How SHAPE took shape
The Hotel Astoria
The Hotel Astoria, on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, was where US General Dwight Eisenhower set up the Planning Group of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) as of 1 January 1951.
This hotel, built in 1907, had a very peculiar destiny.
Initially German-owned, it was requisitioned by France during World War I. The Astoria was also known to Parisians as the “Kaiser hotel”, as Kaiser Wilhelm had booked a suite there in 1914 to celebrate the hypothetical capture of Paris and the triumphal march through the French capital. It was then used as a military hospital, closing in 1925, before being sold and reopened immediately afterwards.
Above is the Hotel Astoria before (left) and after (right) it was “decapitated”. Both its domes were sacrificed after World War I, as the height of the building exceeded Parisian standards.
Conveniently located in a central position, the Astoria played a leading role again when a branch of the French administration moved in at the dawn of World War II in 1939, before it was taken over by the Nazi army between 1940 and 1945. After the Liberation, it was used by the United States as their headquarters. When the Americans at SHAPE and their allies moved into the Hotel Astoria in 1951, the hotel rooms and bathrooms were once again turned into offices, and it was quite common to see typewriters perched on top of sinks and bidets used as wastepaper baskets. General Lauris Norstad, General Gruenther, General Montgomery and General Eisenhower, among others, can be seen in the photo below during a meeting in one of the reception rooms at the Hotel Astoria.
Four months later, on 2 April 1951, SHAPE left its military headquarters at the Hotel Astoria to inaugurate its new headquarters in Rocquencourt, near the forest of Marly, about 25 kilometres west of Paris. The building which was to house the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was built in three months by France’s military engineers, and 183 officers from nine of SHAPE’s then 12 members soon moved in. Later on, in 1956, a 40-hectare fallout bunker with a capacity for 1,000 military personnel was built in a quarry under the Saint-Germain-en-Laye forest.
But 15 years after moving to Rocquencourt, SHAPE had to leave France… At a press conference on 21 February 1966, General De Gaulle announced France’s intention to dissociate itself from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military structure, specifying that the aim was to “re-establish a normal situation of sovereignty in which everything that is French, on the ground, in the air and on the seas, as every foreign element stationed in France, must be under the sole control of the French authorities.” General De Gaulle nevertheless maintained close ties with General Lemnitzer, the then Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
In September 1966, it was decided to relocate SHAPE to Mons Casteau. Belgium had made a plot of land available to SHAPE and pledged to build the new headquarters and the motorway between SHAPE and NATO HQ in Brussels. As France was to officially withdraw from NATO’s military structure rapidly, work started on 14 October 1966, with workers busy seven days a week to get the building finished in less than six months. Come rain or shine…
Housing was also needed for the 600 or so officers and the 2,000 or so other military personnel, about three quarters of whom had families. That represented around 8,000 people in total, including international civilians, local staff members and the police officers guarding the site. In addition to new housing, a school was built, along with a mess and several canteens, socio-cultural facilities, etc. Below a photo of a French lesson at the SHAPE school.
It was a colossal challenge, but it paid off. On 31 March 1967, SHAPE’s new headquarters were inaugurated in the presence of Manlio Brosio, NATO’s Secretary General, and General Lyman Lemnitzer, Supreme Allied Commander Europe. SHAPE’s motto sits proudly above the main entrance of the building: Vigilia pretium libertatis (Vigilance is the price of liberty).