Friday, 24 January 2020

December 1940: Return of L'Aiglon Part II

Adolf Hitler at Les Invalides, June 1940

Following the surrender of France, Adolf Hitler made two visits to Paris in June 1940. On the second visit he went to Les Invalides and whilst looking at Napoleon's tomb declared that he would return the remains of Napoleon II.

Origins of the Idea The idea of returning the remains had first been broached by Napoleon III some 90 years earlier. The Emperor Franz-Joseph had refused, saying that the Prince was and should remain a Hapsburg. (1) The idea was revived after the 1st World War, and in 1930 under the leadership of the historian Édouard Driault, President of the Napoleon Institute, a movement was formed to bring it about.

Coffin of Napoleon II, France December 1940

German Troops transporting Coffin of Napoleon II in Paris at night, December 1940

The Hapsburg family, now exiled in Belgium, said they were prepared to agree provided an official request came from the French Government. The Foreign Minister, Édouard Herriot supported the plan. The proposal was that the coffin would be returned on 15 December 1940, the anniversary of the return of Napoleon I's remains from St. Helena. Then the Government fell, and the plan lapsed.

Heinrich Otto Abetz (26 March 1903 – 5 May 1958), founder member of Comité France-Allemagne and later German Ambassador to Vichy

Nazis and Collaborationists The rise of Hitler and the Anschluss with Austria created a totally new political climate in France as well as in Germany and Austria. In 1938 the Comité France-Allemagne , a right wing appeasement supporting group, took up the idea again. Historian Jacques Benoist-Méchin, a member of the fascist Parti Populaire Français, raised it with von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister.

Jacques Benoist-Méchin (1901-1983)

Ribbentrop dismissed the idea, but Otto Abetz a fellow member of Comité France-Allemagne was enthusiastic and claimed to have got the support of Adolf Hitler. Abetz who had a French wife and presented himself as a francophile had attended the Munich conference in 1938, and after the surrender of France he returned to Paris from which he had been expelled in 1939 and subsequently became the German Ambassador to Vichy. (3)

Pierre Laval with Adolf Hitler

After Hitler's visit to Les Invalides in June 1940, Abetz, with the concurrence of Pierre Laval, Deputy Prime Minister of the Vichy Government, made elaborate plans for a ceremony to mark the handing over of the remains.

The crisis in Vichy and a botched plan

Abetz's plans seem to have involved a grand ceremony at which Hitler, Goering and Marshal Pétain, Head of the Vichy Government, would all be present. It was also apparently part of a plan to get Pétain to move to Paris, where he would be isolated from those who were trying to distance the Vichy regime from the German Government.
Laval was told of the decision to return the remains four days before Pétain. As soon as they found out, Pierre Laval's opponents in the Vichy Government were determined to prevent what they saw would, like the meeting with Hitler at Montoire in October, be another humiliation for Pétain and the Vichy Government.

Marshall Pétain with Adolf Hitler, Montoire Railway Station, October 1940

Despite a personal letter from Hitler, Pétain took notice of the anti-collaborationists. He declined to go to Paris and he removed Laval from office and placed him under house arrest. So on the night of 14th/15th December the Vichy Government was represented at a very low key handing over ceremony by Admiral Darlan and General Laurencie. (4)

Ambassador Abetz was furious. The great public relations event he had planned had failed, and he informed the Vichy Government that it was not to say anything about the ceremony at Les Invalides. To the press he made it clear that Pierre Laval had been one of those who had made the hand over possible. It was Laval he said, who had "created the atmosphere of collaboration" and who was "the only guarantor of that policy." Then with some totally fraudulent history, Abetz claimed Napoleon as a forerunner of Nazism and its associated movements:

He has never been closer to us, not just from a national point of view of his struggle against the reactionaries who had victimised the King of Rome, but from the European point of view since Napoleon was the one who revived the great popular movements whose modern equivalents are Italian fascism, German national socialism, Spanish nationalism that are now also influencing France.(5)

Napoleon II/Roi de Rome's Coffin, Les Invalides

Adolf Hitler sent a large wreath to Les Invalides, "From Chancellor Hitler to the Duke of Reichstadt", but nobody could find it. It had been seized and destroyed by the wife of an employee of an ex-servicemen's organisation who lived at Les Invalides.(6) This somehow symbolised the total failure of what was intended to be a propaganda coup

The coffin was placed in the Chapelle Saint-Jérôme, where Napoleon's coffin had originally been placed. 29 years later after much deliberation it was put under the ground, where it has remained so that nobody can see it. All that is now visible is a slab with the inscription "Napoleon II Roi de Rome 1811 1832"

Postscript: Hitler's Motives It is usually said that Hitler was trying to win over the French people. Georges Poisson, whose account I have followed, discredits this idea. Clearly there is no hard evidence, but Hitler had nothing but contempt for France and the French people, whom he believed to be irreparably tainted by Jews, blacks and inferior races. He was perhaps trying to associate himself with Napoleon, or maybe he was trying to rekindle French hatred of England, which may have seemed not too difficult in 1940 after the British attack on the French fleet which led to the death of 1200 French sailors.

It is unlikely though that he gave it much thought. He had in 1940 a great many other more important things on his mind: the idea had been planted in his head; it had been opposed by von Ribbentrop who was probably concerned not to upset Spain and Italy; it may just have been a spur of the moment decision, inspired by the majesty of Les Invalides. (7)
1. Georges Poisson, Hitler's Gift to France, The Return of the Remains of Napoleon II Crisis at Vichy Enigma Books, New York 2008, p. 8.
2. Poisson pp 11-12.
3. Poisson pp 12-18
4. Poisson pp 50, 52, 58-59, 90.
5. Poisson pp 91-92. Apparently the Governments of the US and UK were at this point quite pleased with what was seen as Pthe Vichy Government's stand against Hitler.
6. Poisson p 93.
7. Poisson pp 48, 121-123


mem said...

Abetz nephews are both right wing politician in Australia unfortunately.One of them said he was proud of his uncle fro not bombing Paris .

John Tyrrell said...

Oh dear. I didn'tknow that. You do seem to have a few prime specimens, anf FOX news pulling the strings.