There are a few periods of interest in history whereby political communication narratives which are not truthful, and are indeed lies, have been used to overcome an obstacle. It becomes particularly interesting when these myths or lies are defended. Or subliminally believed in, decades after they were first used as a lie, for strategic convenience, in the face of uncovering the truth, decades after this lie was created. There is sometimes not just a sense of national or pragmatic security that a myth can bring about, but also alongside this, a kind of socio-cultural narcissism. Projecting an idea of ones identity which suppresses the reality of some negative association or shame within ones psyche, as one may do as an individual. But this can also occur on a national, cultural level. Projecting this negative subliminal awareness onto another, (in this case other nations or scapegoated individuals expected to take the burden of this projected shame), whilst promoting the idea of ones owns cultural identity or nation which is glorious and complete dissonance with the reality. Where it gets interesting, and a significant example of attempted historical revision (or lies) for decades, in which this kind of cultural narcissism has emanated, is in relation to the involvement in and collaboration of the French regime with the Nazi Regime during World War Two.
As is commonly understood now and for decades, France was one of the only countries to Collaborate with Nazi Germany without coercion, indeed the only country which had full sovereignty for the period of occupation, and aside from military matters, nearly all administrative control throughout the Vichy governments rule throughout the war. Despite this, some media narratives over the decades, by default largely went on to overlook the degree of collaboration by re-disseminating folklore lies created by the French general and president Charles DeGaulle following the war, as an attempt to prevent communist insurrection by pretending that France was resisting all along, and was not in full support of collaboration as was really the case by most of the population.
The fact was that the allies had intended to occupy and divide up France as they did with Germany, due to its willing and enthusiastic collaboration. It was DeGaulle’s cunning strategy at preventing Communist take over by constructing the myth of a ‘resistance within the people’ a lie. Which prevented this occurring, as it did with the defeated Germany, despite some negotiations and suggestions by German generals of a truce (if their attempts at assassinating Hitler had been successful). This was a narrative which the allies supported, conflating the historical catastrophe of German invasion, and the Battle of Dunkirk and the accepting of DeGaulle’s lies, in preventing the ensuing Cold War and threat of communist insurgence taking over all of Europe. To create a kind of reconstructed portrayal of history, merely for pragmatic, strategic convenience. Which was not painless to admit as a lie in the immediate decades following the war.
As was recorded by Robert Paxton, and unlike the suggestions within the media at the time, from newspapers to movies such as Casablanca, was the fact that it was the French government, following the armistice in July 1940, that proposed collaboration with the Germans, and not vice versa, something Hitler was not remotely interested in. As Paxton stated, the French pursued their own double agenda, in having the excuse under the constructed notion of coercion to resort to its own authoritarian measures, to essentially pretend any oppressive measure it introduced in the free and occupied zone alike was due to Hitlers pressure. Which was a lie. What can also be seen in newspapers and sections of the media at the time also, despite the minimising of French collaboration with German forces, detail the first usage of the term “French resistance” a term co-opted after the war in a converse way relating to resisting German occupation, as pertaining to the Vichy French colonial forces stationed mostly in North Africa and the Middle East, but also Equatorial and other parts of Africa, opening fire upon British and later American troops, fiercely defending their territory from allied ‘Anglo-Saxon’ invasion.
It was also clearly described by historians that the French people strongly supported the collaborating Vichy government, which comprised members of the previous government which overwhelmingly voted in favour of the new government elected leader in Phillippe Pertain, as ruler of France. This was demonstrated in April 1944 when Pertain was cheered in Paris by an enthusiastic crowd, only four months before the allies arrived to liberate the city.
