A cobwebby corner of Vichy France
Another review appearing in the March 6 New York Review of Books delivers a fine exposition of Simon Kitson’s new book The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France. Writing for the NYRB Robert O. Paxton explains how Kitson’s book reveals a new dimension of the Vichy government’s complex and often strained relationship with the Nazi forces with which it collaborated. Paxton’s review begins:
At first it sounds implausible. Did Marshal Pétain’s Vichy French government, notoriously ready to collaborate with Nazi Germany, actually arrest and execute Nazi spies? Simon Kitson, a young British scholar at the University of Birmingham, shows that it did. His exhaustive search of French military, police, and judicial archives found that between 1940 and 1942 Vichy police and counterintelligence officers arrested between 1,500 and 2,000 agents working for Nazi Germany. Some 80 percent of them were French nationals. About forty German agents were executed, though none of them appears to have been a German citizen; some German citizens were imprisoned, however. The arrests stopped in November 1942 when the German army overran the unoccupied southern half of France, following the American landing in North Africa.
These facts were not entirely unknown. But no one had looked seriously into this cobwebby corner before Simon Kitson (and a few of his French contemporaries such as Sébastien Laurent) gained access to military and judicial archives concerning French counterintelligence activities for the years 1940—1944, and grasped that the subject was more than a passing curiosity.