A Homeland again
At the end of the summer of 1939, we went from a state of alert, without transition, to a state of war. Hostilities had been declared. As expected, Poland was crushed within a few days, and once again its territory divided up between Germany and Russia. The fact that the Russians had exterminated in Katyn all Polish army officers, they had taken prisoner during the short war, was not as yet known. The Soviet army had invaded and annexed the Balkan republics, though leaving their German allies to proceed with the forced repatriation of numerous Germans who lived there. Alone, Finland was desperately fighting to hold back the Soviet onslaught with a courage, which drew admiration from the rest of the world; though no practical effort was made to help.
In contrast, on the ‘Western Front’ nothing stirred. ‘The phoney war’, in fact, was not a war – just the odd skirmish on the borders of Alsace and Lorraine, and at the forefront of the Maginot line. The German army’s attempts at fraternisation with the French troops were only referred to in hushed tones, as censorship opposed it being reported in the press. It had nearly become a war of banners and posters being waved from one place to another, as in political and trade union demonstrations. The troops were bored – headquarters studied how best to distract them from the inaction that neither one nor the other camp appeared intent on breaking up. It was said that the French troops on the border had shamelessly looted houses, which their compatriots had been forced to abandon after being served with evacuation orders.
Paris and the rest of France had settled into the war, and life there had not changed much as yet. Transport and public services still functioned as usual, with less male staff and an increase in female staff. Aerial ‘alerts’ hardly attracted much attention after the first few weeks when they were never followed by bombings. When the sirens went off at night, only a very few still bothered to go down to cellars and metro subways. Less and less people bothered to carry around the little khaki cloth bags, containing gas masks, which had been distributed to civilians – many left the masks at home and used this shoulder bag as a convenient haversack for their daily ‘sandwich’. The war seemed to be ‘bogged down’ – waiting for a political solution it seemed – but still it did not come.
Nonetheless, a number of my friends in the civil service had been mobilised. Roger Pormente and Raymond Deugnier had joined up with their regiments. Work at the Ministry had noticeably slowed down – even though the course of events barely affected it. At the same time, through force of circumstances, my militant and other than professional activities had stopped – both my Breton and international activities were at a dead end. I found that I had much more free time again, than at any stage during the previous few years. I enrolled with ‘Ober’ again, the Breton correspondence course I had been obliged to abandon due to lack of time. The director, Marc’harit Gourlaouenn, wrote to me – ‘I am delighted to have you as one of my pupils again, but I regret the circumstances that have brought you back!”
Breton activities in Paris, however, had not been completely interrupted – Albert Guillou had not been mobilised. By the end of September, we had reopened the Ker Vreizh centre for Breton classes every afternoon. I found myself in charge of the beginner’s class, for want of a better qualified person, whilst Guillou took on the more advanced class. But this only lasted a few weeks – one day we arrived to find the door barred and sealed. The police had ordered a search, and had taken away all the library’s books and publications, including grammars and dictionaries in Breton – yet they had not touched the collections of Breiz Atao, Peuples et Frontieres, Stur and other Breton journals printed in French! Taking advantage of my position as civil servant at the Ministry of the Interior, I went along to the local police station; rue Jean-Bart, to protest. The interview was short and stormy – orders had been received and that was that. When I suggested that the commissioner-s good name, Guillou de Penanros, ought to have prompted him to be more discerning, I was practically frog-marched out the door.
Despite his youth, my friend Max Vignon, responsible for the radical socialist youth organisation, had also stayed on. He received official funds permitting him to bring out a small fortnightly journal called ‘l’Espoir’. I began to contribute to it on a regular basis, and usually wrote the editorial (see these on the French site). I devoted one of them to a sentence spoken by Jean Giraudoux, who had been appointed commissioner to the Ministry of Information, and had in one of his speeches, which had been broadcast, declared that ‘a Breton was as different from a Provencal, as a French person was from a Swede’.
On the other hand, my activities for the Ligue des Amis des Basques took up increasingly more time. The state of war had multiplied administrative rules and controls, particularly those relating to resident and work permits and to the movement of refugees. Matters were fairly easy to sort out for those of them who were skilled workers – workshops and industries involved in national defence were prepared to welcome them. They were not as ready to welcome the others and their families. I had to carry out numerous inquiries, and spend several hours every day, at my Ligue office. Fortunately, it was in Avenue Hoche, not far from the Ministry headquarters in rue Cambaceres. In order to make it easier for me to get around quickly, the Basque government had placed at my disposal a front-wheel drive vehicle, which had been used to cross the Pyrenees. In those days, Paris was not as congested as it is now – it was still possible to park a car there during the day. In addition, I was given an allowance, which all of a sudden doubled my very modest civil servant’s salary, and made it possible for me to go ahead with my marriage plans for December, without having material considerations to worry about, which until now had been the cause of the delay. The problems were even more difficult to sort out for those refugees with no passport, who wanted to leave France to go abroad, as this involved several different sections of the Ministry.
Word of the work I was doing finally spread among those interested in the fate of refugees in general, and of all nationalities from Central and Eastern Europe, and among those seeking to help them. Mme de Jouvenel was an elderly lady with a heart of gold, who lived in a vast apartment on boulevard Saint Germain, near the Chamber of Deputies. She sought my assistance at times for her most desperate cases. Most of them were Jewish from Central Europe, and had been refugees for months already, but still did not have a new nationality or that of stateless people. They wanted to escape from a France that was being threatened by the same invasion as their respective countries had already suffered. There again, I was able to obtain some positive results. I succeeded especially in obtaining ‘in extremis’ an exit visa for an Israeli, the husband of Italian singer Ida Franca, who was lucky enough to have been able to catch the last passenger boat to cast off from Bordeaux. I have never felt, as much as much as I did then, the dreadful inhuman weight of an administration confined by the narrow-mindedness of their rules and their routines, and for whom men only appear as numbers. It is only made for faceless people – it refuses to acknowledge the man and the dreadful personal problems one can be faced with in life. The further administrations are from their citizens, the more oppressive and inhuman they are. This is the case of all those in a French state where all decisions, even minor ones, are only made in Paris, in an insensitive and heartless manner. This was certainly the case, at the time, at Police headquarters and at the French criminal investigation department – they have become progressively worse. It is easy to hide behind rules to avoid taking on responsibility and making decisions. Yet, the letter of the law is not always in accordance with the spirit of the law!
