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‘Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best,’ by Neal Bascomb: An Excerpt | Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best,’ by Neal Bascomb: An Excerpt

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Onward the Wehrmacht pressed.

In the capital, the growing numbers of routed French soldiers with unkempt beards and muddied uniforms portended the inevitable. Finally, on June 14, motorized columns of the German army — including heavy trucks, armored vehicles, motorcycles with sidecars, and tanks— entered an undefended city. Soldiers clad in gray and green followed on foot. The streets were so empty before them that at one intersection a herd of untethered cows aimlessly wandered past.

The Germans fortified positions at key arteries across the city, but there was no reason for such caution. Residents were helpless to launch a revolt when their armies had already retreated to the south. Instead, from windows and half-open doorways, they gaped at the rows of Germans marching past in their heavy boots.

By the afternoon, swastikas flew from the Arc de Triomphe and the ministry of foreign affairs. An enormous banner was strung to the Eiffel Tower that read, in block letters, “deutschland siegt an allen fronten” (germany is everywhere victorious). Trucks fitted with loudspeakers threaded throughout the city streets, demanding obedience and warning that any hostile act against the Third Reich’s troops would be punishable by execution.

On June 18, General Charles de Gaulle broadcast his own message to his countrymen from his offices in exile at the BBC in London. “Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. One day— victory . . . Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not die and will not die.”

Marshal Philippe Pétain, the newly installed French prime minister, maintained the opposite conviction. He pleaded for surrender, and on June 21, Hitler rolled into the Forest of Compiègne in an oversized Mercedes to deliver his demands. Surrounded by his highest officials, including General Walther von Brauchitsch, commander of all German forces, Hitler emerged from his car. Never one to shy from symbols, he forced the French to sign the terms of capitulation in the same train carriage in the same clearing where the Kaiser’s emissaries had surrendered on November 11, 1918.

Fifty miles away in Paris, the Germans solidified their control of the capital, targeted its Jewish population, and began expropriating whatever they wanted. “They knew where everything was,” was the common refrain: the best hotels, the finest galleries, the richest houses, and even the most popular bordellos.

On the Place de la Concorde, the German army commandeered the famously elegant Hôtel de Crillon and its neighboring colonnaded mansion, which was owned by the Automobile Club de France (the ACF). Founded in 1895, and the first such club of its kind, the club organized the French Grand Prix. Its membership included some of the wealthiest, most influential men in the city. Spread out over 100,000 square feet in a pair of buildings constructed during the reign of Louis XV, the club’s quarters were well suited to its prestige.


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