In recent years there has been a surfeit of films and books which have either tackled the issue of collaboration in the Second World War or used it as a backdrop to the plot of a narrative. I’ve been aware for some time that many citizens of occupied countries worked alongside their conquerors but never fully realised the extent of this. I decided to blog about it and began to do some research but it soon became clear to me that a post such as this would do scant justice to an issue of such monumental importance, the effects of which were felt long after the war had ended. I hope, however, some will find what follows interesting and perhaps even do some research of their own.
I suppose it all began for me when I read a novel called Death in Bordeaux. It was a detective story set in early 1940 by Allan Massie, an author of whom I knew little. It was superb and recently I’ve read his follow-up Dark Summer in Bordeaux which is equally good. Between reading the two books, I heard Massie speaking at a literary festival where he spoke of his growing interest in occupied France and Vichy.
No soon had I finished reading Death in Bordeaux than two movies, both dealing with the same topic, appeared in quick succession. The Round Up and Sarah’s Key dealt with the arrest and deportation of French Jews. Most died in the camps of Eastern Europe. Of course, this happened in all countries occupied by the Nazis but what appeared to be different in France was that the dirty work was predominantly carried out by the French police under the direction of the Gestapo and the SS. Further reading led to the discovery that this policy was actively and enthusiastically supported by the French Head of State Phillippe Petain and the Prime Minister Pierre Laval. Both were arrested, tried and sentenced to death at the end of the war. Petain’s sentence was commuted to life and Laval was shot by firing squad.
I’ll return to France later but the early lesson that I learned was that it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to maintain any sort of effective hold on the territories that they occupied without some degree of co-operation from the citizens of those countries, a point brought strongly home to me by the Polish film In Darkness (2011), a holocaust movie predominantly set in the sewers beneath the then Polish city of Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine). Here, the chief enemies of the hidden Jews were not the Nazi occupiers but the Ukranian militia who hoped by allying themselves to the Germans to secure independence for Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Perhaps then, some collaborators did so for political reasons. That certainly seemed to be the case in France where Laval shared with Hitler two of the Fuhrer’s chief driving forces; hatred of Jews and Communists. Laval possibly felt that an alliance with Germany would restore France’s political stability after the chaos of the thirties.
Every country in Europe occupied by the Nazis spawned collaborators but all also had resistance movements which fought bravely against the German tyranny. Many later condemned as collaborators had not played active roles in helping the occupiers. They kept their heads down and waited for the war to pass. Others were far more pro-active, denouncing resisters, helping to keep law and order, fighting alongside the Nazis and, of course, providing the occupying soldiers with companionship and sex. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in one of the greatest documentary films ever The Sorrow and the Pity made by the French Director Marcel Ophuls in 1969. Set in the Vichy town of Clermont Ferrand, the films documents life under Nazi occupation from 1942 to the liberation, drawing on eye-witness testimony from members of the resistance, ordinary citizens, German soldiers, Special Operations Executive agents operating in the area and members of the bourgeoisie. There was a strong Communist presence in the resistance and members were often mistrusted by other French men and women who suspected them of fighting for Mother Russia and preparing to seize power in France at the end of the war. It was the Communist resisters who took the lead in handing out punishment after the Germans had gone. Most famously it was the women who had slept with the Germans (horizontal collaborators), either as prostitutes or with their Wehrmacht boyfriends, who suffered the most and, in the final reels of the film, the public humiliation of the women having their heads shaved in the town’s main square is shown in graphic detail. For reasons best known to the Academy, Ophuls was denied an Oscar for The Sorrow and the Pity but he was rewarded with the statuette for his second masterpiece Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie in 1988.
The aftermath of occupation saw a huge number of revenge killings after the Germans had left. At first these were indiscriminate and lynchings were commonplace. In Western Europe at least, the random killings stopped once the victorious allied armies had restored some semblance of order and trials were conducted in properly constituted courts. From this time, cases were mostly dealt with by the authorities, although in areas of France, Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe the resisters and partisans continued to take the law into their own hands long after the end of the war. All this is expertly described by Keith Lowe in his brilliant book Savage Europe: Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Amongst those dealt with by the proper process was the Norwegian leader Vidkun Quisling, whose very name became a byword for treachery. He was executed by firing squad after five years of collaboration.
Would British people have collaborated with the Germans had they successfully invaded and occupied our islands in 1940? Of course, we’d like to think not but Channel 4’s recent documentary Churchill and the Fascist Plot suggests that some Britons at least would have worked closely with Hitler. The chief villain of this particular story is Archibald Maule Ramsay, Tory MP and founder of the Right Club whose members initially included William Joyce who fled to Germany and achieved notoriety as Lord Haw and died on the gallows in 1946. Ramsay was pro-fascist and ruthlessly anti-Semitic and hoped to engineer peace talks with Germany. Churchill locked him up (without trial) in May 1940 and he stayed behind bars until 1944 when he re-took his seat in the Commons! He makes a peripheral appearance in my novel The Blue Pencil. His only (dubious) legacy is his revolting ant-Jewish tract which begins;
Land of dope and Jewry, Land that Once was free
Sung to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory.
A few years ago, I was listening to some Dutch friends singing the praises of the film Soldier of Orange, directed in 1977 by Paul Verhoeven before he crossed the Atlantic to make Robcop and other movies. They said that they wished that all Dutchmen and women had responded to Nazi occupation as the heroes of Verhoeven’s film had. What did I think? I told them that no Briton could criticise passive collaborators because we never went through the horrors of occupation. Our resolve was never tested.