Because I have always felt that the spirit was in any case more important than the letter, I was able, by sometimes forgetting the latter, to sort out some of my Basques friends’ personal problems. These problems were not always vital ones; but they were important on an emotional level to those who had to face them. One of the ones I had the greatest satisfaction in sorting out was Xavier de Landaburu’s legal marriage. We worked together every day and had formed a strong friendship. The French administration had refused to legally marry them, as he and his wife, both Basques refugees, were unable to produce the registry office certificate required by French law. Spanish authorities refused to issue them with one of course, as Xavier was a dangerous outlaw as far as they were concerned. A Basques priest therefore, who was a friend of theirs, had performed a religious wedding, which was solemnised in the French part of the Basque country – an illegal practice in France – where a religious marriage can only be performed after the civil one. Both were deeply Catholic, and considered themselves as married; but they could not be legally considered as such. The problem was further complicated by the fact that they were expecting their first child. As they were living together, Landaburu’s wife in particular suffered from being unable to bear her husband’s name, and also from the fact that soon she would be giving birth to an illegitimate child.
After numerous incidents, I finally succeeded in finding a way to twist the letter of the law, admittedly by bending the rules somewhat. I had the satisfaction of being a witness to their civil marriage in Paris. It was held in a town hall there, and was followed by a delicious meal together, just them and a few friends, at a restaurant in the city. Not long after, their first child was born, and was thus legally entitled to bear his father’s name.
Jose Antonio Aguirre y Lecube,
The small general staff of the Basques Government in exile, which President Aguirre kept around him in Paris, consisted of devoted and dynamic members. Though still very young, Aguirre was an eternal optimist, full of fire and fervour, who knew how to instil his willpower and enthusiasm in them all. He was as much a militant as he was a statesman. He did not believe Franco’s reign could have lasted as long as it did and, by its extension, deprived him of the joy of returning to his homeland. At least it was in a Basques country, in Saint-Jean- de-Luz, that he died prematurely during the sixties, long before the victor of the Spanish civil war had disappeared. It was, therefore, Jesus de Laizaola, ex Minister of Justice, who succeeded Aguirre. He was a man of deep convictions, slim and upright with a noble bearing. As the inheritor of Basques ‘legitimacy’, the honour fell to him in 1980, when already an octogenarian, to transfer the titles of his office to the autonomous government of Euskadi.
At the time when I first met him, he did not have the charisma, the fervour nor the energy of Aguirre or even Landaburu. I had the pleasure of seeing Landaburu and his family again in 1955, when I was able to return to Paris after an enforced period in prison and in exile. Xavier de Landaburu had profound human qualities; he was a very good and kind person. He asked nothing for himself, and led the life of an apostle and great Christian. He lived very simply in an exiguous apartment of rue de Passy, and was still living there fifteen years later in spite of their increasing number of children. From every point of view, exile was very hard for him and his family.
Agustin Alberro had his office at the end of avenue Marceau, in a small building occupied by the government in exile, where Aguirre and Leizaola also had theirs. He was a mainly the administrative and financial secretary general for the government. He radiated the same energy and optimism as his president. He was quite naturally an attractive person. I saw him quite frequently, as well as Juan de Epalza who held no particular office but was an advisor who was listened to. Having been able to return to his country a few years after the end of the World War, he became one of these shrewd and important businessmen, with a practical mind, whose help is invaluable to political parties. The Basque national party was fortunate enough then, and still is today, to have a number of the latter in its ranks.
These new activities for the benefit of my Basque friends had come at the right time to replace my Breton activities, which had been temporarily suspended. But I still thought about them. I had obtained a few days leave following on my wedding, and decided to spend them with Marie-Madeleine in Callac at my grandmother’s place. Together we did the same walks I had done long ago on my own; Keranlouan and Saint-Michel hill, La Boisiere, Botmel and the remote chapels, nothing had changed. In that early January of 1940, the moors were brown and the trees bare under a low sky. The paths were muddy, but there was an unusual stillness in the air. The barely swollen river still murmured over the stones. True to her custom, my grandmother, who had been ‘Tante Ambroisine’ to Marie-Madeleinne before our marriage, would watch the clock after the evening meal. As soon as the clock struck half past eight, she would retire punctually to her bedroom, leaving us to enjoy long intimate evenings by the wood fire.
Soon, Paris and our daily occupations claimed us again. On the Eastern front the phony war was still going on. The invasion of Denmark, Narvick and the Norwegian campaign had upset its tranquillity, but it had not noticeably drawn it any closer to French territory. No one had been physically affected as yet. Mordrel and Debauvais had posted their first ‘Lizer Brezel’ from Germany, Italy and Belgium. Military censorship had seen to it that no one else heard about it, except for the few militants who received it. The routine of my work at the Ministry of the interior had slowed down again. Nothing came to shake it up except for the foreboding of an impeding catastrophy. There was still no talk of peace.
I had succeeded, after numerous approaches, in obtaining a French pass for President Aguirre. This allowed him to cross the border to visit, as he wished, groups of Basques emigrants who had taken refuge in Belgium and Holland. He left Paris early in May, and I was also preparing to leave with Marie-Madeleine for the French part of the Basque country. Landaburu and Alberro had organised our stay there, which was to be both for work and holiday. I was looking forward to this physical contact with the country of my friends, where I had never been, and where many refugees had settled after being driven out by Franco’s invasion. I had obtained leave from my administration, and my departure was fixed for the 10th of May. By the evening of the 9th, my car was loaded up and ready for the road. Destiny had decreed differently!