To illustrate the context of this situation, it can be understood from a historical perspective, that leading up to World War Two, indeed since the late 19th century, there had been virulent and on the surface antisemitism evoking centuries old sentiments in France from the days of medieval kings burning Jews at the stake up to the Dreyfus affair of the late 19th century. This manifested again in the 1930’s when the Popular Front political party reacted to a seemingly incompetent socialist government riddled with corruption led by a Jewish President, and expressed highly anti-Semitic views accordingly, whilst not in power, it echoed much of the views of the populace in what was quite an agrarian catholic nation, which harboured an interest to increase its military might to stave off German invasion and potentially ally with the Nazi’s in their slightly concurring yet separate ideologies.
After the invasion of Poland demanded due to international agreement that the country unite with Britain against Germany and the almost immediate surrender of the country, a new leader emerged in Phillipe Pertain, a French Word War I hero, was a cult figure to French nationalism, sought to preserve French interests by not surrendering but instead proposed collaboration, collaboration that he proposed would ensure France’s sovereignty as per the armistice agreement and would provide France the opportunity to pursue its own double agenda in instilling its own harsh laws it had sought to do for decades whilst knocked back by the communists.
With reluctance to this notion, Hitler nonetheless accepted, and an armistice deal was made with the French, making them more or less a neutral country in the war. What is not often demonstrated in history classes however is that the French regime continually sought measures to alter the armistice conditions signed by Hitler to collaborate further with Hitler, to increase their army, invade England using the French fleet, and become Germany’s number one ally. France at this time had overestimated its own importance in making these proposals to the Reich as Hitler didn’t listen to his own generals let alone foreign powers. Nevertheless what is also omitted from history is the intense military battles between French and English/American forces, in North Africa in particular, between July 1940 and November 1942 in the Operation Torch allied landings.
With these matters there has been an interesting omission in World history as taught in most classrooms and as seen in most documentaries and films over the decades since the war. Instead, whilst acknowledging French collaboration in a minimised way in terms of overall culpability, what had been focused on most was the idea that the Nation was one of resisters which was downtrodden by its occupiers and which had no choice but to collaborate the whole time, whilst the population was really supportive of the allies, was secretly and bravely playing the Germans and interested in overthrowing the enemy occupiers when the time came. That it was only the Germans who were ultimately responsible for all oppressive measures and discriminatory practices and that only a small few collaborated, under the thumb of German occupation that is, and only those who were friendly with the Germans were truly culpable.
These views of course are entirely false, and not just that, but such a significant lie and fabrication of history one wonders why it was able to persist for so long? Not only were the majority of the French population very supportive of the Vichy regime, as Paxton stated, particularly in rural areas there existed a kind of ‘French peasant fascism’. A kind of ultra nationalistic catholic, anti foreigner sentiment, which strongly supported Vichy’s authoritarian ultra conservatism and targeting of Jews, foreigners and other undesirables such as communists. Much of the most intense rounding up of Jews occurred in the free zone. This is in stark contrast to the early movies, and media depiction of collaborators, mostly the overtly pro Nazi club in Paris, and of the many thousands of women who had affairs with German soldiers, which included figures such as Coco Chanel (who interestingly was spared such persecution for collaboration) as well as the French Waffen SS, French gestapo, and Milice. This view existed also quite unjustly with the scapegoating of figures such as Pierre Laval as a pro Nazi collaborator, whilst President Pertaine and Admiral Darlan, by far the most enthusiastic collaborators, and indeed even called a Nazi in Darlan’s case, were seen as heroes due to their previous military history. In a depraved example of double standards and scapegoating.
Laval’s less than Aryan or white French appearance compared to other Vichy leaders begs questioning, regarding himself being a fall person at the highest level. Despite this, Darlan also being assassinated by the allies, however Pertain was given a pardon. If there was ever a greater double standard and demonstration of corruption, it would be hard to come across. Whilst members of the Milice and the French Waffen SS were brutal at times, these individuals were passionately and idealistically anti communist, and volunteered gallantly, were largely executed after the war as Nazi fanatics were in Germany,. Yet they represented views widely held in France at the time. Police officers and other paramilitary officers who were engaged in rounding up Jews and implementing discriminatory practices were given amnesty from persecution after the war.
