Germany’s Confidential American Agent

IN PARIS, CHARLES BEDAUX became more closely involved with Otto Abetz and Pierre Laval over what Time magazine would call ‘the affair of the dead eaglet’. On 12 December, Abetz delivered Laval an invitation for Maréchal Pétain. Adolf Hitler was asking Pétain to join him in a ceremony to inter the ashes of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, in his father’s crypt in the Hôpital des Invalides. Simultaneously, the Germans issued an official announcement of the Führer’s gift to France. L’Aiglon, or ‘the little eagle’, as the French affectionately called the younger Bonaparte, had been buried in Vienna’s Capuchin church at his death in 1832. Hitler himself would accompany the remains on the train to Paris in two days, the hundredth anniversary of the return of Napoleon’s body from St Helena. The Germans intended their public relations extravaganza to demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. The return of the little eagle’s remains drew Charles Bedaux into a political web whose strands led from Berlin to Vichy and Paris for control of France.

Laval warned Abetz that Pétain’s age and the December weather might prevent his attendance, but he called Vichy anyway to urge the Maréchal to accept. An official there declined on Pétain’s behalf, so Laval drove early the next morning to Vichy with his daughter Josée to invite him in person. Josée Laval de Chambrun, who had just left her husband, Comte René de Chambrun, in the United States, noted ominously in her diary that the day was Friday the thirteenth. Laval claimed that Pétain met him that afternoon and agreed to attend the interment service in Paris. At five o’clock, Laval presided at a short meeting of the cabinet in the Hôtel du Parc. Afterwards, someone informed him that the cabinet would meet again at eight o’clock. ‘I had scarcely entered the Council Room when the Marshal came in … He said, “I wish each minister to hand in his resignation.”’ When they obeyed, Pétain accepted the resignations of only Laval and one other minister. Laval argued with Pétain. Pétain accused Laval of not pressing the Germans to allow him to move the government from Vichy to the Paris suburb of Versailles, traditional seat of French kings. (The Pétain government was responsible for police, roads and the rest of the civil infrastructure in both the Occupied and Free Zones. It also commanded the colonies, which at the time comprised 10 per cent of the world’s landmass. Vichy had begun as a temporary capital that Pétain longed to leave.) When Laval denied keeping Pétain from Versailles, the Maréchal walked out.

A special unit of Vichy police, the Groupe de Protection, arrested Laval and took him to his modest chateau at Châteldon, 13 miles from Vichy. Fifty policemen held him, his wife and daughter under house arrest. At the Hôtel du Parc that evening, Fernand de Brinon tried to leave his room. But a policeman pointed a revolver at him and ordered him back inside. At Châteldon, police cut Laval’s telephone line.

Vichy’s 13 December coup d’état amused Charles de Gaulle in London. The Free French leader dismissed it as ‘a palace revolution that expelled the Grand Vizier’. Washington accepted the result quietly, but with satisfaction.

Pétain announced his decision to dispense with Laval’s services ‘for reasons of internal policy’ over French radio the next day. He sent Hitler a letter that arrived early on Saturday morning, 14 December, informing him of Laval’s dismissal and arrest. Pétain, while thanking Hitler for returning the Duke of Reichstadt’s ashes, declined his invitation to the interment. Hitler exploded, cancelled his trip to Paris and threatened to invade Vichy’s Free Zone immediately. ‘This is a heavy defeat for Ribbentrop and his Abetz,’ Ulrich von Hassell, a former German Ambassador to Italy and anti-Nazi conspirator in the Foreign Ministry, wrote in his diary. ‘Even if we now force them to take Laval back into the Cabinet the situation has shifted much to Germany’s disadvantage. Hitler has ordered preparations for occupying all of France.’ Hitler accepted Ribbentrop’s advice to send Otto Abetz to Vichy to see Pétain and free Laval, before resorting to an expensive invasion.

