Britain, France and Europe: Reassessments

On 22 May 2018, I and my Strathclyde colleague, Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro, led a debate on the history of relations between the UK and France and what shape their future relations might take post-Brexit. Hosted by the French Ambassador to the UK, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, at the Ambassador’s Residence in London, the event on 22 May was attended by members of the international and national media, Embassy officials, MOD staff, Foreign Office Historians and academics.

Embassy line up

Karine Varley, Ambassador Jouyet, Robert Tombs, Peter Jackson, Rogelia Pastor-Castro

The debate featured Professor Robert Tombs of the University of Cambridge, a leading historian of Franco-British relations and founder of a pro-Brexit media briefing website, and Professor Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow, one of the foremost historians of global security and UK-French relations.

In a lively debate in which each side defended their case, the speakers agreed that the relationship between the UK and France remains unique and that while the UK may be leaving the EU, Britain and France will remain close partners.

Ambassador speaking

Ambassador Jean-Pierre Jouyet

The event was organised as part of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Network Grant that I hold with Rogelia Pastor-Castro on relations between the UK and France in World War Two. It is part of a series of events that have included a colloquium hosted by Ambassador Sir Peter Ricketts at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris, academic workshops and a public roundtable on Franco-British relations at the Institut Français d’Ecosse in Edinburgh.

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The Paris Commune of 1871

The Paris Commune was long held up by Marxists as the archetypal proletarian government – rule by the workers for the workers. Observing the violent insurrection, and the numerous political clubs that sprang up everywhere, Marx was inspired to declare that this was the empowerment of the ordinary people. He argued that the ‘true secret’ of the Commune was the working class government which could work towards the economic emancipation of labour. For Engels, the workers’ self-government and self-advancement signified a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. For the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the Commune provided a model of action and inspiration, with old Communards present in Petrograd in 1917. The Communists even sent a piece of a flag used in the Paris Commune of 1871 on their first lunar expedition. But it also provided a warning of what might happen when a revolution in the capital was not supported in the provinces. The Marxist perspective dominated historiography on the Paris Commune until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this interpretation has now been largely discredited. We will examine how the Commune came to power, its actions, the nature of its support and leadership, and its wider significance in French history. We will address the key themes that have dominated historians’ understanding of the Commune, namely whether the Commune marked the formation of proletarian consciousness, and whether this really was a struggle between Paris and the provinces.


Origins of the Commune

The Paris Commune of 1871 must be understood within the context of earlier insurrections in the capital’s history. The Revolution of 1789 served as a source of inspiration for the Communards of 1871, and they consciously sought portray themselves as the continuation of that tradition. So dominant were memories of the Revolution that Marx warned against the danger of their creating a ‘reactionary cult of the past’. Many of those involved in the events of 1870-1871 also had personal memories of the revolution of 1848. The roots of the Paris Commune undoubtedly lie in the republican memories of earlier revolutions and their subsequent suppression by the forces of conservatism. For the revolution of February to June 1848 was cut short by the election of Louis-Napoleon in December 1848, and many far-left republicans were forced into exile after the coup of 2 December 1851, in which Napoleon III, as he now called himself, declared the establishment of the Second Empire. The French collapse in the battle of Sedan saw the left rise up to proclaim a republic. Many perceived the remainder of the conflict as being as much about safeguarding this revolution as it was about resisting the German invasion.

But the revolution of 4 September 1870, which was spearheaded by republicans in the capital and in several major provincial cities such as Lyon and Marseille, was not supported by significant sections of the population. Even in government, there was open hostility between the likes of Gambetta and the conservative army commanders. While Gambetta saw the concept of a levée en masse as being the key to safeguarding the fatherland in danger, military chiefs were not convinced that the national guard could be a serious fighting force. Thus the 200,000 or so national guards deployed in the capital were left idle as the siege of Paris unfolded, left simply to watch over the city ramparts and keep order. This inaction led to a demoralising sense of uselessness; many were often drunk on the job, while many others spent their evenings listening to orators at the many extreme left-wing clubs that sprang up from the increasing impatience at the failure to break out of the impasse. Soon the political clubs began to develop considerable power over both the national guardsmen and the government, one club leader declaring that the government could not undertake any military operation without consulting the clubs first.

Unrest and dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the war effort exploded on 5 October when red leaders led the Belleville and Ménilmontant battalions of the national guard to the town hall to demand an immediate sortie. Trochu, who was in charge of the city’s defence, refused, however. So three days later there was a much noisier march to the town hall in which cries of ‘long live the Commune’ were heard for the first time. At this point it I should perhaps clarify what was meant by the term Commune. The word had deep roots in French history. In political terms, it had several meanings, including municipalism, and communism. It was strongly reminiscent of the 1793 Commune which enabled the most radical revolutionaries to control Paris during the Terror. All the hopes of republicans in Paris were encapsulated in the word Commune as a revolutionary embodiment of the people which would surmount all problems.

To return back to the events of 1870, though, a failed sortie from Paris, and news of the capitulation of Metz led to renewed unrest on 31 October. The mayor of Montmartre, Clemenceau, issued a poster declaring that if the government accepted an armistice, this would be considered an act of treason. Around 15,000 national guardsmen gathered spontaneously at the town hall. The revolutionary leader Gustave Flourens proposed that the Belleville national guard overthrow the government and replace it with one headed by the men of the extreme left, such as Blanqui and Delescluze. In the event only around 400 men turned up, and the situation was easily contained until a shot was fired into the crowds, causing panic to break out. Flourens led a handful of men into the town hall, where they took several members of the government hostage. In negotiations wth the governemnt for their release, it was agreed that there would be immediate elections and no reprisals against the insurgents. In reality, however, the elections held on 3 November turned into a vote of approval for the government, while the insurgents were quickly rounded up by police.

Since September, patriots led by revolutionary leaders and the national guard had been demanding a sortie torrentielle in order to break the deadlock of the siege. By late January, the government and army felt obliged to acquiesce, ordering a sortie from Buzenval on 19 January. It was another disaster, bringing angry crowds to the town hall once again.

So – as we have seen, over the course of the war, there were constant undercurrents of unrest in Paris, which goes back to the lack of political unity during the Franco-Prussian War. What seems to have really sparked the mobilisation of the city’s republicans was the feeling that patriotic and republican Paris was being betrayed by a conservative government and a conservative population in the provinces. The elections of 8 February produced a massive monarchist majority. The actions of the government were therefore viewed through in these terms. With memories of the suppression of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 vivid in the popular imagination, the instinctive reaction of many in the capital was to resist the actions of the government.

