Pétain and the Centenary of the Battle of Verdun in the First World War: A Discomforting Presence

The centenary of the First World War in France has raised a number of difficult and sometimes sensitive questions about how the nation should remember and commemorate the experiences that so profoundly shaped the country. 2016 sees the centenary of one of the most important battles for France, yet it also stirs up some uncomfortable memories associated with the Second World War.

The battle of Verdun is widely acknowledged to hold a particular place in French memory. Seen as a symbol of sacrifice and resilience, it soon came to be a defining reference-point for the French experience in the First World War, quickly gaining special status in the commemorations in the years that followed. Yet memories of the battle of Verdun were also inseparable from memories of the ‘hero of Verdun’, General Philippe Pétain. It raised the question of whether and how Pétain’s role should be commemorated.

The discovery that postcards of Pétain were on sale at Douaumont provoked shock, consternation and alarm on social media. The newly-opened Mémorial de Verdun responded with a formal statement that no images of Pétain would be on sale at the museum. However, in live-tweeting the events of the battle, the Memorial has not sought to airbrush Pétain from history. Indeed, Pétain’s role is covered in full, treated no differently to any other protagonist. Could this be an indication that France is finally coming to terms with the contradictory image of Pétain?

Offenstadt tweet

With the far-right Front National now an established element on the French political scene, and regular incidents of anti-Semitism, memories of Pétain and of the Vichy regime in the Second World War remain firmly entrenched in the nation’s political culture. Indeed, in 2014, extreme-right polemicist Eric Zemmour’s defence of Vichy’s record on the persecution of the Jews became a best-seller in France, prompting furious debate about the regime’s true historical record.

Here in the UK, a new play, entitled The Patriotic Traitor and written by Johnathan Lynn has recently sought to reopen the debate about Pétain and De Gaulle, who, as a young captain, was captured at Verdun. Starring Tom Conti as Pétain and Laurence Fox as General de Gaulle, the play asks which of the two men was the traitor in the Second World War, Petain for his collaboration with the Nazis or De Gaulle for ‘abandoning’ France for London. The play suggests that part of the tragedy of Pétain’s story is that he did the same in the two world wars. But whereas his actions made him a hero in the first, the same actions led him to be labelled a traitor in the second.

In military terms, the battle of Verdun is generally seen as not having been exceptional, but it was significant for the impact it had upon the French people. It was the first time since the Marne in 1914 that French forces truly feared a German breakthrough. According to Antoine Prost, French soldiers saw it as battle like no other, one in which they must not surrender, whatever the cost.

After the failures of General Nivelle, Pétain introduced a new system of rapid troop rotation, ensuring that men spent no more than eight days on the front line at a time. This eased the burden on soldiers, but it also meant that the numbers of men who fought there was high, creating the impression that the whole nation had served at Verdun. In the years that followed, Verdun became for many politicians, artists, journalists and writers the battle that one had to have experienced. The town itself was awarded the Légion d’honneur by President Raymond Poincaré on 12 September 1916, and with the construction of the Douaumont ossuary and military cemeteries after the war, soon became a site of pilgrimage. The myth of Pétain as the ‘hero of Verdun’ soon developed, its lasting power over the French people symbolised by the trust many placed in the aged marshal when he claimed to be saving France once again in June 1940.

This year’s official centenary commemorations, scheduled for 29 May 2016, will focus upon Franco-German reconciliation, and will be led by President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But with France facing ongoing challenges following the terrorist attacks of 2015, the French government’s hopes of evoking the spirit of ‘sacred union’ that supposedly held the country together through the First World War seem unlikely. In many respects, the divisive legacy of Pétain and what he represented lives on.


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Call for Papers: Relations between Britain and France at the end of World War Two: Cooperation and Reconstruction

Relations between Britain and France at the end of World War Two:
Cooperation and Reconstruction


Provisional Programme: Workshop programme

Workshop: 6 May 2016, Institute of Historical Research, London

Workshop convenors: Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro and Dr Karine Varley, University of Strathclyde

This workshop will explore the roles played by the UK and France in European reconstruction at the end of World War Two and the changing nature of Franco-British cooperation in the face of new international challenges. It will reflect upon how the UK and France responded to the challenges of humanitarian relief efforts, refugees, displaced persons, occupation of defeated countries, rebuilding democratic institutions and how the experiences of World War Two helped forge a new relationship between the two allies. It will seek to place UK-French relations in Europe in an international framework of relations with the United States, the Soviet Union and the British and French colonial empires.

Possible topics may include:

  • Responses to the humanitarian crisis
  • Policy towards defeated Germany and Italy
  • Rebuilding democracy in Europe
  • UK-French cooperation in an international framework

We invite proposals for 20 minute papers on any aspect of the workshop theme. Please send paper proposals with an abstract of 250-300 words and one-page CV to Dr Karine Varley: Karine.Varley@strath.ac.uk by 18 March 2016.

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.

About the Network

The network will explore the tensions, influences and experiences that shaped and defined the relationship between the UK and France during World War Two. As allies in the First World War and as states with similar democratic traditions, levels of military and economic strength and global interests, the relationship between Britain and France was critical to the survival and future of both countries. The network will engage closely with officials from the foreign policy community, including serving and past diplomats, the Foreign Office, as well as French and British defence policy-making and military staff.

RSE logostrath

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Relations between Britain and France in World War Two

I am currently working on a two-year Royal Society of Edinburgh Network on ‘Relations between Britain and France in World War Two’, with Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro.

