Tuesday, October 19, 2021
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The collaborators, Paris 1941 and London 2021

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COLLABORATION with Nazi Germany left an indelible stain on French honour. The circumstances of occupation were so extreme that any comparison with modern times has seemed far-fetched. Until now.

Paris, 1941

In the dying light of an autumn day two lovers stroll hand in hand beside the Seine, pausing to gaze across at the ghostly outline of Notre Dame. They make a striking pair, his black Waffen-SS uniform contrasting with his French girlfriend’s pure white jacket, purchased this morning from Coco Chanel and now displaying the Francisque, the battle-axe lapel badge of Vichy.

Three months ago Solange Lebrun was a bookshop assistant occupying a lonely attic room and regularly driven by hunger to take a stopping train with other subdued Parisians, many clutching burlap bags, to scrounge food from their country cousins. She has heard nothing from her French fiancé since he became a PoW after Germany’s invasion last year, and now she rarely gives him a thought.

One morning SS-Standartenfuhrer Albrecht Weber visited the bookshop and asked in fluent French for an erotic novel by Anais Nin, a popular choice of German soldiers. Informed that it had sold out, he instead plucked Solange off the shelf and installed her in an apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens.

She has seen the way people look at her, but no longer cares. She feels secure within Albrecht’s fearsome aura of protection. He is clearly infatuated, if a little imperious, and has led her to believe that she can graduate from mistress to wife. No sign of a ring yet. Nor is one likely: in Hamburg he has a wife and two daughters, to whom he is devoted.

Solange’s crime, classified as ‘horizontal collaboration’ and likely to incur a beating and a shaven head after the Liberation, seems straightforward: giving comfort to the enemy. But who is the enemy, exactly?

France has entered into a pact to collaborate with Germany; it is the British they curse for deserting them at Dunkirk, sinking their fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, and stubbornly refusing to join the fight against Communist Russia. Few French have any time for General Charles de Gaulle and his Free French. The majority have an unshakeable belief in German victory and support the quasi-fascist, collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain, even though his authoritarian measures bear down heavily on them.

Still, the bottom line is that Germany is a manifestly evil power which, after inflicting the most humiliating defeat in French history, has drafted 650,000 Frenchmen to work in German factories and holds 1.8million French PoWs as hostages. So, best not to get too friendly.

It’s a puzzle, though: in daily life, at what point does collaboration start? Where to draw the line? The butcher, baker, restaurateur and chorus girl have to make a living, especially in these straitened times. German troops on leave from garrison duties in Warsaw and Prague flood into the country, eager to sample France’s pleasures. Paris is open for business; the capital has the fanciest restaurants, the best brothels and the sauciest floor shows. ‘God lives in Paris,’ goes the German saying.

The previous year’s military debacle had seemed like a divine judgment on France’s corrupt politics, decadence and abandonment of family values – a belief reiterated by the Catholic Church. Then Pétain, elderly hero of the Great War, swiftly reached an accommodation with Adolf Hitler that appeared to salvage some of their dignity, and comfortably ensconced his ‘government’ in Vichy, a spa town in the unoccupied south. The Armistice, falsely promising independence and neutrality, is in reality a treasonous alliance that invites Germany to fleece the country.

Recovering from their initial shock, the French began to see their conqueror in a more positive light, as a suitable partner. Masterful and decisive Germany, at the forefront of science and technology, complements France’s more feminine qualities of culture, style and élan. The German occupiers, some billeted with French families, are for the most part courteous, correct and pay good money. Above all, they are seen as shielding the French from the continuing horrors of war.

Life could be worse. And yet . . . The most popular song of 1939 was Maurice Chevalier’s Paris sera toujours Paris (Paris will always be Paris). Now the capital seems a different place, the atmosphere heavy with suspicion and menace. The milice, the Vichy police, are particularly vicious. Yet there is no shortage of recruits. An advertisement for 1,000 police draws 6,000 applications. If the flics fail to spot an infraction, civilians are eager to oblige: the authorities receive an estimated 3million denunciations.