Such suspicions of the government were fuelled by the capitulation and armistice of 26 January. Many in the capital believed it a betrayal by those who opposed republican and patriotic Paris. The government’s agreement to a triumphal entry into Paris on 1 March was particularly galling for a city that believed it had not been defeated militarily. For unlike in Petrograd in 1917, where revolutionaries wanted to end the war and the government attempted to continue it at the expense of the population, in France in 1871, the situation was the other way round, with revolutionaries wanting to continue the war. The prospect of a German parade and the loss of their pay led many national guardsmen to re-mobilise themselves spontaneously and to establish their own political leadership, which was regarded as the framework for the political organisation of Paris. They seized the guns bought by public subscription and rejected their official commanders as defeatist royalists.

The next step in convincing the capital that the government was operating against its interest was the so-called ‘measures against Paris’. On 11-12 March 1871, the National Assembly adopted four bills, each of which was detrimental to the capital. They included ending pay for National Guardsmen, and end to the moratorium on the sale of goods at pawnshops, overdue bills payable with interest, and the National Assembly being adjourned to Versailles. The end of the moratorium on rent and other of the four measures hit the poorest sections of Paris the hardest, thereby fuelling extreme-left claims that this was an act of class war. The government decision to return to Versailles rather than Paris caused intense anger and fuelled calls for Paris to have its own government. It was interpreted by many Parisians as a deliberately hostile act by the reactionary rural majority.

The uprising of 18 March was essentially spontaneous, lacking any significant direction by extreme-left figures until relatively late in the day. Essentially, national guards and the people of Paris responded to what they perceived to be an act of provocation by the government of Adolphe Thiers based in Versailles. In reality, the actions of the government were intended to avoid provocation. The National Assembly had been pressing Thiers to impose order on the capital. The problem was that while the city had been disarmed as part of the armistice with Germany, 400 cannon remained in the hands of the national guard, having been paid for out of public donations. To avoid confrontation, the government planned a surprise seizure of the artillery to be followed by a police round-up of radicals and revolutionaries. But there was a delay in the arrival of the horses needed to haul the cannon away, which gave defending guardsmen time to raise the alarm.

The main scene of the confrontation was at Montmartre. One national guardsman named Turpin challenged the soldiers attempting to seize the cannon, only to be shot. With the alert sounded, women began to gather and attempt to fraternise with the soldiers, offering them food. The divisional commander, General Lecomte, realising he had lost control of his men, ordered them to shoot, but by then it had become psychologically impossible, so the men turned round and captured Lecomte. That afternoon, crowds spotted General Thomas, a commander of the forces that had repressed the demonstrations of June 1848, and when they heard that guardsman Turpin had been shot, they killed him and Lecomte.

These were spontaneous actions by national guards and local residents, and not the carefully co-ordinated moves of revolutionary leaders acting as the vanguard of the proletariat, as Marxist historiography later claim. Indeed, it was only in the middle of the morning that the national guard Central Committee gathered to formulate a plan. By 10pm, one group of guardsmen acting on behalf of the Central Committee occupied the prefecture, and by 11pm, another had occupied the town hall. By midnight, then, the authority of the state had effectively collapsed in the capital, leaving the Central Committee as the only body with any authority over Paris.

In the following two days, there were negotiations between the Central Committee and the National Assembly, but these ultimately broke down and elections for the municipal council of Paris were called for 26 March. This announcement made clear the break with legality. The Commune was officially proclaimed on 28 March amidst great optimism.


Interpretations of the Commune


Some historians have claimed that what began as a revolution by a minority turned into a general war of secession. As Roger Gould has argued, despite neighbourhood localism, the uprising of March 1871 is best understood as the whole city rising collectively to defend municipal liberties, and this perception was shared by participants. As we have seen, the national guard was at the centre of the uprising. Owing to mass mobilisation, which reinforced neighbourhood solidarity and created ties across residential communities, it effectively became the organisation of Parisian citizenry and created a framework for a collective city-wide identity.

This desire for municipal autonomy must be understood within the context of the administration of Paris before 1870. Under the Second Empire, the capital was subject to the worst excesses of political spying by the secret police as they sought to suppress the activities of republicans and the far left.

A particularly powerful impulsion leading to calls for municipal autonomy was the notion of a battle between Paris and the provinces. This idea had its origins in the June Days of 1848, when insurrectionaries were suppressed by government troops comprising volunteers from the provinces. Napoleon III’s coup of 2 December 1851 against the republicans had also been supported by provincial votes in a plebiscite later that month. Thus in February and March 1871, many looked back at 1848 and 1851 with foreboding, fearing that history might be about to repeat itself. And so when Thiers ordered the seizure of the cannon on 18 March, many instinctively resisted, seeing it as an assault on Paris. Under the Second Empire, the feeling of Parisian isolation was considerable. Many saw the capital as an island of republicanism surrounded by a sea of reaction. The experiences of the siege only increased the sense that provincial France had abandoned the capital. Thus from the end of the siege in late January through to the beginning of the civil war in early April, there was a broad consensus on the injustice and illegitimacy of the actions of the government.

We should, however, be careful not to overstate the extent to which Paris stood alone. Uprisings in Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse demonstrated sympathy for the plight of the capital. Thus the myth of peasant France attacking republican Paris had to be modified with the realisation that the provinces offered the only hope of survival. So from mid-April, the Paris Commune began to emphasise the common causes between Paris and the provinces.

Still the question remains why the desire for greater municipal autonomy should result in civil war. The answer essentially lies in Robert Tombs’s argument that behind the question of municipal liberties lay aspirations for the triumph of a revolutionary city over a reactionary country. It was these ideas that led ultimately to civil war.


Commune as Proletarian Revolution

For over a century, the Marxist analysis dominated interpretations of the Commune. The first major work to challenge this view came in 1964 when Jacques Rougerie published a pioneering analysis of the Commune which was fiercely attacked by Communist historians for questioning the traditional Marxist view. He argued that far from being a proto-proletariat, the Communards were mainly workers in small-scale industry, with artisan, white collar, and lower middle-class leaders. Thus, he argued, the Commune was not the first proletarian revolution but the last traditional Parisian revolt – in his words ‘dusk not dawn’.