World war two poster NEW


The Network

 The network will contribute substantially to understanding the wider long-term significance of the relationship forged between the UK and France during the Second World War. It will inform current debates about contemporary international, diplomatic, military and security challenges, offering a source of expertise to interested stakeholders.

The central theme of the network is to explore the tensions, influences and experiences that shaped and defined the relationship between the UK and France during the war. As allies in the First World War and as states with similar democratic traditions, levels of military and economic strength and global interests, the relationship between Britain and France was critical to the survival and future of both countries. The network’s distinctiveness lies in its close engagement with officials from the foreign policy community, including serving and past diplomats, the Foreign Office, as well as French and British defence policy-making and military staff.


  1. To challenge existing historical approaches to the Second World War by engaging in research relevant to contemporary international challenges.
  2. To promote more effective engagement between historians of Franco-British relations and those involved in diplomatic relations and foreign policy, developing knowledge exchange activities with diplomats and officials from the foreign policy community to better inform policy-making.
  3. To develop new understandings of the history of Franco-British relations at times of war in light of the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties on defence and security cooperation between the UK and France.
  4. To promote debate about Franco-British cooperation by exploring how the two states responded to the challenges of reconstruction at the end of the Second World War, including humanitarian relief efforts, refugees, displaced persons, the occupation of defeated countries and rebuilding democratic institutions.
  5. To connect historians working in the fields of transnational, international, diplomatic, intelligence and military history in order to develop more nuanced understandings and methodologies.
  6. To explore the wider implications for Scotland of the historical and contemporary challenges of Franco-British military cooperation.
  7. To develop the next stage in a wider project on Britain and France in War and Peace that includes a major international conference on ‘France and the Second World War in Global Perspective, 1919-45’ at the University of Strathclyde in July 2015 and a colloquium on ‘Britain and France in World War Two’ at the British Embassy in Paris in October 2015, hosted by the British Ambassador to France.

Key questions:

  1. How were Franco-British relations shaped by the experiences of the Second World War?
  2. In what ways might historians’ understanding of diplomatic relations be informed by engaging with serving and past diplomats, and how might officials from the foreign policy community benefit from working with historians?
  3. How did the experiences of the war shape the cultural dispositions and world views of French and British diplomats?
  4. In what ways did experiences such as the fall of France in 1940 shape British and French perceptions of each other’s capabilities as Cold War allies and fellow NATO member states in the postwar period?
  5. To what extent were Franco-British relations during the war shaped by their colonial interests?
  6. How did the experiences of war inform British and French responses to the challenges of postwar European reconstruction and the occupation of defeated countries after 1945?


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

University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 6-7 September 2016

Deadline extended to 31 March 2016

Keynote speakers

Professor MacGregor Knox, London School of Economics

Professor Nicola Labanca, Università degli Studi di Siena

Mussolini image

From the invasion of Abyssinia to the end of World War II, 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. It will bring an international focus upon the Italian role in the breakdown of the international system and appeasement, and will analyse the consequences of Italian militarism on a global scale. It will explore comparative and transnational histories of the Italian occupations of France, the Balkans, Greece, and Albania, as well as the Allied occupation of Italy following the defeat.

The conference will place particular emphasis upon the significance of the Mediterranean region in the wider history of the Second World War, exploring the broader implications of Italy’s actions in Africa and the Middle East. It will also look at Italian diplomatic, military and economic relations with Britain, the United States, and Nazi Germany, as well as those with other states such as Vichy France and Spain.


After receiving a high number of submissions, we are issuing this second call for papers to invite in particular proposals on topics that have been neglected or under-explored in the first call.

We particularly welcome papers on:

  • Italian Fascism’s ideology and militarism
  • Italy’s role in appeasement
  • Italian neutrality
  • Italy’s relations with the League of Nations
  • Italian relations with Germany and France
  • Italy’s political and military role in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Foreign Fighters and Resistance
  • Experiences of the Italian diaspora in enemy states


Possible topics might also include:

  • The Abyssinian crisis and its regional consequences
  • Italy’s geopolitical revisionism in the Mediterranean
  • Italian Fascist military participation in the Spanish Civil War
  • The war in the Mediterranean
  • Italian occupations in World War Two
  • The Allied occupation of Italy, 1943-45
  • Memories and representations of Italy’s decade of war


This conference aims to bring together scholars working in the fields of military, political, diplomatic, international, colonial, transnational, and comparative history, and encourages inter-disciplinary contributions. The conference organisers aim to publish selected papers in an edited volume and a journal special issue.

We invite proposals for 20-25 minute papers on any aspect of the conference theme. Proposals for panels of two or three papers are particularly welcome. Paper proposals should comprise an abstract of 250-300 words and a one-page CV in a single pdf file in English.

Please send proposals to Dr Marco Maria Aterrano and Dr Karine Varley at italywarconference@gmail.com by 31 March 2016.

Twitter: #ItalyDecadeWar

Conference website: http://www.strath.ac.uk/humanities/schoolofhumanities/newsevents/italysdecadeofwar1935-45ininternationalperspective/

The conference will include a Civic Reception and conference dinner at Glasgow City Chambers (pictured below).


Conference Flyer – Italy’s Decade of War 1935-45

Italy CFP

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Perceptions of Britain in Vichy’s Foreign Policy, 1940-1942

Presented at ‘Britain and France in World War Two’ colloquium, British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, 16 October 2015



In a conversation with Pastor Boegner on 27 May 1941, Admiral Darlan stated: ‘I worked with the English for fifteen years, they always lied to me. I’ve negotiated with the Germans for 3 months, and they have never misled me.’ Boegner pointed out that Hitler had in fact consistently violated the most solemn agreements, but this had little effect upon Darlan.  This self-delusion or wilful amnesia may just have been Darlan seeking to justify his pursuit of collaboration with Germany, but in Vichy, the belief in British duplicity was deeply-rooted and widely-held.

