Spy vs. Spy

The New York Sun, January, 2008

A review of The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France.

During the German occupation of France in World War II, Suzanne Desseigne, a French woman with fascist sympathies, initiated contact with the Nazis. She became the mistress of a German soldier who recruited her to conduct espionage missions against the collaborationist Vichy regime in Southern France and French North Africa. Her mother described the Nazi spy as “a young French girl who, from the age of fifteen, while her peers were playing without a care in the world, felt the danger of Bolshevism and of the Jewish conspiracy.” She remained, even after her arrest and imprisonment, a devout traitor, assaulting other inmates who did not share her commitment to the Nazi cause.

According to a report written in 1941 by Henri Rollin, an official of the Ministry of the Interior, for François Darlan, the vice-premier of Vichy France, Desseigne was one of a number of “neurotics” stirred by political passion to “the most vulgar forms of treason.” To protect the Vichy regime from further outrages of this ilk, Rollin advised, “a quasi-medical surveillance is needed to uncover and neutralize those fanatics who might become dangerous.”

The British historian Simon Kitson leaves Desseigne’s story at this, and rightly so. The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France(University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $25) is history, not a novel, and Mr. Kitson is a historian’s historian: a patient, meticulous master of the archives, a disciplined analyst, a servant of the evidence. His study of the French counterintelligence service’s pursuit of German spies during the collaboration is not calculated to appeal to a mass market. Yet the imaginative reader will find the germ here of at least a dozen characters to populate a sensational spy novel.

Superb fictional opportunities aside, why was the collaborationist Vichy regime hunting and imprisoning women like Desseigne at all? That is the central question with which Mr. Kitson is preoccupied. Between the June 1940 armistice, which established the Vichy state, and the occupation by German forces of Vichy’s zone libre in November 1942, the French counterintelligence service pursued and arrested some 2,000 German spies, most of them French citizens. Many were tortured, several dozen were executed.

Mr. Kitson is fascinated by this paradox. Do these facts suggest a deep vein of anti-Vichy, pro-resistance sentiment among the French secret services, as some of its veterans have suggested in their memoirs? No, Mr. Kitson answers. This is by no means an exonerating story: The overarching goals of the Vichy regime, in whose service, he concludes, the Vichy spy-hunters were most certainly acting, was the defense of French sovereignty and the preservation of a state monopoly on collaboration. These unauthorized collaborators were a threat to both, and thus were they neutralized.

Mr. Kitson draws chiefly upon the documents from French counterintelligence seized by the Germans in 1943 following their invasion of the Southern Zone. Some 1,400 cartons were confiscated by the Soviets at the end of the war and repatriated to France at the end of the 1990s; Mr. Kitson’s study represents the first systematic analysis of their contents. Unlike private collections donated to the French national archives by former intelligence operatives, these archives have not been sanitized to suggest a heroic narrative of resistance. The story they tell is considerably more ambiguous and complicated. It does no one in Vichy much credit.

Mr. Kitson begins by examining the objectives of German espionage in France and North Africa. Despite the armistice of 1940, France remained a significant Nazi intelligence target: German spies penetrated almost every organ of the Vichy administration, including the army, the police, and Pétain’s guards. Espionage was key to the Reich’s strategy. France was to be pacified — and economically raped — using as few military resources as possible, so better to focus on the conquest of Britain and the Soviet Union.

Using arrest and interrogation records, military justice files, and letters written by the spies from prison, Mr. Kitson categorizes the spies by type. His analysis confirms a wisdom widely acknowledged among intelligence professionals: Spies tend to be scum. (This obviously goes doubly for spies for the Third Reich.) The majority were profiteers, motivated by greed. When approached by a German agent, according to the military justice report on Gabriel Le Guenne, he “answered that he didn’t care for whom he was working as long as he is paid.” Some were wholly committed Nazis who could be found in their prison cells doing the Nazi salute and yelling, “Heil Hitler!” Others were vain adventurers enamored of the image of themselves as spies. “The Germans flattered me with compliments that were not undeserved,” wrote Chaplain Robert Alesch. “They admired my knowledge of languages, my psychological finesse, and even my innate sense of adventure … this new occupation took advantage of a weak spot in my soul of which I had previously been aware … it ended up pleasing me.” Some were ethnic nationalists, for example from Brittany, aspiring to independence from France. Some were psychologically vulnerable, like the mad Desseigne. A good number were blackmailed or coerced: The British agent Harold Cole, for example, was arrested by the Germans; to avoid his fate he consented to work as a double, leading to the execution of more than 50 agents in his network.

Novelists will particularly appreciate the stories of those Mr. Kitson calls “sentimentals,” spies who were motivated by a desire for revenge, love, or both. Take, for example, Lucienne Delorme: “Her collaboration began with her affair with the interpreter-sergeant Walter Dedeck,” Mr. Kitson recounts, “but was also inspired by her desire to get even with the police officer Binet, who had been responsible for her trial and sentencing for possession of stolen goods. She denounced him to her German lover … ” Screenwriters — take it from there.

French counterespionage during this period, Mr. Kitson argues, was indeed evidence of substantial anti-German sentiment in the Vichy hierarchy. But anti-Germanism should not be conflated with resistance in any meaningful moral sense. While such figures as Pétain and Darlan may have approved of the execution of captured German spies, they also approved of the deportation of Jews from France, the surveillance of French citizens, and the imprisonment in labor camps of French dissenters.

Make no mistake: The Vichy regime was sincerely committed to collaboration. It was also sincerely committed to itself. The chief policy aim of the Vichy state was to maintain its territorial and administrative sovereignty over the non-occupied zone and the colonies. If key figures in the Vichy regime held Nazi spies to be an abomination, this was not because they viewed Nazism itself as an obscenity unique to human history — indeed, many greatly admired the Nazis’ vigorous anti-communism and murderous anti-Semitism — but because their unauthorized initiatives represented a challenge to Vichy France’s authority vis-à-vis the Third Reich and its strategy of using collaboration to advance traditional French national aspirations. Importantly, Mr. Kitson observes, many members of the intelligence services were similarly hostile toward the Free French movement and Britain, particularly after what one of them described as “the intolerable kick in the ass” of the sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. “England,” warned the spy-catcher Paul Gérard-Dubot in his diary, “is going to cause us all sorts of problems — it’s going to get Communists, Socialists and Jews all riled up.” It is particularly significant that when the policy of apprehending German spies contradicted the policy of collaboration, collaboration prevailed.

Mr. Kitson’s book is a flawless piece of professional history: original, thorough, subtle, appropriately measured. It has been and will continue to be admired for these reasons alone. There is also much to interest the contemporary student of intelligence, particularly in Mr. Kitson’s discussion of a counterintelligence bureaucracy “weakened by puerile rivalries.” It may, however, be overlooked by readers of popular fiction. It shouldn’t be. A reader willing mentally to supply just a few lines of dialogue here and there will find between the lines of this book a dark and cynical spy novel filled with all the wretchedness of human nature, one all the more disturbing for being true.

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