Vichy Film Propaganda
The Second World War was a difficult time in history for France. The German army, employing new military tactics, quickly defeated the French Army and and forced the British Expeditionary Force to evacuate the continent from the port city of Dunkirk. These new tactics were part of a new offensive strategy called Blitzkrieg that was essential to the German army’s rapid conquest of the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
This decisive German victory was the final straw that led to the breakdown of an already declining France. Its collapse was a result of many causes: moral, military, economic, social and political. But to the conservative, anti-republican elements within France, her defeat was primarily a moral problem; a decadent, self centered morality perpetuated by the bourgeois democracy. Its pluralistic nature, with groups vying for their own interests, was prone to disunity. The collective advancement of the nation was of secondary interest, and because of this, France’s social and political structures were also in decline. In many respects the French conservatives were right.
Yet both conservatives and republicans were also able to understand France’s collapse in terms of its declining vitality. France had been over extended in the Napoleonic wars, leading to low birth rates throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. The Great War was more deadly for France, having mobilized more men and having more of them killed or wounded than any of the other belligerents. This caused great damage to the psyche of the French people, and in effect, many of the men called up in September of 1939 were already war weary from the experiences of their mutilated or dead fathers or the emotional trauma of their widowed mothers. A new war against a reenergized and dynamic Germany was the last thing France or its people wanted. Germany’s demographic superiority, along with its rapidly growing economic base, gave France little hope in maintaining hegemony on the continent of Europe. Essentially, she would be unable to resist the German mass: a nation of 80 million people with a primarily industrial rather than agricultural economy versus France, a nation of 40 million people with a primarily agricultural rather than industrial economy. How could France defend herself against a nation with twice the economic and demographic strength whose military product was both technically superior and more numerous?
Unlike the defeat of other European countries at the hands of the Germans whose governments refused to actively collaborate in the organization of a new, Nazi Europe, the Vichy government publicly proclaimed its support for the new European order. The new government made France’s economic, diplomatic and colonial resources available to the Axis Powers, defending its possession of Syria against British troops and giving its possessions in Indochina to Japan. Thus, the French catastrophe was much more than a simple military defeat; it was a conservative counter-revolution. French conservatives welcomed the opportunity to reshape the moral, political and economic structure of their nation, even if it meant collaboration with the Nazis. The Vichy government unveiled their program of national regeneration in the form of the “The National Revolution.”
Vichy’s political theory was composed of various strands of conservative, anti republican thought, much of which predated any Nazi or fascist ideology. One of the strands was the monarchistic, anti-parliamentarist and counter-revolutionary nationalism of Charles Maurras and the Action Française movement, which found a kinship with the new right wing ideologies. Central to this conservative thought was the idea of integral nationalism and the belief in a highly ordered society under strong leadership. Integral nationalism, with its defense of social hierarchy and its concept of cooperation between the social classes, was highly compatible with the principles of corporate cooperation advocated by the Fascists. Also present in the composition of Vichy political theory was the strand of old fashioned Roman Catholic conservatism, whose fear of Communism as engendered by the Popular Front and the Spanish Civil War pushed it towards accepting fascism as the defender against this godless ideology. Fascism itself was also part of the mix, espousing the destruction of democratic liberties to make room for a dictatorship in the image of those established in Germany and Italy.
It could also be argued, as Hannah Arendt does in Origins of Totalitarianism, that the decline of the French Republic was clearly visible at the turn of the century, when conservative, anti-republican elements used the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer of the French General Staff who was falsely accused and convicted of being a spy for Germany, as a battleground against the Republic. Dreyfus was eventually acquitted of all charges, but his exoneration sparked massive anti-government sentiment and anti-semitism. The term Anti-Dreyfusard was used as a label for all that is anti-republican, anti-democratic and anti-semitic. The Anti-Dreyfusards did not hesitate using the anti-semitic rhetoric that the French Republic was under the influence of the Jews and the power of the banks. Arendt believed that France’s collapse in 1940 was due to the fact that there were no more true Dreyfusards, “no one who believed that democracy and freedom, equality and justice could any longer be defended or realized under the republic.” Pétain’s Vichy government was more a product of Anti-Dreyfusardism than a product of German Nazism. Therefore, the rise of these conservative and right wing elements can be attributed to the French Republic’s loss of its progressive mission in the world. The spirit and principles of the French Revolution were no longer able to inspire the French people. Conservative, anti-republican ideas grew after the Dreyfus affair. These sentiments grew even more rapidly during the pre-war years, especially among the upper bourgeoisie and nobility and, it was from these groups that the officers of the French army were recruited. The conservative generals preferred order under foreign, fascist domination than to defend the declining Third Republic in a heroic, last stand.
In the beginning of the War, there was a peculiar lack of all propaganda to explain the French nation’s reason for fighting. Even though a war such as this one would seem to be a defense of the French nation’s sovereignty and territory, there were ideological reasons for fighting as well. The Third Republic was fighting for its survival, for France’s independence and national integrity. Both France and Great Britain were fighting for the principles of collective security and of international order without which there could be no peace. Above all, they were fighting to preserve democracy and all of its spiritual and moral qualities that the French and the British had become accustom to. Yet the government of the Third Republic did virtually nothing to rally the French people around these important causes. The Vichy government would not make the same mistake as the Third Republic; they would make full use of the instruments of propaganda to promote the new European order and France’s part in it.