On Sunday, 15 December, Abetz presided at the delayed midnight service for the Duke of Reichstadt without either Hitler or Pétain in attendance. Unimpressed Parisians, freezing that winter, said they preferred coal to ashes. The ceremony was so tawdry that some of the German-supported Paris newspapers did not report it. Abetz sped early in the morning to Vichy and demanded Laval’s immediate release. At two o’clock, Laval was brought from Châteldon to Vichy to see Pétain, who apologized for his arrest but refused to reinstate him. A few hours later, Josée de Chambrun and her mother heard motorcycles at the head of a German Embassy convoy bringing Pierre Laval back to the Château de Châteldon. ‘I saw for the first time the Germans,’ Josée wrote in her diary, ‘their initiative perhaps [saving] the life of my father.’ To her, these Germans were ‘intelligent and pleasant’. Quoting ‘a great writer’, she switched to English: ‘The people from Auvergne never forget; children remember those who hurt their fathers and they don’t forget those who give them help or relief in days of stress.’ She added in French, ‘I’ll never forget, but what great sadness.’ Laval, free but out of office, went straight to Paris, ‘where he is safe’.

Josée sent a telegram from the post office in Vichy to her husband René in the United States: STAY AMERICA STOP NO REASON TO WORRY EXCEPT FOR THE COUNTRY STOP ALL LOVE. René de Chambrun’s morale was already low, because his second mission to the United States was failing. His cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, did not return his calls and refused to provide US government humanitarian aid to the Free Zone. Few American officials accepted René’s contention that his father-in-law was not pro-German. In New York, René wrote, ‘I spent the saddest Christmas of my life.’

Laval’s removal cost Charles Bedaux his most effective contact in the Vichy administration. Worse came the next day, 15 December, when Bedaux’s friend Count Joseph von Ledebur was recalled by the army from Paris to Germany. The allies he could call on were disappearing. He needed small favours, like German identity cards to travel to Vichy and North Africa, and larger ones, especially the return of his international company’s assets in German-occupied Amsterdam. His relations with Ambassador Abetz remained cordial, so he went the next day, 16 December, to the German Embassy. Discovering that Abetz was out, Bedaux dropped in on Fernand de Brinon, who had just escaped from the Vichy putschists. De Brinon, preoccupied with his political survival, asked Bedaux to wait a day. They could talk in the morning while driving to Vichy.

On Tuesday morning, 17 December, the two men, with de Brinon’s chauffeur and bodyguards, crossed the line of demarcation from the Occupied to the Free Zone. De Brinon, without explaining himself to Bedaux, was using him as a shield. The Pétain associates who hated him as much as they did Laval may have wanted him dead. But they were unlikely to risk antagonizing Washington by killing an American citizen beside him. In Vichy, de Brinon called on Maréchal Pétain to propose himself for a cabinet post. He also saw his Jewish wife, Lisette, who was in Vichy at the time.

While de Brinon conferred with Pétain, Bedaux met various Vichy officials to discuss projects in France and North Africa. His final meeting was with Robert Murphy at the American Embassy in the Villa Ica. For the past week, Murphy had been reporting to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt on the machinations at Vichy. The interior minister, Marcel Peyrouton, had informed Murphy in advance of his intention to arrest Laval. It undoubtedly met with American approval. Murphy wrote later, ‘We played no concealed part in Laval’s overthrow there in 1940, although we did emphasize in all our talks with Pétain’s ministers, including Laval himself, that the American Government was convinced that its interests demanded the defeat of Nazi Germany.’ Laval’s dismissal made it easier for the secretary general of Vichy’s Foreign Office, Charles Rochas, to issue Murphy a permit to tour North and West Africa that Laval’s faction had been delaying. Bedaux and Murphy, already acquainted from Paris and the Château de Candé, discussed Murphy’s coming mission to French Africa. President Roosevelt had asked Murphy to assess the need for American aid to the region. Murphy did not tell Bedaux about his other objective: to place twelve spies in North Africa undercover as US consuls. Their nominal task as ‘food control officers’ would be to certify that American aid went to the inhabitants, not to Germany. Bedaux was sufficiently informed on the Algerian and Moroccan economies to brief Murphy.