Research undertaken since then has largely corroborated Rougerie’s findings. If we turn first to the social composition of Communard support, we find, in the words of Robert Tombs, that the Communards were the ‘people’ rather than the proletariat. Many of those at the heart of the Commune were skilled manual and white collar workers, while established politicians and the commercial middle classes who normally tried to take over leadership in revolution remained relatively aloof.

In terms of collective identity, class was not a very significant factor. Rather than class antagonism, Communard rhetoric referred to a class alliance. The statutes of the national guard Central Committee spoke of the defence of the Republic against monarchists and foreign invaders, making only one reference to ‘exploiters and oppressors who treat their equals as property’. While class rhetoric had been important during the siege of Paris, with the end of the German blockade, provisions began to reach the people once more, thus reducing the appeal of class war. There does, however, seem to be evidence that support for the Commune was strongest within the workers. When the final assault by government forces came, resistance was confined to the workers, as the administrative and military authorities collapsed. Likewise, the political coalition between moderate and extreme left elements proved to be an unstable coalition. Revolutionaries could not inspire the majority of Parisians to defend the Commune to the end. So the Commune drifted to its bloody dénouement, while more moderate elements jumped ship as soon as its authority slipped.


Policies of the Commune

Aspirations for greater municipal autonomy and desires to improve the standard of living for ordinary Parisians were evident in the policies of the Paris Commune. National guardsmen took over the role of the police, they reversed the four measures against Paris, restored freedom of the press and amnestied political prisoners. They sought to help workers by ensuring decent wages and conditions. On 2 April, the Commune declared the separation of Church and State. They were particularly concerned with establishing free, non-clerical, secular, and preferably mixed education. Many believed that it was vital to educate women for as mothers, they needed to create and educate republicans. The Commune sought also to bring art and music to the people. Even as troops from Versailles entered the capital, free open air concerts were being held. One of the reasons for such policies was that the Commune’s political leaders saw the workers as their main constituency. Indeed, Henri Lefebvre has argued that behind the Commune lay the reconquest of Paris by workers and the poor who had been forced out by the reforms of Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s.



The final element in the history of the Commune that needs addressing is its violent fall. The suppression of the Commune surpassed the violence of the Terror of 1793-4, to be exceeded only by the death toll of the Franco-French war of 1944-5. The uprising of 18 March signalled the collapse of state power in the capital. The government, headed by Adolphe Thiers, was located in Versailles rejected the move as illegal and illegitimate. So, having just signed the peace with Germany, France went to war with itself. The government in Versailles recalled the army, and launched an attack on Paris on 2 April 1871. The Commune portrayed the conflict as a matter of the defence of Paris against royalist forces supported by papal soldiers, police and primitive peasants from the west. It therefore responded with an abortive attack on Versailles on 3 April. Thus began the civil war in earnest. Hopes for a peaceful resolution disappeared when it emerged that the Versailles army had executed insurgents taken prisoner in the fighting. In response, the Commune passed the notorious ‘hostage decree’, in which anyone suspected of complicity with Versailles would be imprisoned and for every prisoner killed by Versailles, the Commune would kill three of its prisoners.

Most of those who fought on the side of the Commune were former national guardsmen. The Army of Versailles, by contrast, included peasants longing for peace, country gentlemen hoping for a restoration of the monarchy, craftsmen, middle class men opposed to insurrection who supported a moderate Republic. What bound them all together was not conviction but discipline and coercion.

On 21 May 100,000 men from the Versailles army entered western Paris. Thus began the semaine sanglante, or week of blood, which lasted from 21 to 28 May 1871. The army encountered little resistance, yet it continued to execute prisoners, prompting Communard forces to retaliate with the execution of its hostages including the Archbishop of Paris. From 23 May Communard resisters began to set fire to public buildings to cover their retreat. Hostile observers claimed that it was the work of working class women, the so-called pétroleuses. The myths of the pétroleuses played a key role in anti-Communard propaganda, firing the imagination as it struck at the heart of the idea of domesticity on which bourgeois society was based. For others on the right, the total destruction of the town hall, and Tuileries Palace, and part of the Louvre was a worse crime than the taking of lives.

The killings of ordinary people began as soon as Versailles forces ‘liberated’ each district. Young and old were sometimes rounded up for no reason other than their appearance. The aim was not to ‘expiate’ the crimes of the Commune or to exterminate those responsible, but rather to terrorise the whole community, meaning that anyone, including women and children was a legitimate target. During one week, between 10 and 30,000 Parisians lost their lives, as compared with under the Terror of 1793, when it took 16 months to kill 2600. Around 45,000 were arrested, including over 1000 women. Over 5000 were imprisoned, 4500 were deported to new Caledonia, and 9000 fled.


The Paris Commune had a profound impact on French politics and culture. But it is important to understand it as having essentially sprung from a patriotic rejection of the armistice with Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and from a feeling that the nation and the Republic had been betrayed. In the eyes of many Parisians, those who supported the Commune were the true patriots, whereas those who opposed it, including Catholics, monarchists, the Army of Versailles and even moderate republicans, were traitors. Without the unique circumstances created by the ‘people’s war’ against Germany, the Commune probably would not have happened.

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Was the Franco-Prussian War a Modern or Total War?

Total war

The term was first coined by Ludendorff 1918 to signify a departure from previous modes of conflict. It essentially involved the necessary mobilisation of material, intellectual, and moral energies against all legitimate objects of war. In fact, the concept of total war might be dated back to the 1790s and the revolutionary period, when conflicts began to be conducted with the intention of destroying the enemy’s military might, political system and culture – the total opposite of diplomacy, in other words. Daniel Pick has taken up the theme in his book War Machine to claim that the fact that the Franco-Prussian War was fought in a manner reminiscent of earlier conflicts did not detract from the argument that the ‘war machine’ was without leadership and existed for the sole purpose destruction. Clausewitz could not have anticipated the destruction made possible by technological improvements- total war is therefore less associated with the means by which war is conducted and more with the war objectives.


In August 1870 all single men under 40 were mobilised, but after 4 September 1870, Gambetta extended mobilisation to all men including those who were married under 40, while all men up to 65 joined some kind of irregular military force. Some workers, including those working in munitions were exempt. Men unfit to join the army could join the battle as francs-tireurs. In return, when calling for mass mobilisation, Gambetta emphasised new social obligations of the state in providing for families and wounded.


