In December 1941, the head of the Italian armistice commission for France, General Vacca Maggiolini, accused French police and functionaries in the unoccupied zone of being complicit in anti-Italian intelligence activities. In February that year, General Grossi accused the French authorities of being complicit in anti-Italian propaganda. A few months later, Vacca Maggiolini complained that while French officials were very courteous towards the Germans, they simply mocked the Italians, did not respect their authority as victors and refused to comply with their demands. The archives are full of this kind of anecdotal evidence which seems to paint a picture of the defiance, not just of local civilian and military authorities but of Vichy itself, in the face of Italy after the defeat of 1940. This image of French officials continuing to oppose the Italian enemy after the defeat, combined with the absence of any sustained policy of collaboration hints at a very different picture to the duplicitous, deluded image we are more used to when viewing Vichy through the prism of its relations with Nazi Germany.
At the heart of Vichy’s justification for existence and its claim to legitimacy was the notion that had it not been there to act as France’s shield, conditions would have been much worse. In reality, however, historians have established that in voluntarily collaborating with the Nazis, Vichy failed to do this.
Robert Paxton argues that rather than protecting the French people, Vichy saw the defence of the state as an end in itself. As such, he argues, the sovereignty it retained over the unoccupied zone, the naval fleet and colonial empire became a negotiating liability. The only way to keep it was to keep making concessions to Germany. While Peter Jackson and Simon Kitson argue that Vichy’s defence of French sovereignty was driven by its desire to pursue a domestic ideological agenda, they also paint a picture Vichy making ever more concessions to Germany to preserve French sovereignty. In a similar vein to Paxton, RT Thomas describes the two bargaining chips over which Vichy retained a degree of sovereignty, namely the naval fleet and the colonial empire, as wasting assets whose negotiating value quickly diminished in any negotiations with Germany after 1940.
The reason I wish to return to this well-worn subject is that previous analyses have focused overwhelmingly upon Vichy’s relations with Germany. I want to suggest that the French position with Italy was different.
Italy declared war on France 10 June 1940 when France already on verge of collapse. It only invaded on 20 June. The poor performance of the Italian army meant that the terms of the armistice signed between France and Italy were significantly less onerous than those with Germany.
Because Italy was militarily much weaker than Germany, French sovereignty was not a negotiating liability in Vichy’s dealings with Italy, but a measure of Italian weakness that became solidified in the armistice terms of June 1940. Although Italy was a victor over France in June 1940, it also had much to lose from pushing Vichy too far. I want to therefore look at how this very different power relationship played out in the ways that French authorities dealt with the authorities Italian after the defeat.
In recent years, many historians have been influenced by Phillippe Burrin’s concept of accommodation between the occupied and occupier as a more nuanced way to understand the German occupation of France than the traditional models of collaboration and resistance. More recently, Thomas Laub has taken this notion of accommodation and applied it to the political relations between the Vichy and Nazi authorities, arguing that context is critical to understanding the ambiguities and contradictory actions taken by different parties.
I want to pick up on the importance of context but for a different reason. What I’d like to suggest is that by exploring French relations with Italy, rather than Germany, we get a different, more complex picture of the Vichy government and the layers of administration, both civilian and military, that worked under it. This context of Franco-Italian relations reveals an asymmetrical French approach towards the two axis powers. It suggests that Vichy did not see French sovereignty as being indivisible, but something that could be yielded in one domain with one axis power so as to protect it in another against the other axis power. The issue is then about what Vichy considered to be the priorities. Rather than being primarily motivated by ideology or the imperatives of saving the state, as was the case with Germany, I want to suggest that Vichy’s main priority with Italy was defending French territorial integrity. Italian encroachments upon French sovereignty were part of a wider Italian plan to demand Nice, Savoie, Corsica and Tunisia as part of the final peace terms. As the weaker power, the threat from Italy was different to that from Germany, but no less real. Far from the benign image that has sometimes been ascribed to the Italian presence in France ex post facto, in many respects, for those areas targeted by the Italian government, the principal enemy was not Germany, but Italy.
How serious and credible was the Italian threat?
I want to look first at how serious and credible the Italian threat was for France after June 1940. The greatest danger was if Italy unilaterally moved its army further into France with a view to annexing the territory it claimed, or if it was to be given the green light to do so by Germany. A second, more immediate and ongoing threat was the encroachments of the Italian armistice commission on French sovereignty. A third threat against France came from the Fascist propaganda claiming the French territories of Nice, Savoie, Corsica and Tunisia. A fourth threat came from the danger that Italian authorities’ contacts with the large Italian community living in France might create a kind of fifth column. The threats represented varying degrees of danger and credibility, but they were all perceived by Vichy to be real enough.
