In August 1944, shortly after the French town of Chartres was liberated from German occupation, a young woman had her head forcibly shaved as punishment for “horizontal collaboration” with the occupiers. She was then paraded through the town with her baby in her arms, accompanied by the taunts of the town’s men, women and children. This type of brutal mob justice was not unique to post-war France but occurred in countries throughout northern and western Europe.
No doubt among the jeering crowds were men and women who had until recently been in daily and ostensibly innocuous contact with the German occupiers. However, as Philip Morgan argues in this meticulously researched book, creating an image of a resisting majority was essential to post-war national identity and a sense of unity in countries such as France, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. Debunking the comforting myth of resistance, Hitler’s Collaborators takes a much-needed fresh look at the complexities of collaboration during the Nazi era.
Morgan’s study is concerned with western and northern countries in Hitler’s Europe, charting the seemingly ambivalent role of local state officials and businessmen in the preliminary stages of the occupation through to their ultimate acceptance of the deportation of the Jews to the death camps of Eastern Europe. The excruciating progression from apparently judicious economic decisions and bureaucratic compromises, to allow the occupied countries as much self-governance as possible, to the logical end of the segregation and murder of two-thirds of European Jewry is exposed in all its horror. Without the complicity and support of local populations, the annihilation of 6 million European Jews could not have happened.
Clearly, politicians such as France’s Pierre Laval and Belgium’s Henri de Man well understood that those who most closely resembled the Nazis – not just ethnically but also morally – might hold on to their power for longer. Lacking the benefit of historical hindsight, they saw their future in the Nazi European New Order and refused to look back to a different political and moral context. By the time they had any sense of Germany’s looming defeat, it was too late: rather than sharing in Germany’s victory, they were forced to confront their own political and moral failings. The scale of this challenge was so great that the newly liberated countries preferred instead to nurse the myth of resistance. The scapegoating of those who threatened this image – for example, the young women accused of sleeping with the enemy – was a necessary part of this.
In exposing the terrible consequences of German occupation in western Europe, Morgan stresses the need for empathy – or historical imagination – in understanding the searing indifference of so many to the escalating persecution and mass murder of the Jews. The boundaries between innocence and guilt, or resistance and complicity, are not always as clear as we might like – however much we try to make them. While some readers might prefer Morgan to understand a little less and condemn a little more, it is hard to argue with his ultimate conclusion that, when opportunities to engage in meaningful opposition are few, most people decide to take the path of least resistance.
Zoë Waxman is a member of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Unit at the University of Oxford.
Hitler’s Collaborators: Choosing between Bad and Worse in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe
By Philip Morgan
Oxford University Press
Published 14 June 2018