In terms of industrialisation, there is less of a case to be made for total war. France had not fully integrated the industrial and military sectors. Railways, which were to become so key in modern warfare, were not fully integrated into the French war effort. There were, however, some significant developments in weaponry, most famously with the mitrailleuse. France also famously used balloons not only to allow Gambetta to escape besieged Paris on 7 October 1870 to organise the provincial war effort, but also to carry over 11 tons of mail to provincial France.

Sieges and Civilians

The besieged cities, most notably Paris, Strasbourg, Metz and Belfort came closest to experiencing total war. German forces regularly bombarded civilian areas with the intention of damaging morale. In Paris, up to 400 shells a day were fired at civilian areas. Civilians also had to endure the privation of foodstuffs and fuel in one of the harshest winters in living memory. In Paris, the government was reluctant to introduce rationing. So after eating all the horses in the city, the people then devoured their pets. And when they ran out, they turned to eating rats. For those with more money, the wartime menu was rather more exotic. High class butchers and restaurants began to serve meat from kangaroos, bears, antelope, and eventually elephants. To the anguish of the keepers, Paris ate the animals in its zoo.

The extent and legitimacy of civilian involvement in combat was a subject of intense controversy, and it could be argued that their participation heralded a kind of total war, in that men and women were waging a kind of guerrilla resistance, with whole towns and villages caught up in the German reprisals. The presence of civilian resistance terrorised German soldiers, and many responded with disproportionate violence.

The Bazeilles Controversy

The small village of Bazeilles was endured one of the most brutal assaults inflicted on civilians by the German invaders in 1870. Even before the war had ended, Bazeilles was widely regarded as a martyred village, not only in France, but across Europe. The village was suddenly plunged into the conflict at around four o’clock in the morning on Thursday 1 September 1870, when Bavarian forces led by General von der Tann attacked Bazeilles with 40,000, facing a French defence comprising only four marine infantry regiments of 10,000 men. By some fateful error, the French army failed to blow up the bridge over the Meuse leading to Bazeilles before the Bavarians arrived. As they struggled to prevent General von der Tann’s men from capturing the bridge, the marines were pushed back, forced to retreat into the village for protection. The marines mounted a fierce resistance, often fighting the enemy face to face in the streets. Some took refuge inside houses, where local residents assisted them and even took up arms themselves. Bavarian troops began to show increasing signs of frustration at suffering such heavy casualties for so little territorial gain. What happened next, however, was and remains a source of considerable controversy.

The undisputed facts are that in the struggle to capture Bazeilles, around four hundred houses were burned, as well as the town hall and church, leaving only a handful of dwellings standing. Thirty-nine civilians perished out of a total population of 2,048. Yet it was the issue of how the fires were started and why so many civilians died that lay at the centre of the polemic. According to French sources, Bavarian soldiers were furious at the extent of their losses, blaming the guerrilla war being waged by local residents. Eye-witnesses claimed they saw Bavarians ‘armed with torches setting fire to houses which had been spared from gunfire, without verifying whether there were women, elderly people, or children inside.’ British and Belgian newspaper correspondents reporting from the front line sent back detailed accounts of Bavarian massacres of innocent civilians which provoked outrage in the two countries. Apart from the obvious immorality of attacking reportedly unarmed civilians, since the signing of the Geneva Convention in 1864, European opinion increasingly expected that civilians and soldiers should be treated humanely in war.

On 29 June 1871, General von der Tann issued a strong statement refuting allegations that his men had acted barbarously in Bazeilles. He denied that large numbers of inhabitants had perished in the flames. He insisted that of the thirty-nine residents reported dead, wounded or missing, only two bedridden women, three men, and three children had burned to death or had been suffocated. He refuted the allegations that the fires were started deliberately, arguing instead that the houses caught fire because they were in the line of German projectiles.

Accusations of German barbarity towards those they had defeated were a prominent feature of French memories of the war. Descriptions commonly made the victims society’s most vulnerable, namely women, children, the elderly and infirm, but they also included unarmed or wounded soldiers. At the heart of French allegations and German refutations were differing views on the status of guerrillas and civilians who took up arms. The German army regarded them as legitimate targets on a par with spies. But it also indiscriminately attacked local populations in a bid to deter further civilian resistance. The issue of guerrilla war split communities, as many local authorities and residents preferred to co-operate with the enemy rather than risk reprisals.

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The French Defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71

In the eyes of many, the French defeat of 1871 had been nothing less than ‘the greatest military collapse recorded by history’. Within the space of only six months, France had lost the war, lost Alsace-Lorraine, and lost its self-belief. The newspaper Le Siècle summed up the popular view: ‘Which Frenchman, even after many centuries, will forget the name Sedan, more fateful even than the names Poitiers, Agincourt, or Waterloo?’ It might have been easier if the war had ended at Sedan with the defeat of Napoleon III in September 1870. Then, at least, it could have been written off as the collapse of the Second Empire. But when the war continued under the republican Government of National Defence, it became a defeat not only of the nation, but of the fledgling Republic as well.

For France, the war of 1870 was meant to have chastened Prussia. Instead, the conflict empowered and emboldened it, confirming Prussia’s position at the heart of German unification, and leaving France ruined and dismembered. Relations between the two powers had been strained ever since the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866; the dispute over the Spanish succession in July 1870 merely brought matters to a head. With French political opinion demanding decisive action from the politically-weak government of Emile Ollivier, war was declared on 19 July 1870. Few doubted that the conflict would see a rapid French victory; the supposedly bespectacled Prussian army was thought to be little match for the professional and experienced imperial army. In reality, however, Prussia had embraced the economic, social and technological developments of recent years, producing an efficient, effective fighting force. France, by contrast, had not, leaving an army which was rich in courage but woefully poor in organisation, equipment and tactical thinking. Within days of the commencement of hostilities, French forces were forced onto the defensive, suffering heavy casualties, and beginning a catalogue of disasters. Early optimism was soon dampened by major defeats at Wissembourg on 4 August, Froeschwiller on 6 August and Gravelotte on 16 August. By the end of the month, the French army had been pushed back to the two cities which were to symbolise the bankruptcy of the imperial regime: Metz and Sedan. At Metz, Marshal Bazaine let his men be encircled and besieged, only to capitulate without a fight two months later, along with 137,000 men of the Army of the Rhine. At Sedan on 1 September, Napoleon III surrendered 83,000 men, 6,000 horses, and himself. The Second Empire had fallen; a Third Republic arose to replace it.