Early on the morning of the 10th May, it was announced on the radio that German troops had entered Holland and Belgium. During the first hours of daylight, an unusual number of air-raid warnings had been set off. It was also announced on radio that all public-service personnel should remain on call and that he French army was coming to the help of Belgium. To leave now seemed out of the question. I went to the Ministry for news and was told that all civil servants had to report for duty. This time the war, the real war, was on our doorstep! A few days later I arrived at my office one morning to find my colleagues already bustling about packing their current files into boxes. There was fighting in the north of France already, and in the Ardennes, and the Maginot line had been by-passed. German troops had broken through the front at the Meuse, it was reported, and were on the outskirts of Laon. The Governemnt had decided to evacuate Paris and go to Touraine, where an encampment for the administration was being hurriedly prepared. The Ministry of the Interior was to go to Larcay, near Tours. General transport had been organised for the following day for those who could not make their own way to Larcay – going by train was out of the question as they had already been overwhelmed, and were frequently requisitioned – the railway lines were blocked with military convoys, and subject to frequent bombings.
There was panic everywhere. One felt that all of a sudden the State was collapsing, undermined by a sickness within, for which there was no excuse. In basement boilers, in courtyards, and in the garden of the Ministry on the lawns, the French Criminal Investigation Department and the Minister’s cabinet were having a number of archives and files burned. The scene was the same at the quai d’Orsay. Sparks of burnt paper flew as far as the Seine. The most contradictory and wildest rumours were circulating.
None of the files I was attending to were in any way urgent or secret. I just packed those that were pending, as well as a few reference documents. I called into my office at the Ligue des Amis des Basques, where I let Landaburu know about the situation. The members and the general staff of the Basques government would decide on their line of action. It was obvious that the more prominent personalities should go to a safe place for a few weeks to wait and see if the occupation od Paris would take place. As regards the rest of the refugees, moving was out of the question. And I seriously began to question myself on this. The evacuation appeared to me to be pointless and dangerous. It seemed obvious to me that the German army would not stop at Paris after having occupied it, and that unless an armistice was reached, Touraine in its turn would be rapidly occupied. It was only putting off the inevitable. But to remain would be to break my contract, to defy orders, to become a dissident and to plunge into the unknown. Also, I no longer had only myself to consider in taking these risks. Could I also allow Marie-Madeleine to take them on? At the Ligue I collected the files I was working on, which were discussions with the French government services. I did the same at my place, and left everything else in place and in order. The next morning I returned to the Ministry where the evacuation was in progress. Those members of personnel and their immediate families, who had no cars at their disposal, were boarding a fleet of buses; baggage was strictly limited. A second lot was due to leave the next day. A third, reduced to a skeleton staff, was to remain. I was not one of the latter, unfortunately. Most of the offices were already deserted; in the gardens, the archives continued to burn! A number of women were crying as they climbed aboard the buses! Mandel, our Minister, was reported to have left already, together with his mistress, and Paul Reynaud, President of the Council, had left with his, the famous Madame de Portes. A few weeks later, when de Gaulle referred to the possibility of them entrenching in the Breton Peninsula, she had declared that she did not want to sleep in any Breton ‘lits clos’- old style cupboard beds. The president of the Republic and the Government were to settle into castles along the banks of the Loire. The Ministers only officially evacuated Paris around the 10th of June, but as early as the 20th of May there was practically no one left in the city, apart from Langeron, the Paris prefet, and the small fry from the Ministries.
It was still unknown that the Komintern radio had issued an order to the communists and their political machinery, not to leave Paris under any pretext. The Komintern was the Russian communist party’s medium of communication with Western communist parties, which has been reduced to an underground status today. As it happens, they were better informed than a government of unrealistic, and often incapable, men of politics. Admittedly, Radio Komintern was then in the other camp, on the side of the invading German troops. But there is no doubt they also knew, considering the extreme centralisation of the system, that whoever succeeded in capturing the power in Paris would, as a result, become master of France.
In its confusion, the government had recalled Maréchal Petain, who was France’s ambassador to Madrid at the time, and appointed him to the Government; a decision that was widely acclaimed. Wreathed in glory, praised to the skies, he had been welcomed by the national assembly and the Senate with a prolonged ovation. To a political establishment, panic stricken by an impending disaster, he clearly appeared as the ultimate resource during the tragic hours when the state wavered. He had a greater awareness of the danger threatening Paris and that France, together with its institutions and laws, was in danger of collapsing.
I decided then to finalise my preparations for departure, and leave by road the next day, even though I was not convinced the line at the Seine would hold any better than the lines at the Meuse had. Thanks to my car, I was not too restricted as regards baggage. In addition to our clothing, we brought some linen and blankets, also some food supplies and some kitchen equipment, in case we decided to camp. The windows of the apartment had already been criss-crossed with sticky tape to make them more resistant to any displacement of air caused by the bombings. I took down all the pictures and placed them on the bed. It was with some emotion that we took a last look around our studio and all that we were abandoning in it. It had been my apartment as a young man – Marie-Madeleine and I had spent six happy months there. When and in what condition would we find it on our return – I have always found it hard to tear myself away from people and things, and I do not like departures. Ahead of us was the unknown; at the moment it seemed to hold more catastrophies than promises in store for us.
The massive exodus of the people from Paris had not as yet started; it would only be triggered off three weeks later. The roads, however, were blocked with cars coming from Belgium and the battle front, fleeing from the threat of invasion as much as from that of the fighting. Some had broken down on the sides of the roads; it was already a case of run for your life and every man for himself. Although there were practically no military vehicles or convoys, it was still only possible to drive very slowly. I had a sufficient supply of petrol, and decided to take to the secondary roads and minor rural roads. The countryside was calm and the wheat nearly ripe. Very high up, some planes flew over. Away from the main road, one did not notice there was a war on. Hardly any animation was noticeable in the villages we passed through. Only the city people were fleeing. How could one desert ones land, animals, fields and tasks that require daily care; Cities are but inhuman excrescences, where man loses his good sense and equilibrium. He has forgotten that one must come to terms with destiny.
It was already late afternoon by the time we reached the vine covered hillsides along the Loire valley. Voudray was close by, on the right bank of the river. The buses that had brought the rest of the Ministry’s personnel to Larcay, on the left bank, joined us at dusk. Everyone bustled about trying to find the accommodation they had been allocated. Rooms for couples had been requisitioned from local families. Some single people had to make do with sharing a room; a frequently difficult combination for people who only knew each other from meeting in the office corridors every day. Fortunately the room we had been allocated was not situated on the road passing through the village. It was in a pleasant secondary residence belonging to city dwellers from Tours, on top of a hillside, and could only be reached by a bumpy path a couple of hundred metres long. It was quiet large and perfectly quiet. Through gaps in the garden, the sleepy Loire was revealed. It was warm and the sun was shining. The garden was in flower and filled with fragrant scents. Lizard warmed themselves on the stones – at night, under the stars, the sound of countless crickets could be heard.