By far the most immediate and ongoing threat came from the daily encroachments on French sovereignty by the Italian authorities sent to France to monitor the implementation of the armistice terms. Because the terms of the armistice gave Italy so little, the Italian armistice authorities very quickly sought to expand their powers. Cumulatively, Italian actions were intended to create a sense that an expanded occupation and even annexation were inevitable. Vichy therefore needed to thwart Italian actions, which not only threatened to undermine its attempts to legitimise itself as France’s shield, but risked at best resulting in a loss of sovereignty and at worst, a loss of territory.
The way the Italian authorities treated its occupation zone sounded alarm bells about the wider dangers Italy posed to France. From the outset, it was clear that the Italian Fascist government saw it not so much as an occupation as an annexation. French reports described the Italian occupation prior to November 1942 was more akin to the situation in Alsace-Lorraine or the Nord-Pas-de-Calais than the German occupation zone. Instead of seeking to collaborate with French authorities, the Italian government sought to replace them.
What was the nature of the Italian threat?
Italian propaganda claims over Nice, Savoie, Corsica and Tunisia and the virulent denigration of France represented another significant threat to French sovereignty. It sought to divide communities, setting Italians against their French neighbours with claims that the French people had always hated the Italians and looked down upon them as being at best as ‘runaways’, ‘cowards’, ‘mandolin players’, ‘beggars’, ‘clowns and actors covered in pointless feathers’ and at worst ‘traitors’, ‘degenerates’ and ‘savages’. The Italian government sought to undermine Italian immigrants’ loyalty to France and to create a kind of fifth column. It also aimed to sow fear of an imminent Italian invasion and occupation among communities living close to the border. On several occasions between June 1940 and November 1942, rumours reached such a pitch that they caused a run on the banks in Savoie, as residents withdrew their money, packed their belongings and prepared to flee. Despite Italian military weakness, the virulence and persistence of Italian propaganda combined with alarming reports of a de facto annexation of the Italian occupied zone and Germany’s refusal to rule out Italian territorial claims meant that the Italian threat to France was very real.
Italian communities as fifth column?
At the heart of the problem for Vichy was the presence of over 900,000 Italians in France, many of them concentrated within the territory that fell under the jurisdiction of the Italian armistice. The difficulties this posed was quite unlike anything faced in Vichy’s relations with the German authorities. There were far fewer German immigrants in France and the official figure of 900,000 significantly understates the Italian presence in France as thousands of Italian migrants had taken advantage of the 1927 naturalisation law to gain French citizenship.[In the Alpes-Maritimes, for instance, whereas official figures stated an Italian population of 90,000 in December 1939 out of a total of 514,000, police estimated that Italians constituted around 40 per cent of the total population of the department and that around a further 40 per cent of French citizens were of Italian descent.
The high number of Italians might not in itself have posed a threat, as many had emigrated to escape Fascism, but the Italian government actively sought to use them to undermine French authority and security. Italian officials interpreted article 21 of the armistice, which dealt with the release of Italian prisoners, effectively to mean that Vichy had no authority over Italian citizens living in France. They engaged in regular direct contact with Italian community, working to gain favour with them by distributing food and tobacco and then seeking to recruit them to gather intelligence, spread propaganda, and manufacture incidents to provoke tensions with French communities and authorities. By August 1940, up to three hundred Italians were queuing to meet the Italian armistice officials every day in Nice alone.
This was not, therefore, some benign or theoretical fear for some abstract notion of French sovereignty, but a genuine threat to French security and to French territorial integrity. French officials who dealt with the Italian armistice authorities on a daily basis were acutely conscious of where their actions might potentially lead.
What did Vichy do to combat Italian threat?
So – what did Vichy and the French armistice authorities do to combat the threat from Italy?
With no sustained policy of collaboration with Italy and no support for the Fascist regime’s ideological goals in the war, there should have been no political, strategic or ideological barriers to hinder Vichy’s efforts to act as a shield protecting the French people and territory.
I want to turn first to how French officials dealt with the actions of Italian armistice officials on a daily basis at local level. The Vichy government instructed French officials to prevent any activities by German and Italian armistice officials that went beyond the armistice terms. It also ordered intensive surveillance of their actions and sought to prevent contacts between armistice officials and local residents. The Interior Ministry instructed French officials to maintain their reserve when dealing with armistice officials and politely refuse to cooperate with anything that went beyond the jurisdiction of the armistice.