The defeat at Sedan brought insurrection in Paris, the proclamation of a Government of National Defence, and a new patriotic enthusiasm. The nation’s fighting forces were reorganised, with a reformed National Guard, garde mobile, Papal Zouaves and Garibaldian francs-tireurs all fighting alongside each other in a defensive effort which cut across political and religious lines.

The notion of guerre à outrance  – war to the end – was resurrected in 1870, with many left-republicans and socialists rejecting claims that France could not continue to fight as defeatist and a betrayal of the Republic by the forces of reaction. Republicans unashamedly drew upon myths dating back to the revolutionary wars and the mass call to arms of 1792 and 1793. Then, with claims the fatherland was in danger. Then the Revolutionary army had neither the time nor the inclination to accept traditional discipline – so they made a virtue of necessity, fighting as free men, with a combination of individual skirmishes and mass column attacks. The secret of their success was a combination of the professionalism of ancien regime armies with enthusiasm of a nation in arms. By August 1793 the supply volunteers ran out so all were conscripted. The nature of the fighting reflected the fact that the army now had vast numbers of men, but with little combat experience. There was, in the words of Lazare Carnot, to be ‘no more manoeuvres, no more military art but fire, steel and patriotism’ – it must be guerre à outrance, that is to say, exterminate the enemy to the bitter end.

The renewed efforts failed to produce positive results, however. Shortly after the government left Paris for Tours on 11 September, enemy forces surrounded the capital, beginning a siege which was to last until 26 January 1871. Meanwhile, the city’s extreme left were becoming impatient, increasingly agitated, and restless at the failure to break out of the impasse. With news of the disastrous sortie from Le Bourget on 30 October, the surrender of Dijon the following day, and the loss of Metz, the anxiety erupted into fresh unrest. Many looked to the provincial forces of Léon Gambetta for relief. But despite the impressive heroism of General Chanzy’s men at Le Mans, Faidherbe’s men at Saint-Quentin, and Denfert-Rochereau’s men at Belfort, the provincial war effort brought only defeat and deadlock.

With the capital’s food supplies dwindling to dangerous levels, a cease-fire was finally signed on 26 January 1871. The following day, the government entered into negotiations for an armistice which would end the conflict everywhere except in the regions of Bourgogne and Franche-Comté, where fighting continued until 13 February. The peace polarised the nation. Elections to the National Assembly on 8 February produced civil war returns, as the country swung to the two extremes: a massive vote for monarchists endorsing peace in the war-weary provinces, and loyal support for the republican left in the major cities. There was fury in the capital, and rising calls for a guerre à outrance. Rejecting the armistice, the peace terms demanding the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, indemnities of 5 billion francs, and a German parade down the Champs-Elysées, the extreme left erupted to proclaim a new Paris Commune.


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Corsican nationalism twenty years after the assassination of Prefect Claude Erignac

On Tuesday 6 February 2018, Emmanuel Macron is due to make his first visit to Corsica since being elected French President. The occasion will be to mark twenty years since the assassination of Prefect Claude Erignac in Ajaccio by Corsican terrorists. The murder provoked shockwaves across Corsica and France and was condemned by many, including the overwhelming majority of Corsicans.

Twenty years since the assassination of Erignac, and over forty years since the beginning of the terrorist campaigns to bring Corsican independence from France, how far have things changed in Corsica?

In 2014, the FLNC announced it was laying down its arms, and although some terrorist groups still exist, Corsican nationalism has moved into mainstream politics. In the December 2017 elections to the Corsican Assembly, nationalists groups won a comfortable overall majority, led by Corsica Libera’s Jean-Guy Talamoni. Meanwhile, the president of Corsica’s executive council, is none other than Gilles Simeoni, lawyer for Yvan Colonna who was convicted of Erignac’s murder.

Nationalist parties now dominate Corsican politics, and there is a sense that Corsica is growing increasingly distant from mainland France in political terms. After decades of little being done to improve the island’s poor infrastructure, high unemployment and poverty, many Corsicans feeling that only nationalists will stand up for them.

The 2017 legislative elections saw nationalists overturn decades of domination by a small number of established political families, many of whom had held office for decades, if not centuries. In one of the most significant results, the nationalist Paul-André Colombani overturned the comfortable lead of Les Républicains deputy Camille de Rocca Serra, who had dominated politics in southern Corsica since 1988. De Rocca Serra had taken over from his father, Jean-Paul de Rocca Serra, who in his turn had held held political office continually since 1949.

When Macron arrives in Corsica he is facing a tough challenge. In round one of the 2017 presidential elections, he came mere third, behind Marine Le Pen and François Fillon. He has also made it clear that he does not intend to make concessions to Corsican nationalists that might compromise the values of the French Republic.

But things have changed in Corsica in recent years. In part due to the growing influence of the nationalists, the island has been a more assertive of its identity and language. The Corsican Assembly led the way with Talamoni making a point of using the Corsican language, rather than French. More broadly, over the past two or three years, dual language signs are becoming more common, with shops, for instance, now having signs in Corsican as well as French. The Corsican anthem, Diu vi Salvi Regina, can now be heard not just at football matches, but at family gatherings.

However, with this, there has also been a rise in the more exclusionary type of Corsican nationalism. It is increasingly common to see ‘IFF’ graffiti, signalling ‘I Francesi Fora’ or ‘French out’. There have also been tensions between some nationalists and the island’s Muslim communities, flaring up most dramatically in Sisco in 2016.

So there is a good deal at stake in Macron’s meetings with Corsica’s political leaders on 6 February. On the one hand, most Corsicans do not support independence. On the other, the more the French government refuses to make concessions to Corsica, the more the nationalists are able to present the government in Paris as being far-removed, uninterested and unwilling to support the island. But if the nationalists push too far, however, they risk losing support from Corsicans and losing the chance to push for greater autonomy.



