The Passage of Exiles

The resounding acclaim which greeted de Gaulle at the Liberation helped create the impression that Vichy’s version of France had evaporated, almost as if it had never really existed. This was the fairy-tale finish to a disturbing story. It helped soothe the deep wounds in national pride and aided the notion of Republican legitimacy.

The lingering death of Pétain’s regime was the grotesque fruition of its self-deceit. Patriots who had supported the old Marshal in 1940 found by 1944 that his ‘path of collaboration’ had been the path of dishonour and humiliation at the hands of the occupying power; while the feuding Germanophile factions – those of Pierre Laval, Marcel Déat, Jacques Doriot and Joseph Darnand, the head of the Milice – finally discovered that they were far from equal allies in the New European Order. The Nazis had despised them, simply using them for their own ends. As the Allied armies broke out of Normandy, the exodus of those vulnerable to Resistance reprisals matched the departure of German officials on 17 August. The collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout became known asJe suis parti.

The mutual hatreds and suspicions on the extreme right, both French and German, became more poisonous as the defeat of Nazi Germany approached. One of the first victims was Eugène Deloncle, the head of the pre-war Cagoule. On 7 January 1944, the Gestapo arrived at his apartment to arrest him. Deloncle assumed they were Resistance ‘terrorists’ who had come to assassinate him. He fired at them and the Gestapo gunned him down immediately; then, while some looted the apartment, others arrested his family. One son was beaten into a coma. Deloncle’s wife and his daughter Claude were driven off to Fresnes prison, to be locked up with members of the Resistance.

In August 1944, Joseph Darnand, head of the Milice, ordered his scattered groups of miliciens to withdraw eastwards. In Paris, Jean Galtier-Boissière watched the miliciens leave the Lycée Saint-Louis in a convoy of lorries.

Fearing reprisals, miliciens from many parts of France fled towards an increasingly embattled Germany with their wives and families. Those from the south-west had to cross a large stretch of hostile territory in small, vulnerable groups.

The old Marshal formally protested at the order for him to leave Vichy. He was escorted by Otto Abetz’s deputy, the minister von Renthe-Fink, to Belfort on France’s eastern frontier; then, on 7 September, he reached Sigmaringen, the castle and small town designated by Hitler as the capital of France in exile.

The castle of Sigmaringen on the Danube was supposedly the cradle of the Hohenzollern dynasty. As the setting for the Götterdämmerung of French fascism, its position, history and even quasi-Wagnerian name seem fittingly ironic. But the reality was far from grand opera. If anything, the claustrophobic squabbling sounded more like a parody of the antechamber of hell in Sartre’s play Huis clos, which had opened in Paris some ten days before D-Day. That brilliantly crazed writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with his unfailing eye for the grotesque, was the perfect chronicler of Sigmaringen. In D’un Château à l’autre, he described the vain rivalries as ‘un ballet de crabes’.

Pétain was a privileged prisoner. He benefited from special menus – the Germans allotted him sixteen ration cards – and escorted walks in the countryside. His suite was on the seventh floor. The hierarchy, as Henry Rousso describes in his book Un Château en Allemagne, descended floor by floor. On the sixth floor, Laval and other ministers were lodged. Laval complained about his four-poster bed – ‘Je suis un paysan, moi!’ He spent the first part of each morning in a study lined in blue silk, preparing and practising his defence for the day of temporal judgement, when he would face de Gaulle’s new Haute Cour de Justice on charges of treason. Laval had brought out 20 million francs of the government’s petty cash, but German banks refused to change it.

The nominal leader of Sigmaringen’s equally nominal administration was Fernand de Brinon, a failed aristocrat whose Jewish wife had been made an ‘honorary Aryan’. Brinon had been Vichy’s ambassador to Paris, an extraordinary yet significant paradox for Pétain’s French State. The tricolour was raised over Sigmaringen to a roll of German drums and a milicien guard of honour presenting arms. The French State exchanged ambassadors with that other puppet-theatre of the absurd, Mussolini’s Salo republic.

General Bridoux, the equivalent of Minister of War, was put in charge of recruiting French prisoners to fight in the SS. The ‘Minister of Information’ was Jean Luchaire, a newspaper magnate, who was accompanied by several mistresses and his three daughters, one of whom was the film star Corinne Luchaire. In the library, intellectuals of the arch-right such as Alphonse de Châteaubriant and Lucien Rebatet met and squabbled. Céline managed to avoid them. He had found lodgings down in the town with his wife, Lucette, and there he reverted to his profession of doctor.

News of the Ardennes offensive in December produced an outburst of almost hysterical optimism in the castle. Some people declared that they would follow the German army back into Paris by the New Year, not knowing that Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s tanks had run out of fuel. When the scope of the disaster was finally revealed, the only hope left was the promise of Hitler’s secret weapons. For the more realistic, their nightmare was of falling into the hands of French colonial troops, the Senegalese or goums. Céline, despising all around him, set off northwards with his wife, a journey through the terrifying death throes of Nazi Germany, until they reached Denmark, where he was imprisoned.

