It is impossible not to be aware that on Friday, June 6 this year (2014) we here in France, and Europe with us, will be commemorating the June 6, 1944 Allied landings on France’s Normandy coast. I will be writing more about D-Day 1944 in another piece, but today I want to speak of […]


Hitler at the Eiffel Tower: 1940

Hitler at the Eiffel Tower: 1940

It is impossible not to be aware that on Friday, June 6 this year (2014) we here in France, and Europe with us, will be commemorating the June 6, 1944 Allied landings on France’s Normandy coast.

I will be writing more about D-Day 1944 in another piece, but today I want to speak of the extraordinary gift Hitler had given France during WW2 and which is hardly ever mentioned these days, and which I am sure 97% of the French do not even know about.


It is the first minutes of Sunday, December 15, 1940 in Paris.

The Second World War is raging and France had in June capitulated to the enemy – Nazi Germany – and all of the northern part of the country, which includes Paris, is occupied by the Germans. The French army has been dissolved, and the police, in fact, the entire French legal apparatus, is under German authority.

On this night, Paris, the ‘City of Light’, is dark and silent because the victorious Germans are imposing a black-out and curfew on the Parisians.

Yet, on one of the platforms of the capital’s Gare d l’Est railway station there is much coming and going of men in uniform. Some of them are in German feldgrau (field-grey) uniforms. Others in the black uniforms of French police.

There are also men in the blue overalls – bleu de travail – of French railway workers, standing about.

Also on the platform stand a few men in civvies, the cameras at their feet identifying them as press photographers.

This is the station from which trains leave for and arrive from east Europe, and this night, a train is expected from Vienna, the Austrian capital.

The photographers, having been summoned to the station by General Otto von Stülpnagel, the German military commander of France, do not know who or what will be arriving on the Vienna train. They only know that if it is a person he or she must be someone from the Third Reich, someone very important. It can even be Adolf Hitler.

The train of just one wagon, pulls in, steam rising in the air.

Two of the German soldiers step up to the wagon’s door which is slowly being pushed open from the inside. Each raises his right arm in salute, and holds the salute.

Why are the two German soldiers saluting?

The heavy steel door, opened, an ornate bronze casket can be seen inside the wagon.

Other German soldiers, dressed like the two saluting soldiers who are in field-grey belted overcoats, black leather jackboots, white gloves and steel helmets, step forward and in dignified silence, the casket is lifted from the wagon and placed on the shoulders of eight of them. With a slow goosestep the eight march down along the platform and through the station’s main hall, dark because of the black-out, and out onto the square in front of the building, the square lit by search lights.

The photographers, surprised at the sight of a casket when they were expecting the arrival of a living person, quickly gather their wits and run after the goose-stepping pall-bearers and the casket.

Several ‘panzer grey’ German army vehicles, the Balkan Cross, the black within white border balkenkreuz, emblem of the Wehrmacht, painted on the sides, are parked on the square, and more German soldiers are standing about. So too more French police and French railroad workers. And several French Republican Guards (Garde républicaine) in full ceremonial dress of white trousers, black tunic with golden fourragère (braided cord hanging from the left shoulder) and red-plumed shako hat and black jackboots. In unison all stand to attention. (During the Occupation the Germans changed the name Garde républicaine to Garde de Paris – Guard of Paris – and because the French army had been dissolved, the Garde de Paris which in peacetime fell under the authority of the French Ministry of Defence was placed under the authority of the police, which was of course under the authority of the Occupier.)

One of the vehicles outside the station is a gun carriage. The pall-bearers goose-step to it and a couple of minutes later the casket rests on it. Two of the soldiers throw a black velvet cover over the casket while another two fasten the gun carriage to a small ‘panzer grey’ truck which also has the balkenkreuz painted on its sides.

The casket

The casket

The truck’s engine kicks into motion which seems to serve as notification to the German soldiers and the French Guards of Paris to form a guard of honour around and behind the gun carriage.

The soldiers in place, the truck drives from the square out onto the boulevard in front of the station.

Again it halts so that a couple of German army motorcycles with sidecars and several black Citroën front-wheel drive – traction-avant – cars of the French police can fall in at the back.

But, whose body is in the casket, the photographers, who have been taking photographs of the casket on the gun carriage, ask one another: they have hitched rides in the black Citroëns.

What the photographers do not know is that Hitler has sent France a gift.

The gift is the body in the casket.

It is the body of Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, declared King of Rome on birth, next declared Prince Imperial and Prince of Parma at the age of 3, and then to be declared Emperor Napoléon 11 of France, then still only a toddler of three.

In other words, it is the body of the only child of Napoléon Bonaparte – Emperor Napoléon 1 of France.

Napoléon’s son had died 108 years previously, in 1832, of tuberculosis, in Austria, aged twenty-one. He was born of Napoléon Bonaparte’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. In 1814, Napoléon having been forced to abdicate and about to be sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, the boy had gone into exile with his mother to her native Austria. There, the blue-eyed, blond-haired boy had become known simply as Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. (Napoléon was to return to France from Elba but after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 he was to be exiled yet again – to the Atlantic Ocean island of Saint-Helena – from which he would return again to France, but as a corpse.)

Napoleon's son

Napoleon’s son

Like all of Austria’s emperors and empresses and their progeny, Franz, Duke of Reichstadt had been laid to rest in the Imperial Crypt of Vienna’s Capuchin Church.

Now, on this night, he will be given a new resting place.

