Scholarly Spies: How French Scholars Took the Fight To Nazi Germany

January 12, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIFranceNazi GermanyEspionageSpiesResistance

Scholarly Spies: How French Scholars Took the Fight To Nazi Germany

A group of Parisian scholars and museum workers were among the first to challenge the Nazis with propaganda and covert operations in occupied France.

Here's What You Need to Know: All they wanted was their country back.

Early in June 1940, refugees from northern France and the low Countries who had flooded Paris in May fled with the residents of the city as the German advance neared. To save the City of Light from destruction, however, at the last moment Paris was declared an open city. The Germans marched in unopposed on June 15.

Five days later, in the distant village of Vicq-sur-Breuil, Agnès Humbert, an art historian and one of the millions of refugees on the road, happened to hear General Charles de Gaulle’s famous address to the French people from London. While hardly anyone knew who de Gaulle was, and while those who did called him a crackpot, Humbert was immediately jolted out of her despair over the fall of France. In her diary for the day she wrote, “I feel I have come back to life…. He has given me hope, and nothing in the world can extinguish that hope now.”

That same day she had somehow come across a fellow scholar on the road, Jean Cassou, also in his early 40s. Together they had witnessed the death of a 16-year-old girl run over by a fleeing French Army truck; help from a passing medic only did so much, and Humbert wrote of her and Cassou, “This half hour together at the side of a dying girl has bound us to each other with deep bonds of comradeship. We both know it.” A month later, still on the road, Humbert noted with joy the news that German posters put up in Paris were constantly being torn down. “The people of Paris are rebelling already,” she wrote, and she decided to return to the city and do the same.

By early August she was back, and so was Cassou. After exchanging some pleasantries, both found themselves expressing the same desire. Humbert told Cassou, “I feel I will go mad, literally, if I don’t do something…. The only remedy is for us to act together, to form a group of 10 like-minded comrades, no more. To meet on agreed days, to write and distribute pamphlets and tracts, and to share summaries of French radio broadcasts from London.” Admitting to herself that neither they or their colleagues were quite spymaster material and were unlikely to succeed on any practical level, nevertheless, “simply talking about our ‘organization’ makes us feel better.”

It did not take long to gather a handful of like-minded individuals under the slightly overblown name of The Free French of France (Les Français Libres de France), and while the group’s intelligence activities did reveal their inexperience it would be wrong to say they had no experience whatsoever. Nearly all of them had already acted in some way on behalf of the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists. Humbert herself was as much a scholar as a political activist, having both written a monograph on Jacques-Louis David, a renowned artist of the French Revolutionary period, and contributed articles to The Worker’s Life (La Vie Ouvrière) under a pen name.

It took less than two months for their first pamphlet, Vichy Wages War, to appear. It was a response to the Vichy government’s decision to fire on Free French forces in Dakar in the French colony of Senegal. Suddenly, there it was in the Métro, in post offices, and even mixed in among the clothing for sale in department stores. Stickers declaring support for General de Gaulle also began to show up in phone booths, on the walls of the Métro, and in public urinals (she later hope that de Gaulle would “forgive his humble servants their ignominious means.”)

Humbert’s group had been inspired in part by an anonymous pamphlet that had appeared in August, 33 Hints to the Occupied (33 Con- seils á l’occupé), a kind of guide for conscientious passive resistance. For example, in response to the obnoxious sight of German soldiers wandering the capital with guides and French phrasebooks, it says, “Every one of them has his little camera screwed to his eye. But have no illusions: these are not tourists.” Parisians needed reminding of this because of how disturbingly easy “normal” life had reinstated itself under occupation. The Paris Opera reopened in late August with the same program from when it had closed in June, while the Louvre reopened in September. A columnist begged his readers to withhold judgment—especially if it was being made in the Free Zone—and asked what was wrong with trying “to forget our sorrows, and their piteous burden, by going to see a show”? The ease with which cultural life continued seemed to have even surprised Hitler, but it was considered a boon if the citizens of Paris wanted to keep themselves entertained, the Führer saying, “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

