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Vichy vs. the Nazis

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 and workings Kitson makes admirably clear (the Gestapo was only a piece of it). The notorious Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in Lyon after late 1942, makes a dramatic appearance here forcing his way into the Lyon military prison with an SS detachment to free Mark Dreesen, a suspected German agent whose uncle ran the hotel in Bad Godesberg where Hitler liked to stay.

On the other side was Vichy counter-intelligence, composed mostly of career officers such as Paul Paillole, the head of the service, a graduate of the Saint-Cyr military academy and former fencing champion who had risen in the French intelligence services. After the war Colonel Paillole wrote memoirs claiming, in effect, to have been an anti-German “mole” within the Vichy regime.

Kitson has established a more balanced view of these officers’ position. Mostly hostile to the German occupation, they also opposed General de Gaulle’s Free French enterprise as unrealistic and divisive, and fulfilled the role assigned to them by Vichy with professionalism and dedication. Marshal Pétain was their hierarchical superior, and they generally supported his policies of “state collaboration” with Hitler’s new Europe and conservative authoritarianism at home. Their quarrels with the regime were largely matters of turf, as when the government obeyed German demands to hand over some captured German agents. They are excellent examples of collaborators for “reasons of state,” as distinct from ideological collaborators.

The important thing, however, is not these cloak-and-dagger adventures in themselves but what they meant. Simon Kitson’s main achievement is to have put them carefully and sensibly into context. He presents Vichy’s game convincingly as a complex pursuit of state interest somewhat refractory to our neat conceptual boxes labeled pro-Axis or pro-Allied. It needs to be understood on its own terms.

The risk in this enterprise is to slip into a rehabilitation of Vichy. But Kitson explains that Vichy’s counter-intelligence operations were not a form of “resistance,” as some of the operatives claimed after the war. Those operations were directed against all foreign agents, Allied, especially Free French, as well as Axis. They were known to and approved of by the Vichy regime’s top leadership, and they coexisted in a sometimes awkward but generally workable way with Vichy’s efforts to collaborate as a neutral participant in Hitler’s “new Europe.”

The dominant narratives established by the major combatants in World War II, Allied and Axis, according to which other countries were either friend or foe, still exercise a powerful sway. It has taken a long time after the war for the alternate narratives of neutral states such as Sweden and Switzerland, who dealt profitably with both sides—and were regarded by both with suspicion—to become audible amid the din of the competing war propagandas.

Vichy France was a special case among the neutrals because it had been defeated militarily and was half-occupied by the German army under the terms of the armistice of June 1940. Its position has commonly been called attentiste—waiting to see who would win. That term is poorly chosen, for it suggests passivity. Simon Kitson convincingly portrays Vichy striving actively to escape its humiliating constraints and to be perceived by other countries as sovereign. Vichy struggled to find breathing room for France between the two giants on the world stage—the Allies and the Axis—and to avoid being used at will by them, somewhat as General de Gaulle did later under much more favorable circumstances between the Americans and the Russians. In both cases, the giants were likely to equate independence with sympathy for the other side.

Overcoming the puppet image and demonstrating the sovereign status of Vichy France to the rest of the world was an uphill task. It required conspicuous actions to demonstrate that Vichy was master in its own house at a time when German soldiers occupied half its rooms. In Vichy’s actions against foreign agents, including German ones, and against French citizens who “collaborated” too enthusiastically on their own without state authorization, Kitson has found the cases where Vichy’s strivings for independence conflicted most directly with German desires. They necessarily remained secret. In a few other more public instances, Vichy was able to establish a separate French “middle way.” Vichy tried to keep both belligerents out of its empire, and was able to reject some German demands for use of colonial assets—but not all. Vichy supplied Rommel with oil and trucks through Algeria, for example, and let the Germans use Syrian air bases in order to aid an Iraqi nationalist rising against the British in May 1941.