The French population are harassed to produce identity papers, travel documents and bribes. Most keep their heads down and avert their eyes from any unpleasantness, waiting for hostilities to end.

The Vichy project did not spring out of nowhere. It had been nurtured for years by Petain and a powerful coterie of Right-wingers who rejected France’s liberal values and democracy. France’s defeat presented the perfect opportunity to enact authoritarian, racist strictures. Pétain is idolised, and loves the attention, preening as the ‘incarnation’ of France. Not a man for details, he has left the dirty work to Pierre Laval, his prime minister, who engineers the deportation of 75,000 Jews.

The French cannot claim to be ignorant of the Jewish round-ups; although unreported in the pro-Nazi media, the facts are laid out in widely circulated Swiss newspapers.

Hitler has permitted France to be held on a light rein: a compliant population enables more troops to be released to the Russian Front. This relative leniency encourages Pétain’s government to foster the delusion that a proper marriage with Germany is on the cards. After all, they are paying a dowry in advance instalments of 40million francs a day. Nothing is further from the truth: Pétain fails to notice that the ring he covets is secured through his nose.

Collaboration has greatly enriched France’s industrialists, to the detriment of workers producing goods and war materials for the occupying power. By liquidating France’s democratic institutions and subverting the protectors of its liberties, Vichy has inadvertently cleared the way for big business to restructure industry on its own terms, independent of government. Vichy, in a fantasy world, trails behind in abject dependency.

It is not until 1943, when the tide of war turns and shortages become desperate, that people finally begin to grasp that Pétain is a windbag who has been lying to them. When the music stops, the settling of scores begins. Street justice and the Resistance account for the execution of 10,000 collaborators. The official courts execute only 791, including Laval. Pétain’s death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. More are subject to the ‘national degradation punishment’ – the loss of political, civil and professional rights.

De Gaulle spins a new myth: there was no mass collaboration, just a few bad apples.

London, 2021

Boris Johnson lost control of events from the moment he entered into collaboration with drug companies to buy defective vaccines, history may record. When Johnson meets Big Pharma it is business at first sight. Each nurtures overweening ambitions. The companies desire world domination at any price; Johnson sees himself as a world leader. The pandemic provides them both with a golden opportunity. Within 18 months the vaccines firms have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, while Johnson is left floundering.

The means existed to snuff out the pandemic at an early stage, in the form of potent anti-viral drugs that outperform the vaccines. But the self-styled hero of Brexit, bidding for a place in the pantheon of great prime ministers, disbars all remedies that might undermine his new partners.

Big Pharma, with a scandalous history of putting profits before lives, has been granted full indemnity to play genetic roulette with the lives of the whole population. Their protection racket generates a river of money. The predicted bad vaccine outcomes leave Johnson’s team in denial and scrambling for ever more ingenious explanations. Their solution is more jabs.

Big Pharma has carefully laid the groundwork for such a moment, suborning researchers, doctors and key figures in the medical establishment, as well as the media. This convergence of interests encompasses industry and most of the Establishment, which hymn the efficacy of vaccines and stifle dissent. Not a single voice of any prominence is raised to denounce these crimes against humanity. The fix is in.

Society’s structures are disintegrating. A recent headline reads: ‘Britain faces permanent food shortages.’ The public, conditioned to feel guilt about global warming, Islamophobia and much else, accept their predicament fatalistically. Although dazed by lock-downs, furloughs and pinging mobiles, they have not yet lost faith in the vaccines, even when told they will require boosters for the forseeable future.

They seem incurious about the genetic material being pumped into them, although anyone with a computer can access the facts. They turn on the non-vaccinated, who retain full natural immunity. Their attitude raises an interesting question: is wilful ignorance a form of collaboration? It is too early to contemplate putting collaborators on trial, though no doubt lists are being drawn up.

Johnson is riding a tiger. Now he is merely a passenger, a useful idiot in the greater scheme of things, the details of which have yet to become apparent.

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Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell is a retired journalist.

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