If these measures sound half-hearted, it should be pointed out that French officials were constrained in their actions, not wishing to provoke any reprisals. French surveillance was intrusive and it included placing secret listening devices in the offices of the Italian and German control commissions in Algeria. We know also that on the instructions of Vichy, French officials hid weapons from German and Italian inspection teams in clear breach of the armistice terms. But is the question is whether there is any evidence to suggest that they more actively defended French interests against the Italians as compared with the Germans?
French Response to Italian Propaganda
Certainly, under instruction from Vichy, French officials refuted Italian propaganda claims and consistently refused Italian demands to produce pro-Italian propaganda. This was in marked contrast with propaganda that sought to persuade the French people of the virtues of collaboration with Germany.
As early as August 1940, the Quai d’Orsay and Interior Ministry called upon prefects in the areas under threat from Italy to devise a package of measures explicitly to reject Italian territorial claims and to thwart Italian plans for annexation. Vichy supplemented these actions with a series of economic and social measures designed explicitly to beat anything Italy had to offer. Vichy’s efforts were particularly significant when it came to Corsica. Years of perceived neglect by the French state had created tensions between the island and mainland France which Mussolini exploited. To counter this, Vichy announced a ten-year plan of investment to improve Corsica’s poor infrastructure and economy. In so doing, it sought to send a signal of its commitment to retaining the island. When French officials spotted that Corsica had been omitted from a propaganda pamphlet on what Marshal Petain had achieved since the armistice, the gaffe was rapidly rectified. Scarcely had any French government been so acutely sensitive to suggestions that it was neglecting Corsica.
Does this mean that the French authorities did indeed defend French interests more strenuously from Italy than they did from Germany? Certainly the Italians were under the impression that this was the case. General Gelich of the Italian armistice commission complained that whereas the French authorities never said no to German demands, they often did to Italian demands.
French officials opposed anything that would make the Italian armistice terms worse for France. Indeed, before the expansion of the Italian occupation zone in November 1942, they successfully rejected Italian demands to cover the cost of the Italian occupying forces. This is not to suggest that the French authorities made no concessions to the Italians, but rather that with power more evenly balanced between France and Italy, and without the delusion it had in relation to Germany that collaboration would ease the burden of the armistice terms, Vichy’s dealings with Italy were, on the face of it, more consistent with its claims to be protecting French interests.
Paradox of support from Germany against Italy
The problem is, all this comes with a major caveat. In addition to the measures already outlined, another part of the strategy of protecting French territory and colonies was to seek to set Germany against Italy. On one level, this involved the French authorities exploiting the divisions between the Germans and Italians to their own benefit. So for instance in July 1941, Admiral Duplat tried to pressurise the Italians into making concessions by suggesting that the Germans were willing to do so. General Vacca Maggiolini, head of the Italian armistice commission, replied that in fact Germans did lots of things ‘behind the backs of the Italians.’
On another level, the French strategy of seeking to use Germany to block the threat from Italy involved seeking active intervention by the Germans. So for example in November 1940, German officials intervened after Vichy complained that Italy was breeching French sovereignty in controls over the transportation of material between France and North Africa. By mid-October 1940, French Foreign Ministry officials concluded that the weakness of Italy’s position gave its government a greater appetite for exploiting the French defeat than Germany. The corollary to such reasoning was, in the words of the secretary-general at the Foreign Ministry Francois Charles-Roux: ‘it would seem less fanciful to turn to Germany to moderate Italy than to Italy to moderate Germany.’
The problem was that any help from Germany came at a price. The price for German assurances against Italian claims over Tunisia was the arrival of German armistice and control commissions in North Africa.[ Such were French concerns about the Italian threat to Tunisia that opposing Italy became an incentive for collaborating with Germany. What emerges from this is a more complex picture in which rather than anticipating Italian demands to better accommodate them, the French authorities sought to anticipate them in order to block them. The desire to defend French sovereignty from Italy confronted a tangible and credible threat, and in this sense, Vichy did seek to act as a shield against the threat from Italy. But Vichy did not make full use of the assets it had at its disposal to oppose Italian demands and as a consequence, sought assistance from Germany. With French relations with Italy conducted primarily through the Italian armistice commission and the French delegation to the Italian armistice often in a piecemeal and reactive fashion. And with relations with Germany conducted through a variety of different channels including most notably the highest levels of government, the result was a disjointed approach to defending French sovereignty. The result was that what Vichy gained from defending French territory and security against Italy was outweighed by the fact that in so doing, it became more deeply involved in collaboration with Germany.