Why did so many Europeans collaborate with the Nazi occupiers?
As the dust settled in Europe, collaborators were hung, sent running naked down the streets or imprisoned, while the resistance set out to define post-war Europe. The illusion of a clear distinction between Hitler’s henchmen and enemies shaped the psychology, language and power structures that are still present today. Collaboration and resistance, as categories of human behaviour, gained their historical relevance from the weight they carried after the war, rather than the limited part they played in bringing the conflict to an end. In reality, the decision to collaborate was, as choices always are, the individual’s response to his or hers perceived alternatives. It existed within every stratum, and along the entire scale of what is considered good and evil. It came in endless variations, and due to as many motivations. I will, however, argue that self-interest was the most important motivating factor. To avoid exaggerated emphasis on those in charge, I will return to the so called horizontal collaborators, who were often the first to be punished. Not only are their stories as personal as they can get, but their motivations can, with a tiny bit of imagination, be applied to every chunk of society. Also, in order to remain focused on the driving force behind collaboration, I will base my argument on the most crucial motivating factors: self preservation; the dissatisfaction with previous institutions; the common enemy; internal conflict; ideological similarities; and self-interest.
To many, collaboration was a pragmatic, albeit sometimes misinformed, strategy of self-preservation. On a national level, the French Vichy government has often been referred to, for instance by Robert Aron, as the shield that kept France safe until De Gaulle’s sword was sharp enough to strike back. This notion is ridiculous. As Julian Jackson points out, the Vichy government was based on the premise that Germany had won the war. As far as they were concerned, the Germans were in charge, and you simply had to make the best of it. It is, however, apparent that pragmatic measures were taken in an attempt to remain sovereign. For instance, Pierre Laval gave French copper mines and gold stocks to the Germans in order for France to gain some influence in New Order Europe. This was unsuccessful, both on a national level, and for Laval personally who was sacked less than a month later. He misread Hitler’s intentions for Vichy France, as well as his position within his own party. His motives were, however, what Julian Jackson refers to as “politico-administrative motives”, and this type of collaboration was only possible in countries where the Germans favoured such collaboration. For the horizontal collaborators, sleeping with a German could be a strategy of survival, “because of the access to food and the protection from daily threat he could provide”. The basic instinct to survive motivated a lot of Europeans to collaborate.
The Nazis overthrew institutions that were unstable and lacked the support of the people, and Hitler was in no way unique in his dictatorship. The Popular Front in France had failed miserably on all accounts, and the promise of socialism had been proved a false prophecy. Intellectuals, workers and peasants alike were alienated towards the old democratic regimes. The way in which Nazi forces so effortlessly crushed the democratic nations was for many the ultimate proof of the superiority of the authoritarian state. Few wept for democracy. To many Frenchmen, Marshal Petain appeared better suited for governing than the impotent politicians of the Third Republic. The point is that when there is no clear alternative, resistance becomes difficult to motivate. Some did it in the name of nationalism. Paradoxically, the same goes for collaboration: To some, France finally had what appeared to be a strong, patriotic leader, serving the interests of...
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