Our office had been set up amidst cobwebs in a large attic room, with a small lean-to situated over the stables that had become the garages of an Inn cum restaurant, where we could have our meals. I shared the lean-to with the only female colleague of our office. Francoise Lievois. She was a young blonde girl, and a pleasant conversationalist, who suffered frequently from poor health. We were the two juniors. The seniors and general staff of headquarters shared the larger room. Other offices were spread out amongst other similar encampments, several at quite a distance from each other. There were of course no telephones, and communication when necessary was via messengers.
It was both completely peaceful and total idleness. I frequently champed at the bit at being tied down to putting in an appearance, whilst outside the countryside was tempting, with flowers in full bloom and the pathways enticing.
The village people felt the same as we did; they would have liked us to be elsewhere. It was obvious that we were in the way; only the innkeeper was glad of our presence, even though, as far as we were concerned, we could scarcely afford to have all our meals at the restaurant with our modest budget. Although the house where our room was remained unoccupied, except at weekends, we had been forbidden to use the kitchen; the owners wished to give the State as little as possible, and only the room had been requisitioned! Thus, in spite of Marie-Madeleine’s aversion to lizards – she has always hated anything that crawls, and can not even bare to look at a picture of a snake – we improvised a kitchen in the garden at the entrance to the garage, thanks to a tiny electric stove I had unearthed. We were thus able to relieve our budget by reducing our presence at the restaurant to a maximum of once a day. It was not much fun in any case always seeing the same people there, even those one would have preferred not to see so frequently. The German offensive seemed to have paused, Paris had not been invaded. The German army’s turn around movement towards the West and the North Sea coast became outlined, and would trap a good part of the French army, together with the British task forces in Dunkirk. Only then, after the fall of Dunkirk, did the offensive carry on towards Paris and the south. Within a few days, the last of the French defence lines had been broken through. On the 14th of June it was Paris’ turn to fall after having been declared an open city. Whilst the third republic’s last dramatic Council of Ministers was in Cangé, we received the order to prepare to move on again. What was left of France and the State was inexorably collapsing.
Whilst the government withdrew to Bordeaux, our destination this time was Pau: we really could not go further. This further evacuation seemed to me to be as pointless and ineffective as the first one. It was obvious that France had lost this war, and that it was incapable of resisting any longer. It was said that the military commanders had advised the government to lay down their arms and request an armistice. It appeared to be the only sensible solution. The proposal made by de Gaulle, Rene Pleven, Jean Monnet and Churchill to unite France and England into one political unity, in order to continue the struggle, had been greeted with derision by general opinion. The President of the Council, Jean Reynaud, was the only one who rallied to that suggestion. Petain, Weygand and most of the ministers, opposed it. The former condemned those men of politics, whose only thought was of fleeing, and who refused to assume their responsibilities to the end. Roosevelt, for his part, refused to intervene in the War: it was more than two years later before the United States joined in. Later on, de Gaulle wrote that France “from historical heights rolled down into the deepest abyss”.
I seriously contemplated whether I should not rather get lost on the way and head for Brittany, instead of heading for the Pyrenees. The Germans, however, had already crossed over the Seine, and I was not sure of being able to reach Rennes before them. And also, what could I accomplish alone from there? What would follow on these events? The bridges of the Loire were constantly being bombed, and I was not sure of being able to cross the river. The heat of the War and line of combat were rapidly and inexorably closing in on us. It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that on the 17th of June we headed off on the road towards the South. We had only been in Larcay for four weeks!
The scene along the roads was staggering. The whole population was in full flight, on foot, on bicycles, by car and in carts. Most of the cars had mattresses on the roof. Having lost their regiments, a number of soldiers mingled with the crowds and fled with them. Struggles were breaking out around the petrol stations. Grocery shops and bakeries of villages along the way could no longer cope. Some people slept, exhausted, in the ditches. A massif exodus from Paris had begun, a few days earlier, as soon as the government’s departure had been officially announced on the evening of the 0th June. Why them and not us? If they are fleeing, we must also flee. The people of Paris had rashly taken to the road, on the heels of their ministers. The roads were so blocked up that, after six days, most of them had barely managed to cross the Loire. At the time, it was estimated that there were ten million people on the roads. A quarter of the French population took part in this massif exodus. And yet, it was not a case of defending Paris ‘house by house’, as Churchill had suggested, at no cost to himself. Rashly or not, Paris was fleeing, distraught, causing the rest of the country insoluble problems. The ‘capital’, full of a sense of its all powerful importance, did not have a cooler head than its government.
I had succeeded in getting on to the Tours to Poitiers road: but progress was so slow that I decided to try and spend the night in Poitiers. Jean Mouraille lived there. He had married, and been appointed as teacher to the Lycee there, before being called up. His wife, Jeanine, offered us the only narrow couch she had left. Other refugee friends, and her mother, were already there. It was at her place, on the evening of the 17th June, that we listened to Marechal Petain informing the French people that he had requested an armistice. The news spread like wildfire throughout the city and along the columns of refugees and fugitives. In the streets, people hugged each other crying, with relief plainly visible on all faces. The crowds seemed to breathe easier. A large assembly had gathered in front of the prefecture, acclaiming the name of Marechal Petain. But the hostilities had not yet been suspended and Pau was still a long way off. I had managed to find petrol. All towns, of over 20,000 inhabitants, had been declared open to all. Rennes had been subjected to a violent bombing. I decided to head for the coast, as I felt the Bordeaux road would be impassable. I had decided to head for Royan, as I hoped to find shelter with Louis Colin, chief pilot of the Gironde, and the husband of Madeleine Herve, who was my mother’s first cousin. Also, Madeleine Herve’s brother, Ludovic, had married Marie Colin, Louis’ sister.