Virtually all of the scholarship on Vichy’s foreign policy portrays a pervasive Anglophobia that was deeply-rooted in resentments and suspicions of British intentions towards France. At the heart of the problem was that the age-old rivalry between Britain and France happened to revolve around the two key assets upon which Vichy’s claims to sovereignty and status as a global power depended: its colonial empire and navy.

I want to explore how in the turbulence of the French collapse, perceptions of Britain operated to become critical shaping factors in Vichy’s foreign policy. Rather than balanced analyses of how French interests might best be protected in the circumstances in which France found itself after the armistice, distrust, suspicion and even paranoia gained new credence. The absence of direct diplomatic contact between the UK and France during much of this period created a vacuum in which suspicions were heightened and in which British actions that conflicted with French interests served to legitimise mistrust. While historians have devoted considerable attention to the factors that drew Vichy into collaborating with Nazi Germany, just as important are the considerations that shaped its move away from its former ally Britain.

It is not difficult to find evidence of the strains in relations in the years leading up to the Second World War. But I want to look briefly at the evidence that Anglophobia had become endemic among the key institutions and individuals who shaped Vichy’s foreign policy.

In the French colonial service, the long history of rivalry with Britain and memories of the Fashoda incident of 1898 loomed large. This deeply-rooted hostility was instrumental in colonial officials’ decision to support Vichy rather than to join with the British and Free French. In the French navy, while many historians have portrayed a similar picture of traditional antipathy towards Britain, the reality is more nuanced. After the initial shock of Mers-el-Kebir, many officers reflected that they did not wish to be drawn into doing Germany’s bidding in engaging in hostilities against Britain.

The pervasiveness of this culture of antipathy towards Britain became significant because under Vichy, senior figures from the army and navy came to occupy key positions of authority over French foreign policy. Viewing Britain through the prism of this anti-British sentiment, they tended to distort and exaggerate the nature of the threat.

Indeed, Peter Jackson and Simon Kitson argue that not only was Admiral Darlan’s strategic vision conditioned by an imperial world-view and the Anglophobia of the French navy but that his whole approach in government was shaped by the ideological and geopolitical vision that he had developed as a naval officer. According to Bernard Costagliola, the navy’s Anglophobia had so embedded itself upon Darlan that he had come to believe that five generations of his family had been ruined by the death of his great grandfather at the hands of the British at Trafalgar, even though none of his relatives had actually fought in the battle.Darlan

What I want to look at is how far these distorted and inflated suspicions of Britain prevailed over balanced, objective analysis in shaping assessments of France’s future at the end of the war and consequently the direction of French foreign policy under Vichy. How far was it the case, as Herve Couteau-Begarie and Claude Huan have suggested, that Darlan’s Anglophobia so blinded him to the realities of Nazi intentions towards France that he believed France would gain more favourable terms from a German victory than a British one?

What is perhaps most striking is how among the relative few voices who argued in favour of Vichy maintaining at least a modus vivendi with the UK, none sought to justify this on grounds of historical or cultural affinity. Instead, arguments rested on notions that a British-led victory would be the least worst option for France.

Justification of suspicion

The very challenging and complex situations in which the French and British governments found themselves during the war caused each to have to defend their interests in ways that were sometimes damaging to the other. Just as the British government was alarmed by some of the actions taken by the French, so a number of actions taken by the British gave Vichy real, legitimate concern.

The first of these was the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July 1940. While Franco-British relations had been tense since the French surrender, it was this act of what Vichy saw as unjustified aggression that caused the formal severing of diplomatic relations between the two states and enabled Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin’s directeur du cabinet, to declare that France was henceforth free from any obligations towards its former ally.


The fallout of Mers-el-Kebir might have been surmountable had it not been followed so soon by a British and Free French attack on Dakar on 23-5 September 1940. The attack on Dakar shattered the détente in Franco-British relations that had been so painstakingly rebuilt after Mers-el-Kebir. The fact that there had been no call for British help from the people of Dakar only fed into Vichy’s narrative of Britain’s malign intentions towards France’s colonial empire. It allowed Baudouin, who had been seeking to improve relations, to assert that the British government was using the threat from the axis as a pretext for eliminating a powerful rival navy and seizing the spoils of a defeated former ally. However legitimate the military and strategic justifications may have been, they did not mitigate what was arguably a political misjudgement that played directly into Vichy’s suspicions. The British bombing of Sfax on 29 May 1941 and the British occupation of Madagascar in mid-1942 only fuelled these beliefs.

Even when the British government did seek to reassure Vichy that it did not have malign intentions, its lack of attention to French sensitivities only aggravated matters. In a note sent to the French government via Madrid on 21 October 1940, the British government sought to assure Vichy that it would restore France’s ‘independence and grandeur’ after the war. The problem was, that the note’s assertion that France was ‘powerless’ to protect its empire from German or Italian infiltration and that it needed British assistance to do so went entirely against Vichy’s insistence that it would defend the sovereignty of its colonial empire. The language of the British note may have been clumsy, but it was a measure of a lack of faith in Vichy’s assurances.

