Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review: "Hitler's Collaborators"

Here is a book review of mine of Philip Morgan's "Hitler's Collaborators: Choosing Between Bad and Worse in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe." Originally, the piece was supposed to be published on, but at the last moment, that deal fell through. I'm proud of this review and hope you enjoy it. 


By Chad Smith

In the preface to “Hitler’s Collaborators: Choosing Between Bad and Worse in Nazi Occupied Western Europe,” the author of the book, Philip Morgan, senior fellow at the University of Hull, says that when he was teaching the course on which the book is based, his students never “got,” or understood, the officials of the occupied countries who collaborated with the Nazis.

The students, Hull writes, were only able to think in black and white: either one was a servant of evil -- that is, a follower of the Nazis -- or one was a "good guy" and was against them. But the truth was far more complex, and in service of that truth, Morgan says, he wrote "Hitler's Collaborators."

But make no mistake; the book he has written is not easy. It is a dense, nearly forensic examination of political collaboration and wartime economy.  Still, what keeps the reader turning pages is the unparalleled account Morgan gives of the civil servants, both noble and morally corrupt, who tried to keep their countries together under the ruthless demands of the occupying power.

In order to better understand why the countries examined in this book -- Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Denmark -- collaborated with the Nazis, we must first become familiar with the circumstances that the countries found themselves in at the time.

When the Nazis invaded Western Europe in 1940, they threw the power structures of the countries they occupied into disarray. Because most of the governments of the invaded countries had gone into exile during the blitzkrieg, nearly overnight the responsibility of making sure that these countries continued to function fell on the shoulders of the countries’ secretaries general, magistrates, economic ministers, police commissioners and other officials who had been ordered to stay behind.

The Nazis, for their part, didn’t actually want to rule the invaded countries directly, as this would have slowed them down in their efforts to achieve more “important” goals of the Reich. Instead, the Nazis wanted to work through the officials of the occupied countries to achieve order, leverage the countries’ resources in service of the war effort and root out their enemies, namely Jews and communists.

Still, it’s important to mention, as Morgan does, that none of the occupied countries of Western Europe wanted to collaborate with the Nazis.

France, which wound up being the Western European country that collaborated with the Nazis in the most notorious way, actually fought the hardest against them during the Blitz; Belgium still felt ill will toward Germany from WWI; the Netherlands had a population that very much supported the country’s Jewish community and even held a major protest for it; Norway’s minority fascist party, which was propped up by the Nazis, was so unpopular it was never seen as legitimate; and Denmark had long prized its democratic principles.

Nevertheless, the pervading belief among the occupied countries after capitulation was that they were cornered. Some, like Belgium, Morgan writes, even believed that if they didn’t cooperate, they could be “wiped off the map.” At very least, the officials in the countries thought that it was better to have some hand in the governing process rather than none, and they certainly didn’t want to empower the minority fascist parties in their countries by resigning.

So they collaborated, and the main thrust of that collaboration, at least at first, was economic. The occupied countries agreed to work with the Nazis on large-scale public works projects, undertakings that would get the citizens of the occupied countries back to work. After all, the countries of Western Europe hadn’t fully recovered from the effects of the Great Depression, and both the Nazis and the officials had a shared interest in ending rampant unemployment.

However, as time went on, more and more of economic collaboration went to servicing the German war effort. Though the companies in the occupied countries did not do such work gladly, they ultimately took on projects and engaged in practices that were highly dubious.

For example, Morgan writes, vehicle makers in the occupied lands wouldn’t make armored cars or tanks for the Germans, but they would make military ambulances. Ship builders wouldn’t make destroyers, but they did agree to repair German U-boats and other fighting vessels. Some companies in the occupied lands would refuse to fulfill certain orders if they came from the German military, but, absurdly, would accept the very same orders if they came from a German civilian outfit. As for the manufacturing of weapons components, the practice in the occupied lands was “generally justified on the grounds that finished weapons were being assembled elsewhere.”

And yet, as eye-opening as the rundowns that Morgan gives of the shady dealings that the businesses in the occupied lands had with the Nazis, even more illuminating are the accounts he provides of the occupied countries’ civil servants, as their stories give us the most insight into why the countries collaborated and what their deepest motives were.

For example, around the middle of the book, we are introduced to a man named Alexandre Galopin. At the time of the occupation, Galopin was the head of Belgium’s most important business concern, Société Générale, and was one of the top officials who stayed behind to help run the country after the Belgian government went into exile.

Galopin, it’s important to know, did not like the Nazis; however, he knew that if Belgium didn’t do business with them, it would spell disaster, as the Belgian people’s refusal to work for the Germans when the Germans occupied Belgium during the First World War had resulted in the utter devastation of the Belgian economy.

And so after we, the reader, learn about Galopin’s dilemma and then see how relieved he is when the Belgian government in exile, after much hand wringing, gives him the green light to begin economic collaboration with the Germans, we begin to understand how desperate the situation must have been for Belgium and why it might have acted as it did.

And then there’s the case of Max Hirschfield, who was the Dutch secretary general of the Netherlands’ economic ministries -- and was Jewish. Surely his story adds nuance to our understanding of “collaboration.”

In August 1940, a top Reich official in the Netherlands said he wanted all Jews fired from public service. When Hirschfield and the other secretaries general met to discuss this demand, the majority of them wanted not only to reject it, but also to renege on an agreement they had made only a few days prior with the Germans to stop appointing Jews to civil service posts.