Early that evening, we found them both cooling off by their doorway. It had been a very hot day, but we had made better time on the journey. Royan itself was practically deserted: the inhabitants were already lying low. We spent the nights of the 18th and 19th at Uncle and Aunt Colin’s place. Marie-Madeleine had not met them before. It just so happened that one of their sons, my cousin Roger, was in Pau, and was a correspondent for the Bordeaux daily. He could probably help us find our feet there.
It was in Royan, on the evening of our arrival, when we learned from the radio that the Germans had entered Rennes, which rekindled my regret at not being there. As for the appeal for resistance made from London by General de Gaulle that same day, no one had heard it nor, in any case, had anyone paid any attention to it. It was only much later that it became quite the thing to have listened to him. At the time, it had gone completely unnoticed, as did the appeals he made for days afterwards, trying to break the complete isolation he was in. Too many people realised during those tragic hours that the British were mainly ready to fight to the last French soldier. In reality, de Gaulle’s presence in London was only known a couple of weeks later, when Marechal Petain issued a warrant for his arrest on grounds of ‘disobedience in the face of the enemy and for inciting the military to disobedience.’ This precedent was somewhat of a comfort to me later on, though circumstances were not the same, that de Gaulle was sentenced to death whilst I was not, when I was also the victim of a warrant of arrest for ‘being in collusion with the enemy (1944), ‘reconstitution of a dissolved league (1975), or again for ‘associating with criminals’ (1978).
It was in Royans that we also learned that Poitiers, which we had just left, had been heavily bombed. Two days later, early in the morning, we were on the road to Pau, bypassing Bordeaux where the government had taken refuge, and where I thought the situation must be chaotic. The call for an armistice, and appeals from the government to all those who had taken to the road, to stop and stay wherever they happened to be, had considerably improved the situation. The panic was mostly over. The French delegation was in Rethondes, discussing conditions for a cease fire. We had no trouble in reaching Pau after passing a few kilometres by my place of birth. On the 23rd June, Royan in turn was occupied. The cease fire went into effect after the signature of the armistice during the night of 24th to 25th. A boundary line was defined, placing the coast of the Channel, the North Sea and the Atlantic up to the Spanish border, and all of the country north of Loire, in the occupied zone. The whole of Brittany was included. A few days later, Marechal Petain and his ministers left Bordeaux for Clermont-Ferrand, which had been evacuated by the Germans , and then onto Vichy. It was deemed preferable to install the government within the so-called free zone, rather than return to Paris which was in the occupied zone.
From my arrival in Pau, until the signing of the armistice, I hardly had time to think of anything else but survival, and to get through these tragic days as best as we could. It also gave me the opportunity to stand back and assess new situations resulting from these events, which the concluding of the armistice had stabilised, at least for the time being. It was clear as a result that France would carry on. It had indeed collapsed like a pack of cards. Its political institutions and personnel had been discredited. The prestige of Marechal Petain, and realism of General Weygand alone, had succeeded in avoiding the total liquefaction of the State. But the government had not been taken prisoner, it remained on French soil, it had fulfilled its responsibilities by negotiating the armistice, whose stipulations were unhoped-for in view of the circumstances. It had avoided a total invasion. It had retained its fleet and the territorial integrity of its colonial empire, in short, safeguarding the essentials which were the very existence of France and it’s State. All world governments, except England’s still at war, recognised its legitimacy, its authority and its legality. It took in hand the complete administration of the country, both in the free zone and in the occupied zone, taking over from the German army in places where these had been obliged to assume the urgent task of organising supplies and public order in the conquered zones abandoned by the French administration. The State would continue even if the Republic did not, and decisions initiated by Pierre Laval, which were taken by the parliamentary assembly, assembled in Vichy, would show this. Its structures and administrations unchanged, it re-assumed responsibility for France.
It was obvious from then on that Breiz Atao’s hopes for Brittany had collapsed with the signature of the armistice and the new situation resulting from it. An unconditional surrender, total invasion of the territory or complete obliteration of the government and administration would no doubt have allowed for the Breton coup d’état, planned by Mordrel and Debauvais, to return its national freedom to Brittany. In that case, it could have been attempted and carried out, just as Monsignor Tiso had done for Slovakia, and as Ante Pavelich soon did for Croatia. By putting myself on the side of the French people’s immediate interest and the perenniality of their State, I could not help but be astonished by the blinkered state of some politicians who had advocated an unconditional surrender, the fleeing of the government, and the complete abandonment of the metropolitan territory to the administration and government of the German and Italian occupation forces. I was stupefied at the thoughtlessness, irresponsibility and lack of realism of some members of the government, insensitive to the people’s hardships, who advocated this abandonment. All of them were as pompous and mediocre as the other, of which the short Paul Reynaud was the perfect embodiment. If the government had listened to them, however, if it had left France, and if the country had been completely invaded, as well as Northern Africa, then the Breton coup d’état would probably have been possible. But this was not the case, as France and its government carried on. All the better for the French, but was it too bad for the Bretons? In any case, a lesson must be learnt from what had happened, and the situation assessed in accordance with events, which would rapidly take place after the conclusion of the armistice.
The type of divorce that began to appear during those few tragic days preceding the end of hostilities disappeared little by little. As a result, Brittany’s situation vis-a-vis France remained unchanged – it remained a controlled province, eroded by centralisation, and not a new nation on a new map of Europe. Germany had demonstrated that it wished to spare France after having conquered it. The support for Breton separatism, if even it had remotely existed, was evidently incompatible with this policy. The arguments I had put forward to Debauvais, before his departure, were as strong as ever.
The first news coming from Vichy, after the armistice, rapidly confirmed this analysis. The parliamentary assembly had met, convened by the government. In his message to France on 25th June, Marechal Petain had announced the creation of a new order. This idea had been seized upon by Pierre Laval, being a consummate tactician, used to manipulating all the strings of the trade, he persuaded his parliamentary colleagues of the need for a constitutional reform. But the studying and promulgation of this reform was left to the absolute discretion of Marechal Petain and his government, on whom all the powers had been conferred to complete it and put it into practice. The Republic, in fact, was disappearing, and with it the participation of the electorate in the running of public affairs. The President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, withdrew in favour of Marechal Petain, just as less than fifteen years later, Rene Coty withdrew in favour of General de Gaulle. Both coup d’états were similar in concept and in their development, even though the circumstances differed.
