A leader steps up at time of war. Seen by many as the country’s savior, he is decried by others as the nation’s doom. The object of unquestioning devotion or unwavering hostility, he tends to be petulant and a prima donna. He depends on his family and suffers most everyone else. Easily angered at meetings, he listens carefully to his advisors, but usually ignores their advice. He also loves a parade — he loves being at its head even more — and directs the destiny of a hotel.
These qualities belong to Donald Trump — a man who often reminds us that he sees himself as a wartime president. These same traits, however, also apply to Charles de Gaulle — a man who led his country in a different kind of war and led the provisional government after its liberation. But whereas these qualities are largely the sum of The Donald, they reflect only a small part of The General. Nowhere are their differences made starker than in the way they each managed, well, hotels in time of war.
Seventy-five years ago, nearly two million Frenchmen and women were free to return home. Along with the soldiers imprisoned in stalags and the youths forced to work in factories, there were some 90,000 resistance fighters and political leaders who had been arrested and deported to concentration camps. As for the more than 70,000 French and refugee Jews who had also been deported, the handful that had survived the death camps also returned.
For a country emerging from four years of occupation—an occupation described by the novelist Albert Camus as a plague—it was no easy task to welcome so many people. A government facing an economy that had collapsed and was subject to stringent rationing was now tasked with the reintegration of these returnees into society. The challenged was especially great with those consigned to the concentration and death camps. Traumatized by their experience, weakened by disease and deprivation, these men and women required particular attention.
Three prominent members of the Resistance — André Weil, Maxime Bloch-Mascart and Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux — met with de Gaulle in order to solve this problem. Remarkably, the General followed their suggestion that he requisition hotels in order to help house and nurse the returning political and Jewish prisoners. Less remarkably, he ignored their advice on which hotels and decided to seize, among others, the Hotel Lutétia. Opened in 1910, the Lutétia was one of the glories of the Left Bank. Guests entered a lobby with frescoes sweeping across ceiling, marble floors gleaming below, and a bank of ornate elevators connecting the seven floors and more than 200 rooms. The hotel boasted what businesses now call a brand: the motto Fluctuat Nec Mergitur: “Beaten by the waves, but never sinks.”
Come 1940, however, sinking never seemed more imminent. The hotel frequented by Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker and Ernest Hemingway was now filled by the Abwehr, the German counter-intelligence service. This military unit transformed the hotel into a hell as they pursued resistance fighters, interrogated suspects and outsourced their torture, deportation or death to the SS.
Yet history is cunning: some of the same men and women interrogated in the Lutétia returned to it a few years later to be integrated back into society. Aware of the hotel’s symbolic value, De Gaulle also thought its décor was suitable for its new role as a haven and hospital. While luxurious, he said, it was also subdued. Arriving first at the Gare de l’Est, the liberated prisoners, shocking Parisians by their gaunt and green-hued faces, were bussed to the Lutétia. They were welcomed by a staff of doctors, nurses and social workers who, working around the clock, tended to their medical and material needs. Not surprisingly, these former prisoners, one of them recalled, “could not accustom themselves to the luxury”—by which she meant the hot and cold water that ran in all the rooms.
Fast-forward seventy-five years and we again face what we are told is a war. We have a leader who does share certain traits with France’s leader. Among these common characteristics is an interest in hotels. The leader who is suddenly calling upon his fellow citizens to make sacrifices for the common good might take a leaf from the Gaullist playbook. Requisition an ornate hotel — the Old Post Office Hotel in Washington D.C., for example — and turn it into a hospital.
The views expressed are the author's own.