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Relations between Britain and France in World War Two


Institut Français d’Ecosse, Edinburgh, 3 May 2017

Roundtable speakers: Professor Peter Jackson (Glasgow) and Dr Emile Chabal (Edinburgh)

When war was declared in September 1939, Britain and France stood together as allies with similar democratic traditions, levels of military and economic strength and global interests. Within less than a year, however, the two states had severed diplomatic relations and become bitter enemies. This one-day workshop seeks to explore the trajectory of relations between Britain and France over the course of the Second World War. While historians have often highlighted how military defeats and political tensions caused mutual suspicions rooted in centuries of imperial and naval rivalries to resurface, this workshop aims to examine how the interconnections between the two states were critical to their survival and future.

We invite speakers to interpret this subject in its broadest sense. Possible topics might include:

  • Diplomatic relations between Britain, Vichy France and the Free French
  • Military and intelligence relations
  • Propaganda and perceptions
  • The SOE and British roles in French resistance activities
  • The RAF bombing campaign in France
  • The liberation of France
  • Colonial rivalries between Britain and France, 1939-45
  • Legacies of the war in postwar relations between Britain and France

Proposals for papers of 20 minute or for panels of two or three papers are invited. We particularly invite contributions from postgraduate students and overseas scholars. Paper proposals should comprise a paper title, abstract of 300 words and a one-page CV in a single pdf file. Please send proposals to Dr Karine Varley at: by 3 April 2017. Funding assistance will be available to contribute towards speakers’ travel expenses.

The workshop will be followed by a public roundtable discussion on the lessons and legacies of the Second World War for relations between the UK and France today. Roundtable speakers include Professor Peter Jackson (Glasgow) and Dr Emile Chabal (Edinburgh).

The workshop is part of a wider two-year project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh on ‘Relations between Britain and France in World War Two’, led by Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro and Dr Karine Varley, University of Strathclyde.

Edinburgh workshop programme

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Call for Papers: Society for the Study of French History 31st Annual Conference ‘France, Europe and the World’

Call for Papers: Society for the Study of French History 31st Annual Conference

‘France, Europe and the World’

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 26-27 June 2017

Confirmed plenary speakers:

Professor Robert Gildea (Oxford)

Professor John Merriman (Yale)

Professor Sophie Wahnich (CNRS)

Professor Marie-Laure Legay (Lille 3)

The history of France has been profoundly shaped by its European and global entanglements. Whether through its diplomatic and military engagements, colonial encounters, cultural and intellectual exchanges, or the interconnections of trade and commerce, the porous and fluid nature of France’s borders have brought a complex range of influences upon France’s history. As the role and status of France within Europe and the wider world changed, so did perceptions and representations of France.

This conference seeks to explore French history from international, transnational and global perspectives and invites speakers to reconsider the significance and relevance of the nation state. We invite participants to interpret the conference theme in its broadest terms.

In addition to the conference theme, we also invite papers or panels on any aspect of French history from the early medieval to the contemporary period and we welcome contributions that reflect the broad diversity of the history of France and its former colonial empire.

We invite proposals for 20 minute papers in English or in French on any aspect of the conference theme. Proposals for panels of two or three papers are particularly welcome. We particularly invite contributions from postgraduate students and overseas scholars. Paper proposals should comprise a paper title, abstract of 300 words and a one-page CV in a single pdf file. Please send proposals to Dr Karine Varley at: by 28 February 2017.

Find out more about the SSFH at:

Twitter: #ssfh2017 – @FrenchHistoryUK

Conference organisers: Karine Varley and Rogelia Pastor-Castro

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BBC Monitoring and French Radio during the Second World War


On 28 June 1940, Alexis Léger, the former head of the French Foreign Ministry told Winston Churchill that against a background of growing anti-British sentiment in France following the defeat, Britain might make use of the fact that BBC broadcasting was widely listened to in France and that by ‘clever use of the […] wireless’, they might be able to turn French public opinion around. In order to do this, however, they needed to know what was being said on the radio in France.

The axis powers were quick to realise the importance of controlling the airwaves, ordering the closure of all existing French radio stations as part of the armistice terms. In their place, two new stations were established: Radio Paris under German supervision in the northern occupied zone and Radiodiffusion Nationale, known as Radio Vichy, in the unoccupied zone. However, BBC radio could be picked up across much of France and evidence suggests that many French people considered the BBC to be the most trusted source of information. Listening to the BBC was outlawed, but the ban was regularly flouted and the Vichy government that came into office after the French defeat resisted German demands to make it a capital offence until the total occupation of France in November 1942.

The BBC Monitoring Service transcripts give historians important insights into how, faced with the challenges of the French defeat and occupation, British and French radio became at once locked in battle and connected in a dialogue. In the struggle for veracity and legitimacy, each shaped the other’s agenda and each was compelled to respond to the other’s claims. The BBC Monitoring transcripts gave up-to-date insights into the Vichy government’s responses to British actions and British propaganda and provided vital information on where Vichy saw itself going domestically and internationally.

bbc monitoring

Relations between Britain and France

Between the summer to the autumn of 1940, France went from being allied to Britain to collaborating with Nazi Germany. It was therefore a period of extraordinary sensitivity in Britain’s relations with France. The two key assets that Vichy retained under the June 1940 armistices, namely its colonial empire and naval fleet, were the very elements that caused the greatest concern for London. Fearing that they might yet fall into axis hands, the British government found itself compelled to defend the interests and security of Britain in ways that were damaging to the interests and security of France. These actions gave not just Vichy, but also the Free French, legitimate cause to question British intentions, resurrecting old suspicions about ‘perfidious Albion’. The first such incident was the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. The British government claimed that it needed to ensure that the French fleet could not be seized by the Germans or Italians, but many in France saw it as unjustified aggression causing the deaths of almost 1300 French sailors. The fallout was significant, but it was only aggravated by a British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-5 September 1940.

The delicate nature of relations between Britain and France during this period meant that it was critically important that British propaganda be precisely framed and targeted. Regardless of any military or strategic justifications, British actions directly affected Vichy’s move towards collaborating with Nazi Germany and provoked a wave of anti-British sentiment within many sections of French society. Getting accurate, up-to-date information was therefore vital.


Propaganda and the French public

It is generally acknowledged that to have any real impact, propaganda needs to have a receptive audience, and that to be credible it needs to have some grounding in reality. The problem for the BBC and for the Free French was how to counter the fact that many of the claims made by Radio Vichy seemed to ring true with many French people. A 1940 official document on British propaganda to France therefore stated that the primary task of radio propaganda for France was to counteract Anglophobia and to rebuild confidence in Britain’s power to continue the war. Following a strategy proposed by Maurice Schumann on 9 July 1940, French service broadcasts on the BBC sought to insist upon the continuing close connections and shared ordeals of the British and French people and to combat suspicions that Britain did not wish to see France restored to its former standing. The BBC Monitoring transcripts help us to gain a greater understanding of these strategies.