The parliamentarians shared the discredit of how the defeat had left the regime. It is astounding, however, that a large majority of them decided to surrender, not only their powers of decision making, but also their controlling powers. Pierre Laval had succeeded in convincing them that the parliamentary assembly meeting was only suspended, until such time as the new constitution was promulgated, which clearly meant that, until then, they would continue to benefit from various financial and other advantages associated with their office: arguments that weigh more heavily than one would imagine.
The disappearance of the parliamentary and Republican system had been approved by 569 votes. There had only been 10 votes against and 17 abstentions!
A certain number of the colleagues I found myself with again in Pau, gave me strange looks when I told them I fully approved the standpoint of the majority of the Finistere’s parliamentary representation, who had been amongst those opposing. I could clearly see that the 3rd Republic’s government’s usual weakness and their interchangeability was, within the framework of existing French institutions, the only possible break and antidote to the all powerful central administration, and to the authoritarian management practiced by the bureaucracy on the French administration. Freedom without some disorder does not exist, and parliamentary disorder on the whole seemed to me preferable to the forceful order of the State’s absolute dictatorship. Now, this absolute dictatorship had just been brought into effect: to administrations heavily centralised, had been added the centralisation of all legislative and executive powers in the hands of the government, who no longer answered to anyone for the responsibility of its actions. What a godsend to all ‘Jacobins’ of the State! With Brittany suffering more than the others from these, its fate could be even less desirable than previously.
It was thus necessary for Brittany to continue the struggle for its rights and freedom. The task was an imperative one. I could not see any other way out of this dilemma, and the necessity to do so – we had even more reason to carry on this struggle against dictatorial structures, where ‘democracy’, though very sparse, was not completely absent. The only asset this struggle had at its disposal, as far as Brittany was concerned at least, was that Vichy’s real authority, by force of circumstances, was infinitely less than it could have been under normal circumstances. Half its territory was occupied, cut in half by a dividing line which was a veritable frontier, and it was obliged to take into account the politics pursued by the occupying force. Marechal Petain’s message, calling for a revival of the ‘provinces’, would quickly lend it an added justification, at least in appearance. As early as the end of July, I wrote to Albert Le Bail and to Cannon Desgrange, who were the most faithful parliamentary supporters of the Ar Brezhoneg er Skol demands, urging them to resume their efforts in favour of the teaching of Breton, and suggesting the elaboration of a program of ‘moderate provincialism’.
In Pau, I had plenty of time to reflect on these problems and to develop them. Now that the armistice was signed and the government settled in Vichy, it was impossible for the administration to rejoin it until further orders. Marie-Madeleine and I had been allocated a rather dark hotel room on the boulevard side, at one end of the magnificent terrace, with a view opening out to the Pyrenees mountain range. The white crest and pointed ridge of the Midi d’Ossau’s peak provided a majestic backdrop. Together with the glorious summer sunshine, it was an outstanding sight.
Here again, we were faced with the same problem as in Larcay: it was forbidden to cook in the room, and the price of meals at our hotel were much higher than in Touraine. Roger Colin, whom we had located without too much trouble, directed us to a more basic restaurant, which was cheaper and where we usually had lunch with him. In the evening, we broke the rule, and prepared a light meal in hiding in our room, thanks to our little electric cooker: we hid it in a suitcase under the bed in the day! Food supplies were becoming difficult. Fruit, tomatoes and other basic vegetables were relatively abundant. It was impossible to find butter, mainly produced in the North West of France, a zone that was occupied. I got in touch with the Union Federale’s senior service-men, who knew me of course. This good man with a Bearn accent was a beekeeper by trade, who brought his honey to the market in Pau every week. He managed to provide us with a quarter of pound of butter every week, although it was often rancid. Fortunately, his honey on our bread replaced very well the butter we were used to!
Roger Colin was engaged to Jeanine Gabard, daughter of a fairly well-known sculpture from Bearn. His studio was situated in a secluded street, at the bottom of a large, quiet orchard full of peach trees. Monsieur Gabard seldom worked there anymore. We went there nearly every day to spend those hours we had free, away from the relatively overcrowded city with refugees of all kinds, both military and civilian. The peaches were delicious, and an important addition to our frugal diet! Robert’s brother, Marcel Audic, came to join us there at times. Herve Le Menn and he were the founders of the first bagpipes fraternity. He was in uniform, that of military pharmacist, and had also been evacuated to the city. He brought a little piece of Brittany with him. We exchanged whatever news we received: but this was often a long time coming, and my bitterness at being totally cut off from my country intensified.
The dazzling memory I have of Pau, however, is the discovery of the Pyrenees. I had hardly been to the mountains before, and discovered the dazzle of snow on the summits, the deep blue sky, speckled with white at times, the purity of remote lakes in the hollows of high valleys, the harshness of bare mountain pastures, the effort in climbing steep paths, and savouring the reward on reaching the top of the slope, of the undefiled horizons unfolding in dazzling sunshine, and bathed in silence, bristling with summits, which seemed to guard the horizon like an army of giants. We devoted practically every week-end to excursions in the mountains. My male colleagues, who had not been mobilised, were either too old or too unfit to join us. But we finally formed a small group of mountain climbers with two of our female colleagues. Christiane Demolon, and la’petite’ Poggioli, as I called her because of her small, though perfectly proportioned stature. Also, three or four young soldiers with nothing to do while waiting to be demobilised, whom we had met by chance on the slopes.
As for Marie-Madeleine, who did a lot of sport, a good cyclist and expert swimmer, she proved to have great endurance: you needed it to keep up the long hours of climbing required, through the passes and steep foothills.
We generally took the train to Eaux-Vives or Eaux-Bonnes, and set off from there along the mountain paths. One morning, we ventured to climb the Pic de Ger. Setting off early in the morning from our base, we reached the summit early afternoon, after hours of effort. We probably delayed there a little too long, and had just begun our descent when fog caught us off guard. We could not find the path leading down, and the one we were on led us to a precipice!