They weren’t part of the seemingly chummy ”pro Nazi club” in Paris after all, and as such the French government protected their own who operated under Vichy and only persecuted those who hosted the Germans overtly, otherwise the whole country would be shot or hanged. The fact that some were scapegoated and persecuted for concurring with Germany’s aims, whilst those most responsible for the collaboration concerning Jews, other racial policies, and active military engagement against the allies were given amnesty, highlights the countries attempt at protecting its own nationalist ideology in its way of presenting its history.
Not only also as Robert Gildea states was the resistance story a myth created by DeGaulle following the war to counteract the first usage of the term relating to allied attacks on French Northern Africa, but the majority of any resistance to the Vichy government (which was in total very small) was in fact made up largely of foreign fighters, fighters from Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe, as well as significantly; Communists and Jews. These groups which fought the Vichy regime did so for differing reasons, namely their persecution, and for the Communists and Spanish republicans, for ideological reasons. The most famed of all of course are those are those under the auspice of British intelligence, including also many British and other Anglo-Saxon paratroopers, which perhaps represents one of the most exaggerated circumstances overall. Even when British planes dropped weapons to supposed fighters, the famed Marquis, who defected from Vichy conscripted labour, simply made sure to hide these weapons from communists who were the most keen group in actually fighting.
This illustrates an outright lie by DeGaulle, in that therefore of the very small fraction of resisters, an even smaller fraction weren’t foreign and most of those were Communists. Very few were French, and they weren’t ‘fighting for France’, they were largely fighting for Stalin if they were French, at least the largest portion were, and were otherwise largely anti Vichy politics. They were hated and feared and seen as a ”dangerous irrelevance” by most of the population. The dissonance of this to many postwar propaganda narratives can be reinforced further by the fact that most of the population had no clue who DeGaulle was, at most they saw him as a British pawn and traitor to France. His efforts to rewrite this reality must have been met with many bemused responses, who were nonetheless thankful that his narrative saved the country from broader division, even if it was corrupt and fictitious. Whilst at the end of the war in France, with the British and Americans pushing through, DeGaulle’s Free French Forces, (made up of two thirds by African and other Colonial conscripts with a reluctance of many French to join his cause) eventually attracted the Marquis, defected labourers, to join his army, much to his rejoicing no doubt, given his aim of providing an image of France liberating itself.
At the time of the Liberation of Paris, all of his united forces including the Marquis, which until this point had hid in the mountains, comprised 70 000 soldiers. Far more than had been in his forces throughout the prior four years of war, but given the shortage of actual French volunteers, a large component of his army were actually the Spanish fighters who had been most active, and second only to the Communists. These fighters were used to present a ‘white’ Free French army, whilst he banned any black soldiers from entering Paris, yet kept lighter skinned Arab conscripts. Conversely at least half a million French were directly involved in serving Vichy, from the hardcore SS units, Milice, and French Gestapo, to the hundreds of thousands of colonial troops fighting allied forces, conscripted Wermacht troops from Alsace-Lorraine, Metropolitan armed forces, paramilitary, police force and Vichy officials.
The number in the armed forces was also restricted on top of this, due to the armistice conditions, despite Vichy requesting to alter the agreement to increase it size. The overall army numbers had this been able to occur would have been much higher, especially considering the enthusiastic volunteering for other branches such as the SS, Gestapo and Milice numbering close to 100 000 volunteers.
On a socio-political level, beyond any fighting, as Paxton stated the populace was also strongly supportive of the Vichy regime, and according to Gildea saw any insurgence operating on a small scale as a dangerous irrelevance. As such Frances persecution of Jews was not met with any great demonstrations as was the case in the Netherlands, or outright refusal to hand Jews over as was the case in Hungary, or the smuggling of Jews into neutral Sweden as was the case in Denmark, or the protection of Jews from French and Nazi apprehension directed from generals as was the case in Italy, to which they were then smuggled.
