In May 1940, Germany invaded France and conquered it in six weeks. Under the peace terms, only the northern half of France was occupied by the Germans. The southern half of France was governed as Vichy France by the French themselves under Marshal Petain.*
The French outside France who didn’t like the Vichy peace terms, maintained a Free French government in exile.
In Syria, the Vichy government’s forces fought and were forced to sign an armistice with the British and Free French in June 1941.
In December 1941 the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour, and immediately afterwards Germany and Italy joined with Japan in declaring war on the United States.
Here is the strange thing, Vichy France maintained diplomatic relations with the United States until the Allies invaded French North Africa in November 1942. At that point the United States shut its consulate in Marseille.
So in that eleven month period from December 1941 to November 1942, a citizen of the U.S. could travel more or less freely around southern France. Not only that, the United States had a consulate in Vichy France.
How strange is that?
I wonder what transpired in any meetings between German and U.S. citizens in Vichy during that period. Did they politely nod to one another?
Come to think of it, ‘Casablanca’ – the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman film could be just that – an American in Vichy controlled Morocco during that period. Though to be sure it could be set in the period before the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. I guess there may be clues or statements in the film about when it was set – a good excuse to watch it again, and closely.
And now reading about the film at filmsite.org I find:
The Hollywood fairy-tale was actually filmed during a time of US ties with Vichy France when President Roosevelt equivocated and vacillated between pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support. And it was rushed into general release almost three weeks after the Allied landing at the Axis-occupied, North African city of Casablanca, when Eisenhower’s forces marched into the African city. Due to the military action, Warner Bros. Studios was able to capitalize on the free publicity and the nation’s familiarity with the city’s name when the film opened.
Varian Fry was an American journalist who was in Germany in 1935 and didn’t like what he saw. When Germany invaded France in 1940, he asked permission of the U.S. State Department to rescue Jews from Vichy France.
In August 1940 he set up a ‘front’ in Marseille, the declared mission of which was to alleviate the plight of refugees by donating food and clothing. Behind this front Fry set up a clandestine operation to help Jews get out of France. He helped thousands make the journey overland to Spain and from there to Portugal, and he helped others escape by sea.
As time wore on, the U.S. State Department pressured him to get out but he stayed until he was kicked out by the Vichy French Authorities in August 1941, after two years of operations.
Fry grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey and there is a permanent exhibition in his honour at the public library, and a street named after him.
* After the war, history decided that the French arrangement with the Germans was too cozy a collaboration to be called a victor-vanquished relationship. Marshal Petain was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death, but because of his age his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.