All night it has been raining, but as the procession moves through the streets of dark and silent wartime Paris, it begins to snow.

The procession turns onto the road alongside the River Seine and passes the Tuileries Gardens: Franz, who was born in the Tuileries Palace (today housing the Louvre Museum), used to play in this garden with a small cart made specially for him, and which was pulled by lambs.

Once past the Tuileries Gardens, the procession crosses the river and now the Eiffel Tower can be seen ahead, these days a flagpole for the Nazis’ Swastika banner.

It is however the domed Les Invalides building to the left of the river which draws the photographers’ attention. It is impossible not to see the building because like the square in front of the Gare de l’Est railway station, search lights are focused on it. There need be no fear though that the light will guide German Stukas to the building, because, like at the station, the Germans themselves have set up the search lights.

Les Invalides in Paris where Napoleon lies buried (copyright marilynztomlins)

Les Invalides in Paris where Napoleon lies buried (copyright marilynztomlins)

Here in Les Invalides, under its dome, lies #Napoléon #Bonaparte. He lies within six caskets, the final of the six, a sarcophagus of red porphyry. (I wrote about #Napoléon’s death and burial here.)

Now, his son will join him.

Waiting in front of the illuminated building, a gusty wind blows squalls of snow down onto three men. They are General von Stülpnagel and Otto Abetz, Germany’s Ambassador to Occupied France in charge of dealing with the southern part of France which Hitler did not occupy but which he put under the administration of a puppet government led by Frenchman Marshal Philippe Pétain. The third man is French Admiral François Darlan, Prime Minister of the Pétain government.

The casket back on the shoulders of the eight French Guards of Paris, the sound of another French Guard blowing the La Sonnerie aux Morts, the French version of the Last Post, on a bugle, breaks the night’s silence.

Next, as the pallbearers, their jackboots scraping over the snow, ascend the stone steps to enter the building, the muffled sound of a snare drum rings out.

The casket is placed at the foot of that of Napoléon.

Napoleon's tomb in Paris's Les Invalides (copyright marilynztomlins)

Napoleon’s tomb in Paris’s Les Invalides (copyright marilynztomlins)

The casket in place, Admiral Darlan, accepts a wreath being handed to him by a German soldier, and places it on the casket. The wreath is large but in wartime Paris flowers are scarce,  so the wreath is more twigs than flowers.

The banner around the wreath reads: Maréchal #Pétain.

(There is an unconfirmed story that a day later an old French lady removed the wreath, carried it outside and set it alight. Before putting a match to it, she spat on it.)

Adolf Hitler had the body of l’Aiglon – the Eaglet – as Napoléon’s son was generally referred to in France removed from its resting place in Vienna and had it brought to Paris as his gift to the French people. His gesture was to ensure that the French would not oppose his occupation of their country. It must be said though that Hitler had acted on an idea of Ambassador Abetz.

The Eaglet’s body was to remain beside that of his father until Thursday, December 18, 1969 – some 29 years – when it was placed under a marble slab in a side vault, a statue of his father as a Roman Emperor towering over it. Growing up in Austria he probably would have had no recollection of his father whom he had seen for the last time on Monday, January 24, 1814, when his mother had taken him to the Fontainebleau Chateau to bid his father, who was about to be exiled, farewell, and he himself to go into exile in Austria with his mother. He was three.

Napoleon's son's tomb in Les Invalides

Napoleon’s son’s tomb in Les Invalides

When you visit Les Invalides and you stand at l’Aiglon’s tomb, do now that his heart and intestines have remained in Vienna. In order to honour Austrian royal tradition, his heart and intestines were removed on his death and placed in separate urns and were not brought with the rest of him to Paris. Today, the Urn No 42, holding his heart, can be viewed in Vienna’s Capuchin Church’s ‘Heart Crypt’, and Urn No 76, holding his intestines, in the church’s ‘Ducal Crypt’.

This is a palace Napoleon had had built for his infant son in Rambouillet . The boy did not spend even one night there.(copyright  marilynztomlins)

This is a palace Napoleon had had built for his infant son in Rambouillet . The boy did not spend even one night there.(copyright marilynztomlins)


You know Hitler’s fate.

As for the others mentioned above, this is what happened to them:

At the end of the war the French arrested the collaborator Pétain and he was sent to prison for life.

In 1942 Prime Minister Darlan was assassinated, his 20-year-old assassin, who opposed the German occupation of France, was immediately arrested by the Germans and shot.

General Otto von Stulpnagel, unable to take the task he had been given to round up and deport France’s Jews to death camps, was recalled to Germany in 1942. He then retired and lived in Berlin until 1945 when he was arrested by the Allies authorities and returned to France. Awaiting trial in a prison in Paris, he committed suicide.

Ambassador Abetz would on the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 return with the fleeing Wehrmacht to Germany where in 1945 he was arrested by the Allied authorities and given a 20 year sentence for ‘war crimes’. He was released from prison ten years later and died in a car accident four years later.


Guards of Paris with the casket.

Guards of Paris with the casket.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

2 Responses

5-27-2014 at 15:36:39

Fascinating story Marilyn, I didn’t know that. Not surprising as you say most French don’t know either. I have been to Les Invalides but don’t remember L’Aiglet’s tomb being pointed out to me. Could be my memory of course, it was a looooong time ago.

5-27-2014 at 15:43:26

Jo, I also learnt this a few days ago. I thought it was too good a story to ignore.

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