The National Revolution was promoted as the remedy for the corruption and “false” ideas of the Third Republic. Robert Gildea describes the essentials of this program of national regeneration in his book Marianne in Chains: “Selfishness was to be replaced by dutifulness, decadence by discipline, individualism by community spirit, division by unity.” A variety of propaganda methods helped spread the “Revolution from Above.” Film, and specifically the documentary, was one of the instruments of propaganda used by the Vichy government and the German occupiers. These films informed its viewers of the economic and cultural problems that plagued the Third Republic, backing up its claims with revisionist history.
Immediately after the signing of the Armistice, the Germans wanted to have full control of the French cinema in order to disseminate its own ideological propaganda. But the Vichy government was able to negotiate some degree of autonomy for the industry. The Cinema Department, linked to the Secretariat General of Information, was created by the Vichy government to oversee all aspects of the French Film industry. It was charged with implementing a corporate structure to the professions involved in film making. For the first time in history, the French film industry was placed under the control of the state. Raoul Ploquin, the first director of the Comité d’organisation de l’industrie cinématographique (COIC), declared that the documentary was the media was best suited to promote a new morality to the nation. The primary function of the directors of French Cinema, as dictated by the German occupiers, was to promote the idea of a new Europe.
La tragédie de Mers El-Kébir is a documentary that tells the story of the tragic British attack on the French fleet docked at Mers El-Kebir. In the official Vichy version of events, the massive damage and the loss of life is dramatically emphasized through the successive display of disturbingly violent images accompanied by heart wrenching music. Missing are the details and circumstances of the British ultimatum to the French fleet before the mayhem. Instead, the British naval squadron is portrayed as having subjected the French Admiral Gensoul to conditions that were unacceptable. The tragedy that unfolded was thus a crime that the British perpetuated upon the French without just provocation. In this documentary, the effect of reality is a vehicle in which the use of a singular montage imposes a fictitious version of events.. The authors utilized a diverse selection of images and put them together to enhance their version of the truth.
The grand theme of the National Revolution was given a voice in Images et paroles du maréchal Pétain. In thirty minutes, the documentary summarizes the essential ingredients that make up the great leader. After presenting three generic photographs of Pétain (as a soldier, decorated after the battle of Verdun, and as a marshall), references to the military subtly disappear and the image of a mystical leader is put in place. The film explains that appeasement of the Nazis is necessary for the regeneration of the nation. The Premier assures us that the physical and moral education of the young necessary for the regeneration of the French race is underway. The adage “du travail, de la discipline et de honneur” (work, discipline and honor), is repeated over and over again in the film and is the replacement for the defunct Republic’s liberté, équalité et fraternité (freedom, equality and brotherhood). The theme of joining traditional values to modern technology is a also reoccurring theme in Vichy propaganda: traditional peasant values are enhanced by the products of modernity to enhance agricultural production. The inefficiencies that plagued a declining France were being addressed. The film emphasizes that the national interest is the first priority of the Vichy government.
In Français, vous avez une memoire courte, National Socialism is touted as the defender of Europe against communism. It retraces the history of the Russian Revolution and the expansion of communism in the world and its consequences. In many other works, the new fascist Europe is championed as the best alternative to the decadent liberal democracies of Britain and the United States and the dangerous experiment of collectivism in Russia.
An especially disturbing element of Vichy government propaganda was its propagation of hate against the Jews. in Le péril juif, Jews are portrayed as a lazy race who is motivated by excessive profit. The film makers take us on a trip to the Jewish ghettos in Poland and tries to show the primitive Jew in his element. The Jewish ghettos so completely impoverished because of the Nazi overlords and because of this, the Jews are shown to be living like rats without proper sanitation; this is supposedly their natural environment. In Les corrupteurs, the Jews are seen as a race who are practitioners of some form of witchcraft. This demonic image of the Jews is developed in the film by blaming their occult activities for the collapse of France. The documentary tries to prove this by showing that the banks were controlled by the Jews, and that they were gambling with the savings of the French people in a “fly by night” operation meant to yield maximum profit at the expense of France’s economy. The film contends that the Jews corrupted the French people through lies, deceit and “black magic” and are to blame for the decline and ultimate defeat of France. The authors advocate the expulsion of all Jews from the national community.
The National Revolution, while compatible with Nazism and Fascism, had its own political character unique to French conservatism. French Catholicism, the Action Française, the upper bourgeoisie and nobility would all have a voice in a new France. France’s former enemies contributed to Pétain’s effort to rebuild France after its humiliating defeat. In return, the Marshall promoted the Nazi concept of a new Europe while at the same time he encouraged the French people to accept that the Third Republic had failed them. In 1940 and 1941, it looked like the Nazi’s would win the war. Without the hope of liberation, the majority of the French people were coerced into accepting Pétain’s National Revolution as the only means to rejuvenate the nation. The mechanism of French film propaganda was an effective tool in promoting the National Revolution. It used reality artfully to distort the truth while subtly trying to win the hearts and minds of the French people by pulling on their heart strings by the effective use of music. Fear was also effectively exploited by explicating the dangers of communism and falsely portraying Jews as slithering lizards or rats who were bent on destroying humanity. Pétain’s message seemed to be largely effective; there was little resistance against the Vichy government or the German occupiers until 1944, when the tide began to turn in favor of the Allies.
Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism,New York, Harvest Books, 1994
Bertin-Maghit, Jean-Pierre, Encadrer et contrôler le documentaire de propagande sous l’Occupation, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, no. 63, Sciences Po University Press, July-September, 1999
Cot, Pierre, Morale in France During the War, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol 47, №3, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1941
Gildea, Robert, Marianne in Chains, Daily Life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation, New York, Holt and Company, 2002
Kammerer, Gladys M., ‘The Political Theory of Vichy,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 5, No 4, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press on behalf of Southern Political Science Association, 1943