From its establishment in June 1940, Radio Vichy regularly refuted the claims made by the British government. Yet it was somewhat slower to respond systematically to the Free French broadcasts on the BBC, only beginning to do so in earnest in mid-April 1941. Radio Vichy tried to claim that the ‘stupidity of this propaganda’ had ‘seemed so obvious’ that it did not need to be refuted. But a more plausible explanation is that the shift in Radio Vichy’s strategy was a measure of the headway that the French broadcasts from London were making with the French public. The conscious and explicit nature of the responses from Radio Vichy was striking. One broadcast from late April 1941 conceded that ‘hundreds of thousands of people’ had indeed been ‘taken in’ by General de Gaulle’s words. The response from Radio Vichy revealed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the strategies employed on BBC radio. Its claims that the attacks against Pétain were conducted with ‘infinite precision so as not upset public feeling’ suggested an awareness of how the BBC was mindful of many French people’s loyalty towards the marshal, even if they did not feel the same towards the Vichy regime.

Vichy radio

Reacting to British actions at Dakar

The British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-25 September 1940 was easy prey for Vichy’s propaganda narrative that Britain was only interested in seizing defeated France’s colonies and that De Gaulle was a traitor implicated in Britain’s crimes. With the BBC depicting Vichy as the puppet of Nazi Germany, so Radio Vichy portrayed De Gaulle as ‘England’s servant’. Addressing De Gaulle’s adherents directly, Radio Vichy dramatically accused Free French supporters of complicity in the deaths of French servicemen. On 25 September 1940, the broadcaster declared: ‘Frenchmen […] some of you remained attached to De Gaulle. You have remained deaf to the cry for help of our soldiers who were burned, drowned, crushed without defence. […] Frenchmen… every one of you must become a judge. Those dead at Dakar united to those at Mers-el-Kébir demand justice. Hear them, answer them, as otherwise their blood will be on you’.

With the attack a failure, within days Vichy was able to send reporters out to Dakar to refute directly the claims being made by the BBC. A number of BBC Monitoring transcripts are highly evocative in describing the background noises included in the broadcasts, including the sounds of a plane at Dakar airport, crowds on the streets and a market scene. The sounds, as described in the transcripts, conveyed a defiant impression of life carrying on despite the actions of the British and Free French. The level of detail, on-location reports and eye-witness accounts lent the Dakar broadcasts a directness and credibility with which the BBC could not compete. They highlight how despite its reputation for trustworthy reporting, the BBC’s task of countering Vichy’s radio propaganda was far from simple.

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Italy’s Decade of War: 1935-45 in International Perspective

University of Strathclyde, 6-7 September 2016

Keynote speakers: 

Professor MacGregor Knox, London School of Economics

Professor Nicola Labanca, Università degli Studi di Siena

strathNaples University logo


Registration now open

From the invasion of Abyssinia to the end of World War Two, Italy experienced a decade of war. This conference aims to re-evaluate the history of the Italian experience during this ten-year period with a unifying perspective that places the Italian Fascist regime and its foreign and military enterprises in an entirely internationalised framework of analysis.

Organisers: Dr Marco Maria Aterrano and Dr Karine Varley

Provisional Programme: Italy Decade War conference programme June version 2

The conference will include a Civic Reception and Conference Dinner at Glasgow City Chambers.



city chambers interior (2)

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‘Imprisoned in the Vatican’: Neutrality and the Challenges Facing the French Embassy to the Holy See in World War Two

Paper presented at ‘Embassies in Crisis’ conference, British Academy, 9 June 2016


The case of the French embassy to the Holy See in the Second World War was very different to the other embassies being discussed today, given the particular character of the Vatican City State. But I’d like to suggest that it offers a significant example of an embassy in crisis, having to function in the challenging conditions of war, with French diplomats confined within the walls of Vatican City by the Italian state with which France was at war, unable to communicate directly with France, cut off from the outside world, and having to operate from temporary accommodation. The precarious status of the French embassy was made all the more acute by the very survival of Vatican City as an independent state being dependent upon Mussolini’s government observing the terms of the Lateran Treaty.

When war broke out in 1939, the Vatican had only existed as an independent state for ten years following the signing of the Lateran Treaty with the Italian Fascist government in 1929. As the smallest sovereign state with few economic and social interests and only a ceremonial army, many states questioned the worth of diplomatic representation there. With increasing international tensions in the late 1930s, however, the Holy See came to acquire great significance as a neutral intermediary and potential means of reaching and influencing Mussolini.

Italy’s declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 left the embassy to the Holy See as the only French diplomats to remain in Italy until 1944. The embassy therefore found itself at the centre of important diplomatic manoeuvres between France and Italy. The problem was that the conditions and status of the Vatican left the embassy significantly circumscribed in its ability to operate. The ambassadors, Count Wladimir d’Ormesson, who served from late May 1940 until November 1940 and Leon Berard who served for the remainder of the war, were effectively imprisoned in Vatican City, forbidden from leaving by the Italian government.

The first section of what I’m going to discuss today looks at how the French embassy to the Holy See confronted the challenges of being an embassy to a neutral state located within an enemy state. The second looks at the French ambassador’s role in the attempts to pursue an alternative foreign policy with Italy to the one which culminated in Vichy’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.


Wladimir d’Ormesson was appointed ambassador to the Holy See in late May 1940. With German forces rapidly advancing into France and chaos in government, Foreign Minister Paul Reynaud recalled many of France’s leading diplomats, including Francois Charles-Roux who had been ambassador to the Holy See since 1932, to serve as general secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. D’Ormesson came from a family of diplomats and was well-connected within diplomatic and political circles, but was a journalist with no direct experience of working in foreign affairs. He left for Rome on 28 May 1940 and had his first private audience with Pope Pius XII on 9 June 1940, just a day before Italy declared war against France.