What is also of significance in understanding relating to Britain and Americas involvement and deals with Vichy, is that at the time of the Operation Torch Landings, Admiral Darlan, ranked second in Power under pertain at the time and commander of the armed forces was captured and given an ultimatum : Call for a ceasefire and remain Admiral of the French fleet, or lose it altogether. The motivation behind this for the allies was purely pragmatic, by eliminating the threat of the 125 000 strong French forces in North Africa which had been in fierce battle with them, alongside the world class Naval contingent in the Medditeranian, US and British troops would face lower casualties, and could take North Africa before the Germans reinforced French forces and made it less likely. The deal struck with Darlan which enraged not only British parliament and the British public but also the American officials and newspapers, it would oversee a continuation of the abuses committed by Darlan prior to armistice, even after the Americans and British appointed him as North African leader. The same persecution of Jews, or foreign fighters, and undesirables, putting them into camps still occurred under Darlan, under the auspice of Americas agreement signed off on by Eisenhower that he call a ceasefire with his troops fighting the Americans and British.
One wonders how concerned the allies really were about the antisemitic, fascist and racist policies overseen by Darlan who had been strongly allied or collaborating with Hitler and called a Nazi by British parliament. At the time, the allied focus was only concerned with winning the war against Germany, and not seemingly any of the collaborating policies of any collaborating nations, which in plain sight of policies implemented were the same and sometimes domestically at least within their own countries even harsher than policies of the Third Reich. Until of course at the end of the war when Eisenhower decided to make a point of filming some camps in Germany such as US liberated Belsen and Dachau (which weren’t killing centres despite the Americans constructing a gas chamber to suggest that they were) in which hundreds of bodies of emaciated Jews were found who had died from Typhus in the abandoned camps, to illustrate the crimes committed by the German enemy they were focused on fighting the war with to begin with.
This was further enabled by the fact that unlike France, in which in the centre of Paris, the smell of Jews held without sanitation for days in the Vel’d’Hiv stadium, as well as immediate round up of close to 100 000 Jews, or in Poland where upon invasion, Polish Jews were rounded up, or in Eastern Europe similarly. In Germany, Jews had been encouraged to leave for years, and far fewer traumatic roundups occurred, until the latter part of the war when public opinion was already significantly changing.
For the first two decades after the war, the pervasive myth or lie propagated by leader Charles DeGaulle, was hat the regime itself was not a legitimately imposed regime despite the majority of the French government voting to give Pertain full powers, which of course is completely wrong as historians have stated. Whilst the events of World War Two are very tiring for some people, perhaps what is most pertinent about this example, is the extent to which the government omitted national responsibility for the nations role. Little in the decades after the war, occurred in the way of acknowledging any state responsibility for the actions during World War Two.
Only after the 1970’s did some awareness arise, and even then it was fiercely refuted and contended. Whilst it is indisputable today, the attempts to minimise it are pertinent in demonstrating how far the nation went to cover up and rewrite its history. What is perhaps even more illuminating is the extent to which the western media world seemed to concur with minimising emphasis upon this despite many historical exposures. Despite this, some honesty has emerged regarding this on an international stage, with President Macron in recent years denouncing minimisers of the French involvement and referring to fact in conjunction with acknowledging many other crimes within Frances colonialism in reflecting upon the nations history, amidst the large-scale boos and calling him a traitor by thousands outside the auditorium in which he spoke.
This example highlights so much of what can be utilised to critique the role of the media in other such aspects of political and international history. If such a pervasive lie was promoted for so long, despite the evidence to the contrary, due to perceived vested interests, what other facts in our recent history are also lies, on a domestic or international stage, regarding politics and war?
Colin Smith, 2009, England’s Last War Against France, Fighting Vichy 1940-1942, Weidelfeld & Nicolson.
Robert Gildea, 2015, Fighters in the Shadows, A New History of the French Resistance, Belknap Press.
Robert Paxton, 1972, Vichy France, Old Guard New Order, Columbia University Press