Moussia 48: 1941-1943 Antonini’s activities during the German occupation of France

1941. Giacomo Antonini in discussion with dr. Otto Abetz, German ambassador in France (left) and with a German officer in the uniform of a lieutenant-colonel. My guess is that he is Heinz Schmidtke, chief of the Propaganda Staffel, responsible for the censorship of all cultural life in France – press, literature, radio, film, theatre, music – with offices in fifty cities all over France. Schmidtke arrived in Paris in July 1940 as a major and was soon promoted to lieutenant-colonel.

After the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, the Germans moved swiftly to bring cultural life in France under their control. This had all been prepared before the war. Yet, there was confusion, even rivalry, between two different entities, on the one hand the German Embassy under Ambassador Otto Abetz, in a general cultural role, taking orders from Joachim von Ribbentrop, the minister of Foreign Affairs – and, on the other hand, the Propaganda Staffel under Heinz Schmidtke which was charged with censorship of all cultural activities.

The Propaganda Staffel came formally under the Commander of the occupation army, but for all practical purposes under the German Ministry of Education of the People and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, with whom Schmidtke had a direct line of communication. Sonderführer Gerhard Heller (with the rank of lieutenant) was Schmidtke’s right hand man. The name of Heller, a Nazi since before 1933, is still known in France today because he gave his approval to the publication of some works by anti-fascist authors, like Albert Camus.

Otto Abetz (1903-58) was a Francophile from his early youth onwards. In 1930, together with his best friend in France, Jean Luchaire, he founded a Germano-French cultural youth group, the Sohlberg Circle. In 1932, he married a French woman, Suzanne de Bruykere, Jean Luchaire’s secretary. Like Jean Luchaire, he had had socialist leanings before embracing Fascism. He joined the Nazi party in 1931. Having entered the diplomatic service in 1935, he became Germany’s ambassador to France already in 1938 but was extradited in 1939 as a spy. He was back in France in July 1940, again as Germany’s ambassador.

Jean Luchaire (1901-1946) was a French journalist and press baron. Son of Professor Julien Luchaire, historian and writer, he was born in Siena, Italy. His father was a professor at Florence University. Unlike his father, he supported Fascism. In 1940, he founded Les Nouveaux Temps, a collaborationist newspaper. Loyal supporter and minister of the Pétain Government, he became the President of the Paris Press Association and, later, of the French National Press Corporation.

It is in this milieu that Moussia found her husband, when she returned from the United States in the spring of 1941. In this milieu  he would continue to function until the summer of September 1943.

In his new capacity as Paris bureau chief of the Stefani Press Agency, being fluent in German,  he was introduced to Heinz Schmidtke on May 13, 1941, by the Italian Press Attaché, Francesco Anfuso, brother of Filippo Anfuso, the right-hand man of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Foreign Secretary. The two men soon became friends. Schmidtke’s girlfriend, Ira de Poligny, had a Russian mother and got on well with Moussia.

Antonini’s first objective was to re-activate the Stefani Press Service in Paris. Introduced by Schmidtke, he met Ambassador Abetz as early as on May 23 1941. Abetz offered him part-time use of his diplomatic wire service so that he could get in reliable touch with Stefani in Rome.  According to Antonini’s memory notes, Abetz explained to him that he was a fervent supporter of French collaboration with the New Order in Europe,  providing it was firmly based on a radical change of mentality between France on the one hand  and Germany and Italy on the other hand, while France would have to make war reparations in kind or in money to those two countries.

In the summer of 1941, Antonini was promoted, once again on the recommendation of Francesco Anfuso, to the position of President of the International Press Association of Italy. To celebrate the occasion, he gave a reception in the Italian Embassy in Paris, during which the three pictures shown in this article were taken. I have ‘sifted’ the Internet diligently in order to identify the people in the photos and the results are shown in the captions.

Antonini befriended Robert Brasillach. Brasillach was the editor of the weekly “Je suis partout”, the principal collaborationist newspaper, with anti-Semite overtones, during the German occupation, and renewed his friendship with Jean Luchaire whom he had known as a boy in the primary school ‘Michelangelo’ in Florence.

The only source of information about his activities in Paris in the period 1941 until July 25 1943, the day of the fall of Mussolini, is Antonini himself, in the memoirs he dictated to his wife Karin between 1979 and 1983, the year of his death.

It would appear that he felt he was just carrying out his professional duty for Stefani and the Italian Embassy, while  building his network with Italian publishers and writers, without any particular scruples. He put his acquaintance with Schmidtke to good use and succeeded in:

  • ensuring that the editor Michel Gallimard, friend of Albert Camus, was not sent to a forced labour camp
  • bringing about the escape of a Hungarian journalist whom the Gestapo thought was a Jew
  • saving the life of his Jewish friend Michel Forstetter, a translator of Russian, betrayed to the French police by French fellow citizens

However, there is no mention in these memoirs of anti-Semite literature, or of expropriation and deportation of Jews, although many of his regular acquaintances were involved in these activities. Already in the summer of 1940, Abetz had organized the expropriation of rich Jewish families. In March 1941 began the orchestration of anti-Jewish propaganda and the establishment of filing systems to register all Jews. After these preparations, the deportations of Jews began March 27 1941. The obligation to wear yellow was announced in May. The terrible large-scale  razzia, by the French police,  the round-up of some 13000 Jews in the indoor cycling stadium Vel’ d’Hiv, took place on 16 and 17 July, 1942.

Otto Abetz and his deputy Rudolf Schleier were heavily implicated in these crimes.

In 1949, Otto Abetz was tried in France and condemned to twenty years in prison but he was freed very soon, in 1954. Together with his wife, he was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1959.

Rudolf Schleier was transferred to Berlin in 1943 and  escaped arrest by the French authorities. He died in 1959.

Jean Luchaire was condemned to death for having collaborated with the enemy and was executed at Fort de Châtillon, at Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, on February 1946, despite testimony in his favour by his friend Otto Abetz.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, front man of the cultural collaboration with the German occupiers and editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française replacing, in 1940,  Jean Paulhan (Antonini’s friend after the war) at the behest of the Propaganda Staffel, went underground and committed suicide.

Robert Brasillach was condemned to death in 1945 for having committed ‘intellectual crimes’ and executed, after General de Gaulle had refused amnesty. The petition for amnesty was signed by the writers Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Daniel-Rops, Albert Camus, Marcel Aymé, Jean Paulhan, Roland Dorgelès, Jean Cocteau,  Colette, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Anouilh and many others.

1941. Giacomo Antonini with his friend Jean Luchaire (in the middle) and the man on the right, who could be Sonderführer Gerhard Heller. For comparison, see the pictures below.

Left: Jean Luchaire. Right: a well known photo showing Gerhard Heller (in uniform) with a group of French writers whom he accompanied during a visit to Germany in November 1941, at the invitation of Joseph Goebbels. Next to Heller: Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle, further to the right Georg Rabuse, Robert Brasillach, Abel Bonnard, André Fraigneau.

So far I have been able to identify with confidence only one person on this picture: Ambassador Abetz’s second-in-command Rudolf Schleier, second from right. The man whose cigar is being lit by Antonini looks remarkably like  Filippo Anfuso , the chief of staff of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Foreign Minister.

(to be continued)

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