The problem was that French and British governments had fundamentally opposing approaches and priorities in relation to the French colonial empire. A significant gulf emerged between Vichy’s exaggerated insistence that it retained a high level of sovereignty and British suspicions that the French government would be unable to resist axis demands. For the British government, the risk of the French empire and navy falling into axis hands outweighed the need to allay French suspicions. When Baudouin sought assurance (August 1940) that the British government would not seek to detach France’s colonies from Vichy’s control, Churchill refused.

Assessments of British intentions

At the heart of Vichy’s foreign policy were the conflicting impulsions of weighing up the most likely outcome of the war against the preferred outcome. In the initial months after the French surrender, few believed there was any realistic prospect of a British victory. Even as the tide started to turn against axis in 1941, officials at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that the most Britain could hope for was a compromise peace. But whereas diplomats maintained that a German-led victory would be significantly more harmful to France than a British-led one, the likes of Darlan, Laval and Petain maintained the opposite.

Numerous reports, including from sources sympathetic to Vichy, stated that any unpleasantness from having to endure future British domination would be as nothing compared to the territorial and material losses that Germany would impose. In his analysis for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 14 October 1940, Charles-Roux summed up the unanimous view of diplomats in stating that a ‘pax Britannica’ would be infinitely less disadvantageous for us than a ‘pax Germannica’. Without concrete assurances from the axis, Vichy risked playing a ‘fool’s game’ in defending its colonies against the British and the Free French only to find that it then lost them to Germany, Italy or even Spain or Japan later on.

Yet despite criticisms even from colleagues such as General Doyen, the head of the French armistice commission for Germany, that their assessments of German intentions towards France were not based on political realities, Darlan, Laval and Petain continued to maintain that French interests were better safeguarded under Germany than under Britain.

Contrast with Italy

I want to draw a comparison between Vichy’s dogmatic distrust of Britain and the way that Vichy viewed Italy.

As with Britain, France had long-running colonial and naval rivalries with Italy, especially in the Mediterranean. France and Italy had also been allies in the First World War, and their governments had also diverged over the peace terms of 1919. French support for sanctions against Italy over its invasion of Abyssinia, the election of the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War widened tensions between the two states. But as with Britain, it was from the fall of France that a narrative of betrayal developed. The Italian declaration of war on France on 10 June 1940, as it was already on the verge of collapse was widely seen as Italy ‘stabbing’ France in the back. And yet, despite all this, between July 1940 and November 1942, Baudouin, Laval and Darlan each sought rapprochement with Italy claiming it was France’s natural ally.

The need to ease the burden of the German armistice terms led to the creation of a cultural rationale that enabled Vichy to transcend the resentments over past Italian action and suspicions about Italian intentions. Over late summer and early autumn 1940, Laval and Baudouin engaged in sustained efforts at rapprochement with the Italian government, citing cultural and historical affinity as two ‘Latin and Catholic’ countries.

These attempts at an alignment with Fascist Italy were not ideologically-driven efforts in pursuance of collaboration with Germany. Indeed, in the summer and autumn of 1940 and in the winter of 1941, Laval, Baudouin and Darlan sought explicitly to appeal to Mussolini isolate the German government, weaken its domination and pressurise it into granting concessions on the armistice terms.

What this comparison suggests is that cultural perceptions functioned as shaping elements but not determining factors in the formulation of Vichy’s foreign policy.

Amateur diplomats

The sudden, brutal nature of the rupture in Franco-British relations in July 1940 was perhaps best summed by the Marquis de Castellane, the First Secretary to the French embassy in London. Diplomats had spent years working to create an atmosphere of reciprocal trust and friendship between Britain and France. But after the attack on Mers-el-Kebir, ‘this closeness was destroyed within the space of one day […] we suddenly went from the closest of alliances to acts of hostility, a […] situation which has perhaps no precedent in modern history.’

Despite this, I would suggest there was nothing inevitable or irreversible in the rupture in relations. Rather, the picture is one of misunderstanding and wilful misrepresentation due in no small part to the changes and reduction in influence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to Francois Charles-Roux, the secretary-general at the Foreign Ministry, ministers in Vichy suspected the entire French diplomatic service of disapproving of the government’s foreign policy and harbouring sympathies for Britain. As a consequence, many experienced diplomats were recalled, retired, moved or like Charles-Roux, resigned. Foreign policy came increasingly under the domain of two men who had little or little recent experience in foreign affairs. Instead, Laval and Darlan were driven by their own political agendas and personal views. Since leaving office in January 1936, Laval had been cut off from the Quai d’Orsay and was consequently out of touch when he returned to government in June 1940. Darlan’s lack of experience saw him out of his depth and outmanoeuvred. In the negotiations for the Protocols of Paris, for example, he made significant concessions to Germany on the use French airfields in Syria and the port of Bizerte for little in return. French diplomats expressed deep concern at Darlan’s ignorance of Nazi ideology and the delusion of those in Vichy who believed that the final peace terms would be like those at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, in which France would lose Alsace-Lorraine, pay some indemnities, and that would more or less be the end of the matter. The chaotic and inexpert nature of Franco-British relations during this period is epitomised in Louis Rougier’s unofficial mission to Britain in which he exaggerated his authority, misled his interlocutors in London and Vichy and ultimately only made matters worse.

As Baudouin noted in late September 1940, one of the consequences of allowing emotive negative perceptions to prevail over balanced analysis was that Franco-British relations had become a seemingly endless string of unfortunate incidents. And the main beneficiary of these misunderstandings was, of course, Germany.