Ambassador Wladimir d’Ormesson and Pope Pius XII


berard at embassy

Georges de Blesson, Ambassador Léon Bérard, François de Vial at an audience with Pope Pius XII



Italy’s declaration of war meant that the French embassy to the Holy See had to leave Taverna Palace, which was on Italian territory in Rome, and move within the walls of Vatican City. Thereafter, the French ambassador was not permitted to leave Vatican City, unless granted special permission by the Italian government and had to be accompanied by Italian police. It was established practice for states to place restrictions upon an enemy state’s embassy at the outbreak of war, but these restrictions were the consequence of Italian encroachments upon the Vatican’s status as a sovereign, neutral state. Indeed, d’Ormesson was fully well that the Italians had placed a spy in the embassy posing as footman, and claimed that everything he said was passed on to the Fascist authorities.

It was normal practice that at times of war, there should be no contact between enemy missions so diplomats could not be accused of consorting with the enemy. But the conditions endured by foreign diplomats in Vatican City created a sense of shared experience that overrode diplomatic protocol. The embassies for all states that had ruptured relations with Italy were moved into the Santa Marta hostel. The first floor was occupied by the Polish ambassador, the second by the French, the third by the Belgian ambassador, and the fourth by the British Minister, D’Arcy Osborne. D’Ormesson had quickly struck up a friendship with Osborne when their countries had been allies, but the French surrender and the rupture in diplomatic relations following Mers-el-Kebir meant that the two ambassadors should have avoided contact. The French press claimed that the two men, who could not help but bump into each other on their shared staircase, would turn away from each other and even get into fights. In reality, however, D’Ormesson continued to have lunch with Osborne almost every day, a factor which contributed to him being recalled by Pierre Laval in October 1940.

The embassy was unable to communicate regularly or directly with France. With few outside visitors and little access to reliable information, it was also cut off from the outside world. With long periods with little to do, it was perhaps inevitable that the ambassador’s judgement became impaired. But rather than him ‘going native’, D’Ormesson’s reports and correspondence suggest that he became increasingly exasperated and frustrated by the gap between what he wanted to do and what he was able to do. We see this in his personal correspondence to Charles-Roux, where he expresses his ‘despair’ at the pope’s ‘passivity’.

Significance of Vatican for Vichy

Like many other governments during the war, Vichy sought the moral and political legitimacy of papal endorsement. Testifying in 1955, Berard described his approach as having been driven ‘by the feeling that France at such a time should maintain closer relations than ever with the high spiritual power from which so many nations sought approval or backing’.

The ideology of the Vichy regime made this particularly important. In the initial period after the defeat, Vichy’s National Revolution sought to roll back the secularisation of the Third Republic and revive notions of France as ‘eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’. D’Ormesson saw the Holy See as a particularly ‘precious’ asset for France as a Catholic country. The values and international status of the Catholic Church posed a challenge to the Italian Fascist government’s own political dogma and ambitions, so its presence in Rome as a rival source of authority benefited French interests.

Relations with Italy

Attempts by key figures within the Vichy government, especially Pierre Laval, to gain closer relations with the Nazis have tended to dominate historical accounts of this period. But in the summer and autumn of 1940, an alternative policy of seeking closer relations with Italy as a counterweight to Germany was being act pursued by Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin and Secretary-General to the Foreign Ministry, Francois Charles-Roux. They sought to isolate Germany by pursuing rapprochement with Italy, emphasising the historical bonds and shared interests of the two ‘Latin and Catholic’ countries.

The French embassy became critical to the realisation of the strategy in three ways. First, it enabled Vichy to have a source of information within Italy, with access to Italian diplomats and others in contact with the Fascist government. Second, it was critical to Baudouin and Charles-Roux’s desires to use the Holy See as intermediary to a recalcitrant Italian government. Third, it gave Vichy the possibility of using the Vatican’s position to reach the Italian people directly, appealing over the heads of the Fascist government and exploiting the pro-French tendencies of much of the population. Radio Vatican and the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, were the only media operating independently from the Fascist state within Italy.

The problem was, however, that communication difficulties with Vichy left d’Ormesson having to pursue this alone, even when he saw it was failing to have any effect upon the Italian government. He worked tirelessly to secure favourable coverage of developments in France on Vatican radio in the hope that the Italian people would hear it and pressurise their government into a change of policy towards France. He also regularly called upon Osservatore Romana to counter anti-French propaganda in the Fascist press in the hope that the Italian Catholic clergy would spread word in their communities.

Having a diplomatic presence at Vatican City also provided the opportunity for unofficial dialogue with elements of the Fascist regime more favourably disposed towards France than Mussolini. In July 1940, Professor Guido Mannacorda, a Catholic agent of the Fascist government proposed a secret meeting with d’Ormesson in the gardens of the Vatican in which he proposed that under the leadership of Mussolini, France and Italy could work together to offset the danger of German domination.

If ultimately, nothing came of the talks, without the embassy to the Holy See, there would have been no other forum for diplomatic activity between France and Italy.


The experiences of the French embassy to the Holy See in World War Two were highly unusual. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought to capitalise on the unique position of Vatican City as a neutral state located within the capital city of an enemy state to turn the embassy to the Holy See into a proxy embassy to Italy. But this dual role created tensions with the embassy’s legitimate remit in relation to the Holy See. Despite fulfilling their instructions, both d’Ormesson and Berard pushed back attempts by the Ministry to take this proxy role further, fearing that doing so risked jeopardising the survival of the embassy with repercussions from Italy and the Vatican.

The embassy’s isolation placed considerable onus on the ambassador to initiate and pursue diplomatic manoeuvres. While the other embassies confined within Vatican City were also cut off from their governments and the outside world, what was distinct about this case was that after 24 June 1940 France was neither at war nor peace with Italy but in a prolonged state of armistice. Elements within the Vichy government wanted rapprochement with Italy in which the Catholic heritage of the two countries would be at the heart of a Latin union that would counterbalance German domination. The absence of any other forum for diplomatic contact with Italy pushed the French embassy to the Holy See found to the forefront.

While it may not have had to face such dramatic crises as others, with no civilian population to deal with, the intense pressure brought about by confinement in the claustrophobic environment of the embassy should not be underestimated. We know from Owen Chadwick’s work that it took a toll on the mental and physical health of the British Minister. While his language may have been tinged by hyperbole, as he struggled make sense of the stark contrast between the grandeur and sanctity of the Vatican and the violence of the war being waged beyond its walls, d’Ormesson described his time at the embassy as having been nothing less than ‘torture’.



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