As night fell, we prudently decided to spend the night where we were, sheltering under a rock. It became very cold near the snow-slides which remained on the slopes. The wood fire we had lit and took it in turns to feed from scrub and dead wood we found around our improvised campsite, was hardly sufficient to keep us warm. Lying on the ground, we huddled close to each other for warmth, and every half hour changed sides, all together, when given the word! In the middle of the night, the fog lifted: once again we could see the stars shining against the navy blue background of the sky. At first light, we resumed our descent, bringing our numbed limbs back to life again. We finally reached our base at eight in the morning, completely exhausted. A shepherd we met, along the way in the upper valleys, had offered us the warm milk he had just milked from his cows!
This discovery of the Pyrenees made life in Pau more bearable, but the inactivity was really beginning to weigh on me. All the personnel from my section were gathered together in one vast room, which used to be the dining room of one of Pau’s large hotels. There was strictly nothing to do. The archives of the Ministry had been mislaid, somewhere between Tours and Bordeaux. The female personnel passed the time knitting, and the males played cards. As often as possible, I escaped from the deleterious atmosphere of this vast room, and only put in an appearance. I had come across Juan de Epalza again, who had withdrawn to the French side of the Basque country. The Basque government’s delegation had remained in Paris, but had been evicted from the Avenue Marceau building it had occupied, which in turn had been handed over to the authorities of Franco’s Spain. He had as yet no news of President Aguirre, and I wondered, with some concern, if the passes I had been able to obtain for him had prevented him from being arrested or harassed in Holland or in Belgium, where he had been caught off guard by the invasion. I was able to finalise negotiations regarding the requisition, on behalf of the Basque’s refugee camp in Gurs, thus receiving a relatively substantial sum. Epalza took care of passing it on to the Basque government, whose funds were greatly reduced at present as, by force of circumstances, links had been broken with the Mexican and Latin American Basque colonies, where a large part of their self-financing came from. There was still the question of whether Franco would join in the war on the side of Franco, which would have forced practically all the refugees to go underground.
I finally began to receive news from Brittany, though very brief as only open postcards could be used, but at least they reassured us regarding the fate of our respective families. One of these messages informed me that Mordrel and Debauvais had returned to Rennes, and had founded a newspaper. The Bretons were beginning to take action again, but under what auspices and conditions? It seemed necessary for me to return to Brittany. I did not contemplate remaining pinned down in Pau, cut off from everything, far from the homeland and the struggle I cared about. The Interior Ministry’s administration was supposed to arrive any day in Vichy, but I did not feel that it offered any better prospects. I had no desire to bury myself there for a period of time impossible to predict, cut off from Brittany by a demarcation line which was worse than a border. I therefore decided to return to Brittany before making any further decisions. It was already the middle of August. It was an easier undertaking, now that the situation had more or less settled down. Railway transport had not yet been fully restored between the two zones, but the demarcation line could be crossed without any major formalities by refugees returning to their homes: one had to make the most of it.
I had been patiently building up a small reserve of petrol, carefully hidden away. It was increasingly difficult to obtain. Using the car there, was out of the question: but every week I made a point of starting it up and letting the engine run awhile: luckily the hotel we had been allocated was on a relatively good slope, and by pushing the car a little at first, it was possible to start it up. Pichavant, a colleague of Marcel Audic, who was a chemist in Audierne, and was also languishing in Pau, jumped at the chance of accompanying us and returning home. As for me, I requested and was granted 3 weeks sick leave, which I had every intention of taking concurrently with the annual leave I still had due to me.
I spite of our misgivings, the journey was uneventful. The idea was to reach the demarcation line south of the Loire. I was worried about the refuelling opportunities. Practically all the petrol stations were closed. The roads were not crowded, however, apart from the odd one which was only opened for a couple of hours a day. These had been designated specifically for the transport of supplies to refugees returning home. Nearly two months after the Armistice, the situation was still far from normal. Most of the cars were heading towards the Paris region, which was not our case. Here again, it was Paris that was the cause of the overcrowding, with the network of roads, converging on the city, creating a web of power. It makes one wonder how the rest of France survives under the weight of this city. It drains the wealth, the people and their skills, and its weight is felt everywhere, even where one least expects it. We took the road to Poitou as soon as we could, just after Perigueux. Before that, we had followed along the demarcation line, where there were a number of compulsory crossing points. We were now heading straight for it, in the hope of reaching the Loire at Angers.
This time the road was practically deserted. The countryside was peaceful, weighed down by the summer heat. The village went about their business. There was nothing to remind one of the War and its attendant suffering and destruction. The evening of our second day of travel, we reached the last village before crossing the line. We discovered that, like all good civil servants, it was only opened during office hours! It was closed every evening at five and was not opened on Sundays. It was already nearly seven in the evening and a Saturday. We had to wait until Monday!
Making the best of our bad luck, we started looking for somewhere to stay. The local Inn had no problem finding rooms for us with families. Thus we spent a peaceful Sunday in this sleepy little village near the Poitou marshlands, surrounded by lakes, scattered woodlands, meadows and cool shade. The glorious weather continued, giving rise to optimism. We were all looking forward to being back soon in familiar territory.
When we arrived at the demarcation line on the Monday morning, ours was the only car. A type of customs gate had been set up across the road. A non-commissioned officer and a German soldier were on guard in a small observatory post. The non-commissioned officer spoke fluent French. They checked our papers and those of the car, and stamped the documents we showed them, with a swastika. A few minutes later we were on the road to Angers. It was just before reaching that town, when we became aware that the War was not over! Alongside the road and the Loire, for several hundred metres, stood a high barbed wire fence, enclosing a vast military prison camp of wooden sheds.
-‘They have not had our luck,’ said Pichavant, ‘The net closed on them before they could escape’.