The podcast of this and other papers presented at the colloquium is now available: https://soundcloud.com/ukinfrance/sets/britain-and-france-in-world-war-two



British Ambassador's Residence, Paris

British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris


Images from the day

British Ambassador's Residence, Paris

British Ambassador’s Residence, Paris


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A Shield against Italy? Vichy and the Defence of French Sovereignty, 1940-42

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.

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France and the Second World War in Global Perspective, 1919-45 Conference: Initial Reflections

The conference sought to re-evaluate the French experience of the Second World War from an international and global perspective, bringing military historians together with diplomatic, international and cultural historians. Speakers engaged with a wide variety of topics and approaches, covering the French colonial empire, including North and West Africa and Indochina, and the policies of allied and axis powers towards Vichy and the Free French. The chronological span of the conference included the interwar period, beginning in 1919. Papers therefore also explored the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities, including research on military cooperation between France and Czechoslovakia, the League of Nations and the factors behind the defeat of 1940. There were also some fascinating comparative analyses of occupation, including the Nazi occupation of Greece. Several speakers addressed the allied bombing of France, while other topics included prisoners of war, the persecution of the Jews and the economic history of the war.

Professor Olivier Wieviorka of the Ecole Normale Supérieur de Cachan delivered the keynote lecture on the first day of the conference on new approaches to the liberation of France. His lecture re-evaluated the role played by the French resistance and considered the exceptional nature of the speed of the liberation and the relatively low levels of casualties. The plenary session on second day of the conference began with Professor Talbot Imlay of Université Laval, who spoke about approaches to the German occupation of France and the need to construct a Franco-German transactional history. This was then followed by Professor Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow, who addressed the neglected subject of the foreign policy of the Vichy government, emphasising the ideological dimension to the regime’s dealings with Germany and Italy as well as the allied powers. Professor Martin Thomas of the University of Exeter responded to both speakers, suggesting that the occupation might be understood through a colonial framework. The keynote lectures were filmed and will be made available on the University of Strathclyde website.

The conference was attended by seventy-one delegates, of whom twenty-four were postgraduates. Speakers came from over fourteen countries, including Australia, Israel, South Korea, France, Russia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Japan, America, Canada, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Belgium. The Higher Education Attachée to the French Embassy in London, Dr Catherine Robert, also attended the conference. Delegates received a warm welcome at the civic reception hosted by Bailie Philip Braat of Glasgow City Council, followed by the conference dinner at Glasgow City Chambers.

The conference was a great success in bringing together a diverse and truly international group of speakers, prompting many fresh debates and new approaches seventy years on from the end of the war. Selected papers from the conference will be published in a special issue of Global War Studies.

Read the Storify of the conference

Left to right: Rogelia Pastor-Castro, Lindsey Dodd, Olivier Wieviorka, Shannon Fogg, Andrew Knapp, Karine Varley

Left to right: Rogelia Pastor-Castro, Lindsey Dodd, Olivier Wieviorka, Shannon Fogg, Andrew Knapp, Karine Varley

Conference dinner, Glasgow City Chambers, 2 July 2015

Conference dinner, Glasgow City Chambers, 2 July 2015

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‘A stab in the back’: Mussolini’s declaration of war against France, 10 June 1940

  • 75th anniversary of Italian declaration of war against France
  • Italian invasion and occupation of France often neglected
  • Many in France saw it as a betrayal

The Italian declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 has often been forgotten or neglected, as attention focuses instead upon the German invasion and occupation. Seventy-five years on, however, it is now time to reassess the significance of this episode. Italy’s invasion of France allowed Mussolini to proclaim victory over the French army and so occupy parts of southern and eastern France, as well as Corsica. Being more concerned with the war on the continent, Hitler handed Mussolini control over upholding the armistice terms in the Mediterranean. In practice, this meant that Italy extended its jurisdiction over the crucial territories of French North Africa. With Italy threatening to annex the French territories of Nice, Savoie and Corsica, and with Mussolini seeking to realise his ambitions to create a new Roman empire, the Italian declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 had far-reaching consequences.



In many respects Italy and France were not natural enemies. If Germany was popularly regarded as France’s ‘hereditary enemy’, linguistic and cultural affinities made Italy seem like France’s ‘Latin sister’. Indeed, France’s relationship with Italy seemed the very opposite of its relationship with Germany. French intervention in the wars against Austria helped to bring about Italian unification in 1860 and many French veterans of the First World War remembered fighting alongside Italian soldiers when Italy entered the conflict in 1915. By contrast, German unification resulted from a bitter war against France in 1870-71 and, of course, the two nations fought against each other again in 1914-18.

Yet some in Italy harboured simmering resentments towards France. This bitterness came to a head when Italy emerged from the Paris peace talks of 1919 without the gains it had been promised by Britain and France. In 1935, French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval attempted rapprochement with Italy, but his efforts were largely thwarted by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1937. After the Munich crisis of 1938, France sought to repair the damage, but the initiative was cut short when on 29 November 1938, the French ambassador André François-Poncet’s visit to the Italian chamber of deputies was rudely interrupted by loud shouts of ‘Nice, Savoy, Corsica, Djibouti’. Despite the Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano insisting that the incident was spontaneous, the provocation had been planned and signalled an aggressive new tone to Italy’s dealings with France.