That night, Fernand de Brinon drove Bedaux back to Paris. They arrived at Bedaux’s hotel at about three o’clock in the morning. ‘Now, you can put aside your gun,’ de Brinon said. Bedaux did not carry a gun. De Brinon, whose bodyguards were armed, seemed surprised. According to Bedaux, he said, ‘You are worth a thousand men.’ Vichy announced later on 18 December that de Brinon would succeed General de la Laurencie as delegate general of the French government in the Occupied Zone, Vichy ‘ambassador’ in Paris with ministerial status in the government. Abetz had personally demanded de la Laurencie’s removal after the general, as part of the anti-Laval coup, had arrested the pro-Nazi French politician Marcel Déat in Paris. (Déat headed one of two political parties, the Rassemblement National Populaire, permitted by the Germans in the Occupied Zone.) Forcing Pétain to accept an obvious German puppet like de Brinon as de la Laurencie’s successor was part of Germany’s retribution for Laval’s dismissal. Other punishments were to rename Vichy’s ‘Free Zone’ the ‘Unoccupied Zone’; to restrict further the food supplies in Paris; and to renege on promises to release some of the French prisoners in Germany. If collaboration had benefits, non-cooperation incurred costs. Abetz made Pétain accept a directorate under Admiral Jean-François Darlan, then naval minister, to advise the cabinet and, incidentally, keep an eye on the Vichy government for Abetz. The new regime at Vichy sought to collaborate with the Germans just as Laval had. For Charles Bedaux, the elevation of de Brinon partly compensated for the loss of Laval.

When Abetz returned to Paris, Charles Bedaux met him at the German Embassy in the Hôtel de Beauharnais. (When the anti-Nazi diplomat Ulrich von Hassell visited Paris at the time, he wrote in his diary, ‘The beautiful palace seems dishonoured by the present incumbents. ’) Despite the chill of the Paris winter, Abetz invited Bedaux outside for a walk in the Hôtel de Beauharnais’s magnificent garden courtyard. This may have been to avoid the devices with which Hermann Goering’s Forschungsamt, Research Office, listened to the conversations of most second-rank German officials, many of whom were pursuing contradictory policies in France and other occupied territories. As they strolled around the frosty grass, Abetz confided to Bedaux that Laval’s arrest had been ‘frivolous’. Abetz was impatient with French politicians and mentioned that even Laval, despite his charm, was superficial. Bedaux, who had a professional obsession with order, said Laval was ‘an artist with a horror of orderliness’. Laval had once said to Bedaux, ‘I like to look at you and see an example of what I wouldn’t be for anything on earth.’ Bedaux took the remark as a compliment.

As the two men circled the garden, Abetz said he was considering a scheme to please Hitler and undermine Vichy. Bedaux was part of the plan. Still out of earshot of the embassy’s hidden microphones, Abetz told Bedaux he knew of his intention to meet General Maxime Weygand at the Kenadsa mines on his coming trip to North Africa. Weygand, who had been Pétain’s minister of defence in the emergency cabinet of 10 July 1940, had been exiled to Algiers as military governor-general because his strict adherence to the Armistice Agreement annoyed the Germans and the collaborationists. Would Abetz ask the general to succeed Pétain as head of a new French government in Paris? Bedaux thought it was a joke, because Weygand hated Germany. Abetz explained, ‘We would rather have in France at the head of the government a freely spoken enemy whom we respect than a collaborator whom we don’t know.’ Bedaux agreed to carry Abetz’s offer to Weygand, his first political mission for the Germans. Abetz, at the same time, promised more support, including heavy machinery, to Bedaux’s coal mining operation at Kenadsa. Abetz did not mention that Kenadsa’s coal might fuel the North African railways for eventual use by the Wehrmacht.

On 23 December, the German occupation forces in Paris executed 23-year-old Jacques Bonsergent ‘for an act of violence against a member of the German Army’. The violence was a minor scuffle between some German soldiers and young Frenchmen, all of whom but Bonsergent ran away. On the order of the military commander in France, General Otto von Stülpnagel, Bonsergent became the first Frenchman executed by the Germans in Paris.

As a gesture to win Parisian goodwill, the German command extended the curfew on Christmas Eve from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Cafés and restaurants were permitted to remain open until 2.30 a.m., serving food and drink to the Parisians who could afford to pay. The Germans had seized over 90 per cent of the forty million tons of coal France required, as well as the barges used to transport it along canals to the Seine, depriving the capital of fuel. The city’s inhabitants, including about 2,000 Americans, endured the coldest winter in fifty years without enough coal to heat their homes.

In New York, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein released the hit song of the Christmas season, ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’. It was the first number the duo, composers of Broadway musicals like Show Boat, had written to stand on its own. Kate Smith sang the lyrics over national radio, reminding some Americans of their relatives cut off in Paris:

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay.
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.

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