However, the person who stepped in and persuaded the rest of the secretaries general to adopt maybe a more “measured” response was Hirschfield, the Jew. He said that if the secretaries general rejected this demand of the Germans’, it would surely throw all of collaboration into jeopardy. Besides, Hirschfield argued, if the secretaries general refused, the Germans would simply dismiss them or force them to resign and that would just result in “general chaos in all areas.” Much better of an idea, Hirschfeld thought, would be to stay in place, because in office the men “could still exercise some power and protect individual targets of the purge by requesting exemptions.” His idea was that if collaborating officials could not avert disaster, “they could draw things back to not being a complete disaster.” 

In the end, the other secretaries general were persuaded by Hirschfield and felt he really had the Dutch people’s best interest in mind, so they gave the Nazis what they wanted and dismissed all Jews from public service, but let it be known in writing that doing so was “repugnant” to them “as Dutchmen.”


After learning so much about such officials and their ordeals, one is certainly a little more sympathetic toward them. The same, however, cannot be said for the officials of the Vichy government in France.

The Vichy government, which formed around the former World War I hero Philippe Pétain after much of the French government of the Third Republic fled to England, was different from other occupied countries’ governments in that it cooperated more willingly and more treacherously with the Germans.

Whereas other occupied countries more or less sought only to survive the war, Vichy’s goal was to restore France to its former glory and to secure a spot for itself in Germany’s “New World Order” after the war was over. To try and expedite the achievement of these “goals,” many of Vichy France’s officials made unscrupulous decisions, chief among them treating their Jewish population, or rather, the Jews who had been living in France but were stateless or had only recently become French citizens, as pawns. After all, Jews were something the Nazis “wanted,” and Vichy had them.

So, with all that in mind, when we read how a top Vichy police official named René Bousque happily agreed to help the Nazis round up and deport 52,000 Jews, 10,000 of whom were living in territory in France that Vichy didn’t even control, that had actually been controlled by the Nazis, we know that Bousque’s actions weren’t some aberration, but a calculated move to increase the power of Vichy’s police force and to “extend and exercise Vichy’s sovereignty in France.”


Ironically, very few concessions that the collaborating officials made to the Nazis ever bore much fruit for them or their countries. In fact, the Nazis usually acted just as unilaterally and ruthlessly after their demands were met.  Plus, in the last years of the war, the Nazis “repaid” the collaborating countries by forcing hundreds of thousands of their citizens to work in Germany for the war effort. So much for a partnership.

As for describing the reckoning that occurred in the collaborating countries after the war was finally over, Morgan does a good, but imperfect, job. At issue are the figures he provides to us about justice in the wake of collaboration: it’s hard to tell which figures are the most relevant. Should we focus, for instance, on the number of people prosecuted for their involvement in collaboration (thousands upon thousands), the number of people who were investigated for their possible roles in collaboration (hundreds of thousands), the number of people who lost their civic rights, like the right to vote or their retirement funds, due to their wartime activity?

One figure that does help shed light on what the punishment situation was like on the ground at war’s end was this one: After the Allied victory, 10,000 people in France were said to have been lynched by their fellow Frenchmen for having supported the Nazis or the Vichy regime. Another helpful figure was one that relates to the number of prison terms that the post-war purge commissions handed out to wartime collaborators.

Using statics compiled by the late historian Peter Novick, Morgan tells us, for example, that immediately after World War II in Norway, 19,623 people went to prison for their role in collaboration; in the Netherlands, 38,631 people did time; in Belgium that number was 49,700; in Denmark, 15,128; and in France, 37,280. Though these may look like significant numbers, the number of collaborators punished in each country after the war never exceeded 1 percent of the given country’s population.

As for who was punished and on what exact criteria, only high-ranking officials, more or less, received severe sentences. As a tidy illustration of this fact, Morgan tells us that after the war, the “Dutch rank-and-file policemen who had actually knocked on the doors of Jewish families to arrest them were not held responsible for their actions and were not investigated ... Their officers, however, were.” As for official executions, the Vichy military police, or Milice, didn’t fair well, and only the top officials who rolled out the red carpet for the Nazis, like Pierre Laval, the one-time prime minister of Vichy France, and Vidkun Quisling, a military leader in Norway, faced the firing squad.

According to Morgan, more people probably should have been punished, but he also explains that after the war the collaborating countries had been in shambles and, though it sounds awful in hindsight, it just wasn’t “practical” to punish everyone. By way of example, Morgan cites the case of SNCF, France’s state railway, which helped transport thousands of Jews to their deaths. Of the 500,000 employees who had worked for the company during World War II, only about 1 percent of them were punished after the war, a slim number that, Morgan says, can probably be attributed to the fact that there had been a serious need “to get the railway’s operating system going again.”

And, yet, even though countless people probably went unpunished, the truth is a complicated thing. Surely there were also vast numbers of people in the collaborating countries who detested the Nazis or who helped Jews in ways that may never have even been registered. And surely for some collaborators -- not all, but some -- we might find it in our hearts to think on the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” when we ponder their actions.

What’s more difficult, though, is finding sympathy for people who were not able to own up to their wartime behavior or just tried to hide it. After all, once a clear victor had been determined, it was easy to say that you had been part of the resistance, and many collaborating officials “remembered” events quite differently when they were on trial or writing their memoires.

Such untruths and falsehoods, such fabricated stories, of course, do serve a purpose and have their place, which Morgan understands. After all, in discussing the kind of amnesiac atmosphere that existed in Europe for many years after WWII, he quotes a former head of state television in France, who, in explaining why a ground-breaking 1971 French film about the Holocaust, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” was not allowed to be shown on French state TV until 1981, said, “Certain myths are necessary for a people’s well-being and tranquility.”

Fortunately, times change, and fortunately we have scholars like Morgan, who in writing this book has created a piece of work that is not in any way concerned with maintaining people’s well-being or their tranquility. In fact, this work of his feels stuffed to the gills with a quality that often disturbs people’s well-being and tranquility the most. And that quality is the truth.

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