Recently, I was invited for drinks at the Swedish Club, a private club in Paris. A friend who enjoys a membership there was in town from the states, and the evening provided us some quiet time to catch up.
Members of the secluded, security-heavy club seem to be a melange of aristocrats, diplomats, international businessmen (my friend), a few artists and the odd writer or two.
The atmosphere was elegant but relaxed. The drinks were priced reasonably. Live jazz drifting from the main room, past the dining room, and into the cozy bar, where my friend and I sequestered ourselves in a corner.
The architecture was classically French, with period details gracing the pale aqua colored walls and 15 foot ceilings. A hundred year old dinner plate-sized clock was set into the brown marble fireplace on one wall. Neither was working, but it mattered not: no one has any pressing engagements after 9pm in Paris, and fireplaces in the city are no longer permitted to burn wood.
Busts of famous Swedes and stacks of books on a variety of subjects crowded the shelves of the room. A massive rack of moose antlers loomed over the mirrored bar, looking down on framed portraits, landscapes, and maps.
The club has a history, of course, but one of the more memorable moments was during World War II. The Nazis occupied the French capital, but Allied forces were closing in. Retreat was inevitable for the German forces, but Hitler was not letting his army leave without making a statement.
He had ordered the German commander to rig every bridge and every important monument or cultural landmark in Paris with explosives. Once the German army retreated across the last remaining bridge and headed back to Germany, the plan went, the explosives would be set off.
The result would be that the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Opera–every iconic building or landmark that makes Paris what it is–would be destroyed. The bridges would be demolished, damming the Seine and sending waters overflowing into the streets. Some Parisians would instantly drown. Many more would suffer and die of disease, as drinking water, food, and medical supplies would be interrupted and disrupted for weeks or even months.
It was a monstrous plan that only Hitler could have come up with. Upon receiving intelligence that the allied forces were approaching, the German general was fully prepared to follow orders. The explosives were in place. All that remained was for the Nazis to evacuate, and the final command to be given. Paris would be destroyed.
A Swedish diplomat, however, learned of the plan. He approached the general and, over the course of two fraught and perilous weeks, persuaded him not to go through with it. (I will not divulge all the details. Watch the wonderful French film “Diplomacy” online and enjoy…)
The two men held their tense, emotional conversations at the Swedish Club, in the bar.
After the war, the French government sent a message to the retired Swedish diplomat. They wanted to see him. They also communicated the same message to the now-defeated and retired German general. It seemed that the request for their presence was not really a request.
Dutifully, and perhaps a little nervously, the two men arrived in Paris. And, in a ceremony that could only have been conceived and executed by the French, they were both given France’s highest military honor, the Croix de guerre avec palme, in recognition of their service to Paris.