In economic matters, Vichy managed in certain cases to keep German firms from taking over crucial French assets, often by pledging the product anyway to the German war effort. It placed its own trustees in charge of most of the Jewish businesses it confiscated rather than let the Germans confiscate them directly (a difference that probably seemed slight to the victims). Vichy declined to require Jews in the unoccupied zone to wear the yellow star when the Nazis imposed it on the northern zone in June 1942, and refused to denaturalize as many newly naturalized Jews as the Germans wanted.

It was Hitler’s own calculation that left Vichy with enough leeway to pursue a middle way. In order to persuade the prime minister of June 1940 (Marshal Pétain), the commander in chief of the French armies (General Weygand), and other French leaders to accept an armistice instead of retreating to North Africa to continue the war, Hitler had to promise France a certain degree of autonomy. That autonomy had to be authentic. Furthermore, Hitler needed a French administration in place to do most of the work of running France. He wanted to save the expense of direct occupation and free up his soldiers to invade England and later the Soviet Union. So the Nazi occupation authorities found it convenient to accept some French autonomy, even when the French said no to something. In the case under consideration they overlooked Vichy’s counterintelligence operation, even though it was technically a violation of the armistice, except when French agents arrested someone who touched their national pride.

In practice, however, given the disparity of forces and the stranglehold of the armistice, asserting French sovereignty often meant having Vichy officials do some of the Nazis’ dirty work for them. For example, the Vichy police kept their independent authority to arrest by agreeing to take action against “the enemies of the Reich” in the Oberg-Bousquet agreements of 19422
(glimpsed only obliquely in Kitson’s book). These attempts to keep Vichy officials fully engaged in the administration of Nazi-occupied France were not necessarily signs of pro-German or pro-Nazi sentiment. Most authors on Vichy have seen it that way, in keeping with the victors’ narratives. Even Kitson succumbs to the habit and calls Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval “pro-German” when that consummate political horse-trader is better perceived as an opportunist with a robust willingness to tolerate atrocities committed by his allies. That a few people at Vichy headquarters and some people in Paris held pro-Nazi sentiments is true enough. But most of the Vichy leaders were more motivated by a calculation of state interest than by sentiment—although this calculation did indeed require complacency about Nazi police abuses and the atrocities of racial cleansing.

In the end Vichy’s efforts failed. Marshal Pétain’s regime looked daily less sovereign and more puppet-like, especially after total German occupation in November 1942. The German war effort picked metropolitan France clean, while the Allies helped themselves to the French empire. The rapacity of Hitler and the enormous disparity between the remnant of French power after 1940 and the might of the Axis and the Allies probably made that outcome inevitable. But failure does not make Vichy’s attempt any less real (its wisdom and morality are another matter). Kitson makes clear both the logic of this effort and its lack of success, for Vichy’s arrests of German agents did not seriously impede German intelligence efforts in France after 1940.

Along the way Kitson has also discovered that it was French counter-intelligence agents who first shaved the heads of female “horizontal collaborators,” well before the liberation, to discourage French women from assisting German spies. The Germans had treated German women similarly in the Rhineland during the French occupation of 1923.

One word of warning is required. Despite all of Kitson’s care to make it clear that Vichy counterintelligence served the larger Vichy projects of internal authoritarianism and collaboration within Hitler’s Europe, his book can give an incomplete picture. By concentrating on one of several cases where Vichy did restrict German actions somewhat, it diverts our eyes from the more abject forms of French collaboration—economic contributions to the German war effort, assistance by the notorious Vichy police units called Milice with German attacks on the resistance, and participation in the deportation of thousands of Jews. His book is a necessary but not sufficient account of Vichy France.

Letters

A Patriot for Pétain? April 3, 2008

  1. 1

    In his introduction Kitson lists seventeen authors, including this reviewer, who mention in passing some Vichy action against German spies, but none of us explored the matter thoroughly.

  2. 2

    Negotiated between the Vichy French chief of police, René Bousquet, and SS General Karl Oberg, head of German police operations in France, in May– June 1942, and renegotiated in spring 1943 after the total occupation of France.

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