In the many books, articles, debates and polemics about the Vichy French regime during the Second World War, one question remains curiously absent: why didn’t Vichy collaborate with Fascist Italy? Perhaps it’s because the answer seems obvious. After the fall of France in June 1940, Vichy chose to collaborate with Hitler’s regime because it believed that Nazi Germany would win the war and subsequently dominate Europe. It actively aided the German war effort and voluntarily implemented Nazi policies in the deluded belief that such actions would secure France’s future.
Yet, as I argue in Vichy’s Double Bind, it was not inevitable that collaboration should have developed primarily or exclusively with Germany. By placing Vichy’s relations with Fascist Italy at centre stage, I wanted to challenge the dominant narrative of a regime wholly fixated on Germany. As former allies in the First World War with a common interest in offsetting German domination and a shared Latin and Catholic heritage, Italy, rather than Germany, seemed the more natural partner to many in Vichy.
In shifting the focus, I uncovered a more opportunistic side to Vichy’s actions. Far from having a one-dimensional policy leading inexorably to Berlin, Vichy was engaged in a multi-dimensional and multi-directional set of manoeuvres.
Despite leading the charge to develop closer ties with the Nazis, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval repeatedly told Italian officials that he wanted to partner with Rome to counter Berlin. In the winter of 1941-42, Admiral Darlan made important military concessions to the Italians that he had previously refused the Germans. At the same time, however, Italian Fascist claims over French metropolitan and colonial territory saw Vichy turn to Berlin to counter the threat from Rome.
All this raised an intriguing question: was Vichy playing some kind of double game after all? In the years following the liberation, Vichy apologists claimed that the regime had been involved in a double game of collaborating with the Nazis while secretly supporting the Allies. Historians have definitively proven such claims to be false. In recent years, however, far-right polemicists such as the 2022 presidential candidate Eric Zemmour have sought to resurrect myths about Vichy that many had thought buried. Distorting historical evidence to advance their political agendas, especially on the persecution of Jews, they have sought to present a more positive image of the Vichy regime.
In reality, Vichy didn’t engage in any kind of double game between Germany and Italy any more than it engaged in a double game between the Axis and the Allies. In seeking to play the Axis partners off against one another, Vichy was instead faced with a double bind.
This double bind functioned on multiple levels. On one level, it lay in the ever-increasing demands from Berlin and Rome. In another, more complex sense, it lay in the fundamentally irreconcilable yet inescapable positions of the two Axis governments. Unable to resolve this conflict, Vichy sought to exploit it. In so doing, however, it deluded itself about the damaging repercussions for the people of France and its empire.