Despite signing the Pact of Steel with Germany in May 1939, Italy was not militarily ready to engage in conflict when war erupted in September. Historians have therefore debated the reasons that Mussolini decided to dismiss the protests of his political and military leadership to enter a war for which Italy was not prepared. Many historians have accepted Badoglio’s suggestion that despite the Italian entry to the war, Mussolini intended to leave the road open to future rapprochement with France as a counter-balance to Germany in Europe. However, Magregor Knox has rejected the notion of a kind of Italian phoney war in which Mussolini would declare war but not wage it, arguing that this was little more than a claim fabricated by Badoglio. On 1 June 1940, Badoglio pleaded with Mussolini to delay engaging in action against France, so that the army could prepare itself. His calls went unheeded, however, as Mussolini realised that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in the east and rapid German success in the west offered a golden opportunity to realise his territorial ambitions. Observing the rapid collapse of the French army in May 1940 and calculating that the fall of Britain could not be far behind, on 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and Britain.

A week passed, and still the Italian army still not ready for action. Hitler told Mussolini that France had agreed to enter negotiations for an armistice and that not having contributed towards the campaign, Italy would not be able to participate in the negotiations as a victor. Against the opposition of Badoglio, General Graziani and Ciano, Mussolini therefore ordered his forces to launch an immediate offensive against France in the Alps.

Between September 1939 and the Italian declaration of war, the French government remained divided on how to treat Italy. While long-running rivalries over Tunisia and Italian bitterness over the peace terms of 1919 cast a shadow during the interwar years, there remained a good deal of fluidity in French relations with Italy. Indeed, in 1935, France had signed an important set of political and military accords with Italy in the hope that it would serve as a counterweight to Germany and Britain. French support for sanctions against Italy over its invasion of Abyssinia, the rise of the anti-Fascist Popular Front in 1936, and the Spanish Civil War may have strained relations, but they did not end hopes of agreement. Over the course of 1939, the Italian army under Marshal Badoglio remained in contact with French military chiefs, and continued to regard Germany as the common enemy. The French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet therefore believed that Italy might still be persuaded to switch its neutrality into an active partnership and even alliance with France as it had done during the First World War.

The nature of the Italian declaration of war combined with the character of the armistice meant that between 1940 and the Italian surrender in 1943, relations between France and Italy were conducted within a very different framework to those between France and Germany. Widely perceived as representing a ‘stab in the back’ for a French nation that was already on the verge of defeat by Germany, the Italian government’s actions poisoned relations between the two states for the remainder of the war. The weak performance of the Italian army against French forces in the Alps only added insult to injury. As a result, the government of Paul Reynaud and the Vichy regime which replaced it openly and explicitly refused to accept that France had been defeated by Italy. The contrast between acceptance and even grudging respect for Germany’s military achievement in defeating the French army, and disdain and denial for Italy’s unscrupulousness could scarcely have been greater.

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France and the Second World War in Global Perspective, 1919-45

France and the Second World War in Global Perspective, 1919-45

Provisional programme

Conference Registration available here

Conference dates: 2-3 July 2015
In conjunction with Global War Studies

Keynote speakers:Talbot Imlay (Université Laval)Peter Jackson (University of Glasgow)Olivier Wieviorka (Ecole Normale Supérieur de Cachan)Martin Thomas (Exeter) Discussant

World war poster_NEW As the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War approaches, this conference seeks to re-evaluate the experiences and roles played by France during the war and its lead-up. Its aim is to explore France in the Second World War from a global as well as domestic perspective, including the interwar years of shifting foreign relations, international entanglements, political upheaval and military build-up. What new approaches might scholars bring to the history of the Vichy regime, collaboration, resistance, liberation, and the German and Italian occupations of France and Corsica? How have historians’ understandings of the roles played by the French colonial empire and colonial forces changed? How might international, transnational or comparative approaches contribute towards developing new avenues of research in this area? How have military histories of the preparations for war, the defeat of 1940, the defence of French colonies, and the liberation been informed by these new approaches? Possible topics might include:

  • French foreign relations during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Preparations for war
  • The defeat of 1940
  • The Vichy regime
  • Collaboration and Resistance
  • The German and Italian occupation of France
  • French wartime relations with Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union
  • The French colonial empire at war
  • The liberation of France

This conference aims to bring together scholars working in the fields of military, political, cultural, diplomatic, international, colonial, transnational, and comparative history, and encourages interdisciplinary contributions. The conference proceedings will be published as a special issue of Global War Studies, and may include an edited volume (monograph) as well. Submissions for the proceedings should be received by 15 October 2015.

Follow us on Twitter: @FranceWW2Global, and use: #FranceWW2Global The conference will include a civic reception and conference dinner at Glasgow City Chambers.

city chambers interior (2)city-chambersbanqueting hall

The conference is part of a wider series of events to mark the end of the Second World War: Britain and France in War and Peace. Events include colloquia at the British Embassy in Paris and the Institut Français in London in October and November 2015.

Britain and France in war and peace


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Occupiers who became Liberators: Remembering and Forgetting the Italian Occupation of France

The Italian occupation of parts of France and Corsica never quite fitted the wider dominant narrative of the French struggle against the Nazi occupation. Concepts of occupation and liberation seem bizarrely inverted. After occupying Corsica for 10 months, when Italy surrendered in September 1943, significant numbers of Italian soldiers switched sides to fight against German forces to liberate the island.

This picture of an occupation and liberation at odds with received ideas has for a long time been largely absent from French memories of the Second World War. What I want to explore today is why it has seemingly been forgotten. Perhaps the most obvious answer to the question is that the Italian occupation has been overshadowed because it was smaller in scale and was less violent than the German occupation, the Italian zone becoming a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution from the Nazis and Vichy. But I want to move away from ex post facto myths of Italiani brava gente that sought to portray Italian occupying soldiers having been essentially good-natured, shaped by strong family values and incapable of committing the atrocities committed by German soldiers during the war. Instead, I want to suggest that the key reasons for its absence lie in the complex historical and cultural connections between France and Italy, which, in war, made them entangled enemies. These entanglements served to distort and complicate notions of occupation and liberation.

