At first it sounds implausible. Did Marshal Pétain’s Vichy French government, notoriously ready to collaborate with Nazi Germany, actually arrest and execute Nazi spies? Simon Kitson, a young British scholar at the University of Birmingham, shows that it did. His exhaustive search of French military, police, and judicial archives found that between 1940 and 1942 Vichy police and counterintelligence officers arrested between 1,500 and 2,000 agents working for Nazi Germany. Some 80 percent of them were French nationals. About forty German agents were executed, though none of them appears to have been a German citizen; some German citizens were imprisoned, however. The arrests stopped in November 1942 when the German army overran the unoccupied southern half of France, following the American landing in North Africa.
These facts were not entirely unknown.1 But no one had looked seriously into this cobwebby corner before Simon Kitson (and a few of his French contemporaries such as Sébastien Laurent) gained access to military and judicial archives concerning French counterintelligence activities for the years 1940–1944, and grasped that the subject was more than a passing curiosity.
German espionage in France, already active before 1939, increased greatly after France was defeated and half-occupied in June 1940. The Germans wanted to know how fully the French were observing the armistice. Having themselves begun clandestine rearmament immediately after 1918, they expected the French to do the same. They employed thousands of people, mostly French nationals, to look for French armistice violations.
A variety of reasons brought these people—most of them otherwise quite ordinary—into the service of German intelligence. A few were true believers. Suzanne Desseigne, a member of the extreme right-wing Parti Populaire Français, had since the age of fifteen believed that France was sinking under the assaults of Bolshevism, atheism, and the Jewish conspiracy. She welcomed the “great waves of honest, healthy, orderly life” she felt emanating from Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and “proud Catholic Spain, fighting with all its living strength against red barbarism, against the horror of the Communist revolt.”
Some Alsatians and North Africans were persuaded by nationalism to work against France. Others became German agents for profit; they could be paid 1,000 francs for revealing a Jew in hiding, 3,000 francs for a Gaullist or Communist, and between 5,000 and 30,000 francs for revealing a secret cache of French army weapons, according to its size. Some bought their way out of a prisoner-of-war camp by becoming agents, or overcame a compromised position in this way. Oskar Rohr, for example, a German citizen who had played for the Strasbourg soccer team in the 1930s (his 180 goals still make him the best scorer in the history of the club) and who had joined the French Foreign Legion in 1939, needed in 1940 to get right with his country. A few German agents were recruited by a love of adventure or by sexual intrigue.
The German military oversaw the agents at first, giving way by 1942 to the SS and political police, whose structure…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.