Professional Traitors: "Vertrauen Männer" in France during the Second World War

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Continental A (Hilton Chicago)
Benedetta Luciana Sara Carnaghi, Cornell University
Robert Alesch was a Luxembourger. He was ordained in 1933 and settled in France in 1935, becoming vicar at La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire. While he passed himself off in his sermons as an opponent of the Nazis, he was in reality an agent in their service. Priest during the day, he lived with two mistresses on rue Spontini in Paris and was paid 12,000 francs monthly to gain entry into Resistance circles and denounce their members.

Alesch was one of the many Nazi spies deployed in France during the Second World War. Who, my paper asks, were these traitors, and what were their motives? How can we conceptualize treason using Nazi spies as a case study? The German authorities systematized treason after the French defeat: They created the Vertrauen Männer (VMs), literally the “men of confidence”—double agents whose main task was to infiltrate groups that represented any form of opposition to the Nazi occupation. Some of these traitors began as members of the Resistance, then were arrested by the Nazis and agreed to work for them in exchange for their safety.

Most VMs were identified, tried, and condemned after the war. Some of those who were French defended themselves against the accusation of treason by arguing that they had simply obeyed Vichy France’s spirit of “collaboration.” They wanted to be tried for making a political mistake, rather than for having deliberately harmed their homeland and condemned the Resistance members and all those the Resistance was protecting to arrest, potential deportation, and death. The long-lasting debate around affaires such as René Hardy’s—suspected of being instrumental in the arrest of a high-profile member of the Resistance, Jean Moulin—illuminate how the stigma of treason as well as constructs of disloyalty and responsibility continue to affect French society today.

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