praça se chamava praça da Greve, por conta dos gravetos que o rio Sena levava para a praça. Por conta das manifestações ocorridas nessa praça é que a paralisação de trabalhadores é chamada atualmente de greve.
The Place de Grève was, before 1802 the name of the plaza now the City Hall Plaza (place de l’Hôtel de Ville) in Paris, France. Its name is derived from the French word "grève" meaning a flat terrain covered with gravel or sand situated on the shores of the sea or on the banks of a watercourse. That place was the access to the first city harbour of Paris, a section of the sandy right bank of the Seine River.
Later on it used to be a meeting place, and also the location where unemployed people sought prospective employers; this resulted in the current French idioms of être en grève (to be on strike) and faire (la) grève (to strike, literally: "to do the strike").
Nevertheless, the principal reason why the place de Grève is remembered is that it was the site of most executions in Paris. The gallows and the pillory stood there.
The highest-profile executions took place in the Grève, including the gruesome deaths of the regicides Jacques Clément, François Ravaillac, and Robert–François Damiens. In the words of Victor Hugo (the Hunchback of Notre Dame), the grève was the symbol of medieval and ancien régime justice: brutal, corrupt and inadequate.
In 1533, King Francis I decided to endow the city with a city hall which would be worthy of Paris, then the largest city of Europe and Christendom. He appointed two architects: Italian Dominique de Cortone, nicknamed Boccador because of his red beard, and Frenchman Pierre Chambiges. The House of Pillars was torn down and Boccador, steeped in the spirit of the Renaissance, drew up the plans of a building which was at the same time tall, spacious, full of light and refined. Building work was not finished until 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII.
During the next two centuries, no changes were made to the edifice which was the stage for several famous events during the French Revolution (notably the murder of the last provost of the merchants Jacques de Flesselles by an angry crowd on July 14, 1789 and the coup of 9 Thermidor Year II when Robespierre was shot in the jaw and arrested in the Hôtel de Ville with his followers). Eventually, in 1835, on the initiative of Rambuteau, préfet of the Seine département, two wings were added to the main building and were linked to the facade by a gallery, to provide more space for the expanded city government.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the building played a key role in several political events. On October 30, 1870, revolutionaries broke into the building and captured the Government of National Defence, while making repeated demands for the establishment of a communard government. The existing government was rescued by soldiers who broke into the Hôtel de Ville via an underground tunnel built in 1807, which still connects the Hôtel de Ville with a nearby barracks. On January 18, 1871, crowds gathered outside the building to protest against speculated surrender to the Prussians, and were dispersed by soldiers firing from the building, who inflicted several casualties. The Paris Commune chose the Hôtel de Ville as its headquarters, and as anti-Commune troops approached the building, Commune extremists set fire to the Hôtel de Ville destroying almost all extant public records from the French Revolutionary period. The blaze gutted the building, leaving only a stone shell.
The reconstruction of the building was directed by architects Théodore Ballu and Pierre Deperthes following an architectural contest. They rebuilt the interior of the Hôtel de Ville within the stone shell that had survived the fire. While the rebuilt Hôtel de Ville is from the outside a copy of the 16th century French Renaissance building that stood before 1871, the new interior was based on an entirely new design, with ceremonial rooms lavishly decorated in the 1880s style. The decor featured murals by Raphaël Collin.
Gustavia – Wall House, City Hall, and Fort Oscar
Image by roger4336
Three landmarks, looking across the harbor of Gustavia, St. Barthélemy from the boat landing. Wall House, the local museum, is on the left. Hôtel de la Collectivité, the successor to the city hall with the island’s new status in the French governmental system, is on the right. Fort Oscar, built by Sweden and named after King Oscar I (reigned 1844-1859), is above the scene. It now houses the local gendarmerie.
St. Barthélemy is often called St. Barth in French and St. Bart’s in English.