 Defeat of 1940

From the outset, the nature of the Italian occupation was very different to the German occupation. Whereas the German victory over France was militarily emphatic, the Italian victory was not. Italy only declared war on France on 10 June 1940, when the country was already on the verge of collapse under German invasion, after Mussolini realised that Italy might miss the opportunity to realise longstanding claims over Nice, Savoie, Corsica and Tunisia. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the French people and even the Vichy government openly and explicitly refused to accept that France had been defeated by Italy.

The initial Italian occupation zone, set out under the armistice terms of 24 June 1940, was very small, comprising around 800 square kilometres around Menton and the mountains of Savoie. But with the complete occupation of France from 11 November 1942, Italian occupying forces entered eleven departments in south-eastern France as well as Corsica, establishing a much bigger zone of occupation.

The relatively benign nature of the Italian armistice terms did not mean that Italy was a benign enemy. While Germany may have been France’s main enemy, for people living in south-eastern France and Corsica, the fear of annexation meant that their main enemy was Italy.

 The problem was, however, that centuries of close cultural ties and migration had produced complex and fluid identities. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, France was home to around 900,000 Italian migrants, but in border communities and regions historically connected with Italy, virtually every family had Italian connections. This gave the Italian occupation a distinct and in some respects, even more complex character than the German occupation.

Relations between Population and Italian Occupation Forces

I want first to turn to the relations between the occupied French communities and Italian occupiers. The solidarities that sometimes developed between them were not so much because the Italian occupiers were ‘brava gente’ but were a measure of the cultural, social and often familial affinities that many Italian soldiers held with the local French populations and the regions they occupied. Most French people living near the Italian border spoke Italian, and Piedmontese soldiers spoke a dialect similar to the Savoyard spoken in the area they were occupying. The fact that unlike the Wehrmacht, the Italian army had not been fully fascisised, meant that cultural connections, strengthened by long periods of close contact with occupied communities, overrode often weak or non-existent loyalties to the Fascist regime. As the occupation wore on into 1943, disenchantment for some Italian soldiers became indifference for others. Italian officers noted that many of their men were ceasing to behave like an enemy army and were integrating into French communities. Some Italian soldiers who had worked as agricultural labourers before the war returned to their old employers to help out with the harvests once again.

Within French communities, the Italian occupiers were viewed through the prism of a long history of entanglements with Italy. The problem was that these entanglements brought not just cultural affinities but historical resentments. In Corsica, hostility towards the Italian occupiers drew upon deeply-embedded cultural memories of four hundred years of resistance to Genoese rule before 1768.

Empathy and connections with the Italian soldiers did not mean that they ceased to be perceived as the enemy. Contacts may have been facilitated by linguistic similarities, but French women who had relationships with Italian soldiers were condemned in the same way as those who had relationships with the Germans. Nor did affinities with the Italians erode anger at their mounting repression and requisitions. Therein lay the key to the tensions at the heart of the Italian occupation. It was precisely because they held such close connections with the Italian occupiers that communities in south-eastern France and Corsica so deeply resented their actions and rejected their claims.

Italian surrender

Throughout the war, and especially after the fall of Mussolini on 23 July 1943, French resistance groups had appealed for support from Italian communities and Italian soldiers. But few Italian soldiers actually joined the French resistance before the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943.

Liberation of Corsica

In Corsica, news of the Italian surrender triggered an insurrection in which the Corsican resistance seized power from Vichy. The Italian forces were offered neutrality, but around 20% – 16,000 men led by General Magli, the commander of the Italian occupying forces in Corsica – decided to join Corsicans in fighting 20,000 German soldiers who had arrived in June 1943 along with thousands being evacuated from Sardinia through Corsica. Around three times as many Italian soldiers died fighting to liberate Corsica as Corsicans and French soldiers added together. Between 9 September and 4 October 1943, 72 Free French soldiers of the Army of North Africa and 170 Corsican resistance fighters were killed in action, compared with 637 Italians.

Why did so many Italian soldiers go from being occupiers to being liberators? And, in particular, why did they decide to fight German forces after they had been ordered to evacuate Corsica peacefully? In his memoirs, published in 1950, General Magli provided some clues. He sought to replace memories of the repressive occupation that he had led with images of heroic self-sacrifice. He claimed that Italian forces had ‘prevented the Germans from occupying Corsica and sowing terror and death’ as they had done in mainland France. He went on to state that not only had his men helped bring liberation, but they had stuck around to repair damaged infrastructure as well.  Magli’s motives might have been opportunistic, but the fact that so many Italian soldiers chose to fight, and in some cases sacrifice their lives, suggests that their motives were not simply self-preservation. For a minority, such as the blackshirts colonel Cagnioni, it was about rejecting Fascism. In mid-August 1943, Cagnioni voluntarily handed the Corsican resistance 340 pages of German and Italian strategic plans, wanting revenge against the regime he had always despised. Others might have been driven by desires to make amends for the occupation. For many, their decision was a measure of their connections with the occupied population. Indeed, Corsican resistance appeals to ‘Latin fraternity’ from Italian soldiers in August and September 1943 were not just opportunistic; they were driven by a complex sense of the entanglements between the Italian occupiers and the people of the regions they occupied.

