Nov 14, 2011
As seen in last week’s article, the Church in France was particularly badly placed to provide a unified response to the challenges posed by the Nazi occupation of their country. Liberal and conservative groups within the Church had amalgamated with political factions within France’s body politic, making the notion of a ‘Catholic experience’ in war-time France almost nonsensical. In addition, there were, for most of the war, two ‘Frances’: the north and west which was occupied by Germany, and the south-east, where the right-wing Vichy regime held sway until its downfall in 1942.
In the occupied half of France, most of the country fell under the military, commanded at first by General Otto von Stülpnagel, and from March 1942 by his cousin, General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, who was murdered by the Nazis in July 1944 for his role in the plot to kill Hitler. Alsace and Lorraine were reintegrated with Germany, and large areas in the east and north closed to refugees and readied for ‘Germanic’ settlement. Finally, the Italians occupied small regions in the south, the island of Corsica and some Alpine passes.
The collapse of France in May and June 1940 was swift and surprising: the nation that had stood in the trenches and had almost been bled dry on battlefields like Verdun simply succumbed to the Nazis. Outfought, outwitted and unwilling to spill soldiers’ blood again, and confounded by internal divisions, the Republic simply imploded. Loyalties were divided after the collapse, too. In London, the Free French Movement under General de Gaulle continued the war. In Vichy, Marshall Pétain, hero of the First World War, established a state approved by the Action Française, willing to work with the Nazis, but attempting to preserve some sense of French national identity. Others went further still, and co-operated fully with the Nazi invaders, frequently, but not invariably, on grounds of ideology.
For the Christian community in France, Catholic and Protestant alike, the decision on which camp to join in 1940 was very much determined by Faith.