From then on, the question of what constituted “collaboration” would exercise the minds of many. Should one not attend, let alone write, direct, or perform in, an opera, play, movie, or cabaret in which Germans were present or involved? Were the major literary magazines and publishers, such as the Nouvelle Revue Française and Gallimard, right to keep some semblance of themselves alive by continuing to publish, albeit now under Nazi censors? Did the then-unknown author Albert Camus act in the wrong by agreeing to remove foot- notes mentioning the Jewish author Franz Kafka, simply in the desire to get real ideas out in occupied Paris? Was collaboration with the one hand justified if it meant access to influence and power which, with the other hand, could undermine that very collaboration?

After the war it was noted how collaborationist writers and artists had been condemned much more roundly than, say, the French workers for Renault, who manufactured tanks for the Wehrmacht. However, Humbert and her group, and later the more militant Resistance, seem to have understood that this was only true for so long. After all, Paris was not known for the beauty of its automobiles or the genius of its factories, but for its culture, and it was the subversion and perversion of that culture in the country’s capital that was a symbol for how far France had fallen. Witnessing the reorganization of museum libraries, now filled with German authors and their dubious racial theories and their lecture halls now filled with the same, and with the occupying force ordered to be (for now) as gracious as possible, Humbert and Cassou saw the occupation not as a threat France’s physical life, but to her soul.

Before Vichy relieved her of her job, Humbert had been an employee of the museum of French popular and folk art, the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, and by the autumn of 1940 she had come into contact with a clandestine organization centered around the neighboring anthropology museum, the Museum of Man (Musée de l’Homme. Both museums were housed in the Palais de Chaillot, built in 1937 to coincide with the World’s Fair held in Paris that year. More organized and with a wider network of contacts than the Free French, in time all of them came to live under the umbrella of what was later called the Musée de l’Homme Group.

Nearest to Humbert was the leader of the Musée de l’Homme Group, linguist and ethnologist Boris Vildé, who had already served in the French Army, been imprisoned by the Germans, and escaped; Christiane Desroches, Egyptologist at the Louvre; Anatole Lewitsky, Yvonne Oddon, and Jacqueline Bordelet, all three employed by the Musée de l’Homme; 18-year-old René Sénéchal, known affectionately as “The Kid”; a handful of other librarians, translators, lawyers, journalists, accountants, concierges, nurses, pharmacists, and other friends who listened nonstop to BBC broadcasts from London, by then an illegal act in Paris, or who helped distribute the group’s publications.

At times Humbert admitted the precariousness of their situation. “Here we are, most of us on the wrong side of 40, carrying along like stu- dents all fired up with passion and fervor.” She also noted the strangeness of following de Gaulle, since no one in the group had even seen a picture of him, which was quite a contrast to the ubiquitous presence of Hitler’s portraits in Germany, or now of Vichy leader Philippe Pétain’s portraits in France. Humbert had the feeling of following “an unknown figure,” but they persisted and in October and November also began taking in downed British and Polish pilots and helping usher them out of France to Portugal and Britain. Even Humbert’s ill and aging mother was fearless and unquestioning that she and her daughter would take these men in. Humbert no doubt thought of her two grown sons in taking the men in; at the time her son Pierre was still in the south of France with the others in exodus, while her other son, Jean, was in Newfoundland with French naval personnel.

In late November they finally had an actual newspaper in the works. Originally titled Libération, the name was rightly assumed a bit premature, and it was rechristened Résistance. Published on December 15, it contained what amounted to counterintelligence gathered from radio broadcasts, foreign newspapers obtained from the American embassy, and other outlets. By then the “legitimate media” had merely become an arm for Germany propaganda, and a later member of the French Resistance, Claude Aveline, described the importance of Résistance as “a true account of the latest news, explanations as necessary, acts of defiance and rallying calls, every possible reason for retaining an absolutely unshakeable hope and optimism.”