Tensions immediately after liberation

For many Corsicans, especially members of the resistance, the Italian contribution towards the liberation did not efface or atone for the occupation. As General Gambiez testified a few days after the liberation, ‘Magli’s forces lost the character of occupying troops and even contributed to a certain extent to the liberation. But Corsicans don’t forget that they had suffered under the fascist yoke’.

Worse still, the liberation of Corsica soon starts to look like it might become a ‘victoire escamotée’, a victory snatched from the Corsicans and the Free French forces. Having successfully fought to liberate their island, the employment of 5500 former Italian occupiers to repair the damaged infrastructure caused considerable anger among Corsicans, especially as 15,000 Corsican men were mobilised to North Africa, creating a labour shortage that was filled by Italian migrants. With so many Italian soldiers having fought to liberate Corsica and the fact that they were no longer treated as the enemy, Corsica now started to seem more vulnerable to Italian claims than it had been before the liberation.  On 17 September 1944, René Massigli warned that Italian public opinion continued to believe that Italy had legitimate territorial claims over France. In view of this, ‘it would be dangerous if this short-lived collaboration, born of a shared hatred, could one day be invoked on the Italian side. We must not allow a situation to arise in which in the future, it can be claimed that the Italians helped us to reconquer a French department.’ He therefore instructed French officials, to ‘never use the word “co-belligerent”’ in relation to Italy.

So we very quickly see signs of the Italian contribution to the liberation of Corsica being downplayed or disregarded altogether. At a news conference on 5 October 1943, De Gaulle gave the Italian forces no more credit than to say that they ‘did not aid or impede the liberation of [Corsica]’.  De Gaulle, of course, was keen to present the liberation of Corsica as being led by the Free French forces, supported by the resistance and the French people. To have admitted that it might have been secured with help from a former enemy would have been at best humiliating and at worst damaging to the political future of France.

The Communists, keen to highlight their own role, also immediately sought to efface the actions of Italian forces, describing the liberation as having been ‘an exclusively French’ affair. 


The Italian occupation is scarcely commemorated in mainland France. In film and literature, representations of the Italian occupation are few and far between, being overwhelmingly dominated by the German occupation.  This year has been the 70th anniversary of the liberation from German occupation. The 70th anniversary of the end of the Italian occupation passed unobserved.

Since 1945, the experiences of the Italian occupation zone in mainland France have been subsumed into wider narratives centring on resistance and collaboration in relation to Nazi Germany. De Gaulle perhaps best incarnates this perspective, with his claims of a thirty year war against Germany that began in 1914. Quite simply, the ambiguities of the Italian occupation did not fit narratives of the war against Germany.

A handful of war memorials in Corsica make reference to the Italian occupation, although all qualify it as an Italian Fascist occupation, and most simply refer to the ‘Fascists’. The Italian contribution to the liberation does not feature on any.

The growth of violent autonomist movements in Corsica since the 1970s has meant that political leaders have portrayed the war as an expression of Corsica’s will to remain French. At the 50th anniversary commemorations in 1993, Mitterrand presented the liberation as a Corsican and French solidarity forged through struggle. In his speech for last year’s 70th anniversary commemorations, delivered after a heavy downpour of rain in Bastia, Hollande only went so far as to state that, ‘disorientated by the armistice, some Italians chose with honour the side of the democracies’. In this politicised agenda of combatting Corsican nationalism, there can be no room to admit that Corsica owed its liberation in significant part to Italian rather than French liberators.


In his study of French confrontations with memories of the Second World War, Henry Rousso argues that the traumas of the occupation and the nation’s internal divisions revealed themselves in France’s political, social, and cultural life, producing a set of symptoms that he describes as the ‘Vichy Syndrome’. His analysis of repressed memories and obsessions does not, however, include memories of the Italian occupation, mainly because many of the most problematic memories of collaboration and the persecution of the Jews relate to French dealings with Nazi Germany. So how can we account for the absence of memories of the Italian occupation and the Italian role in the liberation of Corsica?

Influenced by the field of neurology, scholarship on memory often dismisses forgetting as a ‘malfunction’ of memory. Yet memory and forgetting are closely connected.  At the heart of Pierre Nora’s seminal work on lieux de mémoire, or realms of memory, is the notion that modern societies move inexorably towards a state of forgetting.  Indeed, while some types of forgetting may be caused by desired avoidance, without it, societies risk being locked in turmoil. 

After the liberation, desires for reconciliation with wartime enemies gained urgency with the onset of the Cold War. As levels of migration from Italy rose once again, anti-Italian sentiment returned, mixing old hostilities towards Italian immigrants with more recent resentments from the war. Memories of the Italian occupation did not, of course, suddenly vanish. It was rather that in this postwar context, they became shrouded in silence. Eviatar Zerubavel suggests that collective forgetting might better be reconceived as conspiracies of silence or open secrets in which uncomfortable memories that might be widely shared may be absent from public discourse, hidden in plain sight. They may in turn be surrounded by a ‘meta-silence’, in which the silence itself is never discussed. These concepts of silence help shed light upon the complex relationship between individual memory and social or collective forgetting.

If anything, cultural and social connections made memories of the Italian occupation especially difficult and distinctions between occupier and liberator particularly complex. Eight months after the liberation of Corsica, Emanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, concluded ‘even if Corsica continues to exhibit anti-Italian sentiments, the affinity between the Corsican population and the Italian elements stationed on the island cannot be denied.’ Ultimately, the occupation had, he argued, been like a ‘family quarrel’. As entangled enemies during the war and interconnected communities after it, French and Italian communities’ experiences of occupation and liberation may have been a subject of silence, but it could not simply be consigned to oblivion.

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