As for the wives and children of the miliciens who had sought refuge in Germany, their fate was little better. Far from being treated as allies, they were locked up in conditions comparable to the worst internment camps. At Siessen, sixty children died of malnutrition. The least fit of the men were transported for forced labour. The remaining 2,500 were transferred to the grandly designated Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS. In March 1945, this formed part of Himmler’s Army Group Vistula, and was smashed in Pomerania when Marshal Zhukov’s tank armies cleared his Baltic flank before the assault on Berlin. Fewer than 1,000 of them managed to slip westwards, trudging through snow-covered pine forests in the rear of the Russian advance.

The remnants of the Charlemagne Division were transferred to an SS training camp north of Berlin to recover. And it was there, in April 1945, that 100 volunteers commanded by Captain Henri Fenet accompanied General Krukenberg through the Soviet encirclement of Berlin to take part in the final battle for the Reich capital. With the suicidal bravery of the damned, they stalked Soviet tanks with Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons amid the ruins. Along with some Danes and Norwegians from the SS Nordland Division, they faced the Red Army’s final assault in the barely recognizable landscape of what had been the government district around the Reich Chancellery. On 29 April, the eve of Hitler’s suicide, a brief candlelit ceremony took place in an underground station while the battle still raged overhead. SS General Krukenberg presented the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross to former milicien Eugène Vaulot for having destroyed six Soviet armoured vehicles. Few of these last defenders of the New Europe returned to their homes.

The British, not having suffered the divisive effects of occupation, had few traitors to deal with. One of the most famous was in Paris in August 1944. John Amery, the son of Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India and Burma, had developed an infatuation for the Nazi regime. He had made broadcasts from Berlin urging Britons to fight for Hitler, and the Nazis used him to lead the Legion of St George, the British contribution to the New Europe. Only sixty-six volunteers emerged, which did not make a centuria, let alone a cohort or a legion. Amery, arrested in Paris at the Liberation, was flown back to London for trial. He was hanged on 19 December 1945.

The other Englishman in Paris whom the British authorities wished to interview was not so much a traitor as a victim of his own political naïvety. One of the first jobs given to Major Malcolm Muggeridge on his arrival in Paris was to keep an eye on P. G. Wodehouse, who was still at the Hotel Bristol, where he had been installed by the Germans. Arrested with his wife at their villa at Le Touquet in 1940, he had been interned in the Silesian lunatic asylum of Tost. Released shortly before his sixtieth birthday, he was asked by the Berlin representative of CBS to make a broadcast to the United States. Not realizing that this would be used by German radio for their own purposes, Wodehouse made the broadcast in his typically jolly way, making light of his imprisonment and giving the impression that life under German domination was not too bad.

This story emerged at a bad moment in Britain. Wodehouse’s failure to hate anybody at this time of total war was incomprehensible to most people who had endured the Blitz, and some of his throwaway remarks – the most notorious was ‘whether England wins or not’ – provoked great anger. The worst onslaught came in a broadcast by the journalist William Connor, ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror. This was personally authorized by Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, who had overridden the objections of the BBC.

Just over a week after the Liberation, Wodehouse wrote to the Home Secretary in London, ‘hastening to report to you my presence here’: ‘This is not the occasion for me to make a detailed statement, but may I be allowed to say that the reports in the Press that I obtained my release from internment by agreeing to broadcast on the German radio are entirely without foundation. The five talks which I delivered were arranged for after my release, and were made at my own suggestion.

‘That it was criminally foolish of me to speak on the German radio, I admit. But the only motive in doing so was to give my American readers a humorous description of my adventures, as some response to the great number of letters which I had received from them while I was in the camp. The five talks covered the five phases of my imprisonment, were purely comic in tone and were designed to show American listeners a group of Englishmen keeping up their spirits and courage under difficult conditions.’

The British authorities could not make up their mind what to do, so left Wodehouse where he was. On the night of 20 November, however, a woman at dinner with the Prefect of Police announced that Wodehouse, who had broadcast from Berlin, was living openly in Paris at a hotel. Luizet wasted no time. Four leather-jacketed policemen armed with submachine-guns were promptly dispatched to bring him in.

Malcolm Muggeridge went round to the police station where Wode-house was held. Ethel Wodehouse had been brought in as well, with her pekinese Wonder; the police inspector in charge was only too relieved to be rid of its hysterical yapping, so ‘Mme Wodenhorse’ was allowed to leave. All that remained was to convince the French authorities that ‘M. Wodenhorse’ was ill and that he should be transferred to a sana-torium under the guard of Major Muggeridge. On 1 December, Duff Cooper saw Wodehouse’s stepson-in-law, Peter Cazalet. They agreed ‘that the best thing that could happen would be if the French would agree to get him moved out of Paris and allowed to live quietly in the country’.

When George Orwell came to Paris, Muggeridge took him round to introduce him to Wodehouse, a meeting which stimulated Orwell to write an article in Wodehouse’s defence. It is hard to imagine a more dissimilar pair. Plum thought Orwell ‘a gloomy sort of chap’. Orwell, on the other hand, recognized that Wodehouse, who lived in the fantasy world of his own creation, made an ideal whipping boy in the demagogic atmosphere of war socialism.

After a brief sojourn near Fontainebleau, the Wodehouses moved back to Paris. They were left undisturbed, feeding their meat ration to Wonder, until they finally left for the United States in 1947.

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