Angers was crowded with all sorts of convoys and vehicles belonging to the occupying force. German soldiers sat around mingling with the clientele on cafe terraces. There were far more supplies on display in the Grocery and Vegetable shop windows than in those of Pau. We parked the car at the foot of the castle ramparts, in order to make some purchases for our picnic. Then resuming our journey, we crossed the Maine without any difficulty. We reached Brittany shortly before Chateaubriand – from then on we were home and the atmosphere seemed lighter. By late afternoon, Marie-Madeleine and I were at the station in Rennes, bidding farewell to Pichavant, who was taking the train to Quimper. We found shelter with Jean Le Henaff, Marie-Madeleine’s brother in law, in the house he had built near the Agricultural school where he worked. The house is still there: but the fields that spread out all around it have now disappeared. In their place are the large Villejean buildings, in the midst of which the house appears incongruous and out of place.
Rennes had not changed noticeably since before the War. The only things indicating that the city was occupied were the presence of Germans in uniform mingling with the crowds, and the German flag flying from the few public buildings. The Prefecture, Town Hall, Law Courts and Post Office all operated as usual. Trains were running normally again to Brest, Quimper and Paris. The Breton National Party’s newspaper, ‘l’Heure Bretonne’, was on sale in the kiosks with other newspapers.
I knew very few people in Rennes, and none holding positions of importance, apart from a colleague of my father’s at the Finance Department. I set out to find Debauvais and the militants around him. The Breton National Council was set up during the month of July, in a house surrounded by a garden, rue Waldeck-Rousseau. A couple of militants I did not know screened all visitors.
Francois Debauvais was still the same man, with ardent eyes and sharp, self-willed features. He cheerfully shouldered the death penalty, imposed in absentia, on him and Olier Mordrel, by the Rennes military tribunal the previous May, shortly before the German attack on the West. It was on that day, in his office, that I met Herve Le Helloco, known as Bob, the man behind the Gwalarn arms landing, who together with Meaven, was behind the Gwen-Ha-Du organisation. He had just returned from Germany. Georges Le Mée, who sometimes helped me in Paris, translating articles and the necessary English correspondence for ‘Peuples et Frontieres’, also worked there, and was in the National Council office. Mordrel called around the following day. He introduced me to Roparz Hemon, whom I had never met before, and who happened to be in Rennes, probably for a Kuzul Meur meeting – the secret grand council which was the coordinating body of the Breton Nationalists – and of whose existence I was unaware. Mordrel also introduced me to Morvan Lebesque, who had taken on the publication of l’Heure Bretonne alongside him. Their joint talents had made it into a vigorous newspaper, tough and precise in its analysis. After further conversations in Rennes and elsewhere – notably with Maurice Planiol, son of Marcel, himself a law professor, and some personal friends such as Xavier de Langlais, Raymond Delaporte and others – my research was completed, and little by little I was able to form more precise opinions of the situation. Thus on both a cultural and political level the work for Brittany and for the propaganda had resumed: I had every intention, for my part, to galvanize the work of Ar Brezhoneg er Skol and to try and obtain further concessions, from a government weakened by defeat. But although the conditions under which this work had resumed were noticeably different to what they had been before, they were still far from being equivalent to those Mordrel and Debauvais had hoped for, before their stay in Germany. The armistice had completely changed the situation, and my analyses on that point had been confirmed. The confusion brought about by the defeat of the French army with the appearance of the German armour on the Breton roads, the collapse of the government and the invasion had, for several days, created a psychological situation that made any hypothesis or conjecture possible. There were few Bretons who did not believe, during those first troubled days and weeks, that Breton autonomy, then thought of as Independence, according to the terminology at that time, would be proclaimed. The French authorities themselves thought so. The Chamber of Commerce and the Treasury were preparing the creation of a Breton currency. The prefet, Jouanny, was expecting the autonomists at the Rennes prefecture, as also were the directors of Ouest-Éclair, who slept in their offices and had interrupted the publication of their newspaper. But that had only lasted for a few days. Maréchal Pétain’s voice which, at that historical moment, appeared to be the authentic voice of France, rang out in all households. France was pulling itself together, France was not dead: and with her also the State’s authority, its civil servants, its police, and all those who were agents or supporters of its power structure, were pulling themselves together. The latter had pursued, slandered and condemned the “autonomists” too much, to allow even one iota of that authority be relinquished to them. Apart from the fact that there was no repression; they did not dare to arrest or pursue the autonomists, as they were thought to be supported by the Germans; there was hardly any change in the situation from the point of view of the Breton demands in general. The administration remained: it continued to destroy them, silently maybe, but efficiently, at both the highest and lowest levels. It even did so with the German authorities. I could not afford to have any doubt about all this. Neither Debauvais nor, even less so, Mordrel had hidden the realities of the situation from me. The proclamation of autonomy was so obviously linked to the collapse of France that a number of Bretons were still convinced that the autonomists had far more power than they had in reality. Above all, this was true of the prisoners’ families who, having heard that a certain number of the former had been freed because they were Bretons, had besieged Debauvais with requests to intervene. But the reality was something else: the German army was, as it happens, in the process of dissolving the camps for Breton prisoners that had been created at the end of May. The situation was no better on the home front. The creation of the Breton National Council had come up against the wariness of the occupation authorities, who wanted to humour their new Vichy allies. As for the latter, their main concern was the maintaining of French unity. The German army had requisitioned Ouest-Journal’s printers, where the first issues of L’Heure Bretonne had been printed, and had ordered the latter to vacate the premises, with a ban on any future use of requisitioned press. It was obvious that whatever support had been expressed by a few secret service German officers towards Breton separatists during their stay in Germany and even in Rennes, during the few days after their arrival, had now become an embarrassment to the authorities responsible for the Reich’s policies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the German Embassy and the higher echelons of the army were all fundamentally hostile to this support granted by certain secret service agents to the autonomists. It seemed to them to be out of season, now that new relations had been established with France. What weight could Breton separatism have, now that good relations with Vichy France were the order of the day? I knew perfectly well that nazi Germany’s politics were “Francophile”. Once again I had proof of this before my eyes. I did not fail to remind Debauvais of the conversation we had a year ago on this subject.
On the other hand, the secret service officers interested in the Breton separatists were faithful allies. But there were but a handful of them. Some were motivated by idealism, others because they were convinced that it was in the true interest of Germany to dismember France. Amongst them were a certain number of Prussian military, direct inheritors of Bismarck’s policy. The latter did not allow ideological considerations or sentiment to take over from the cold necessities of greater politics. They were nearly all anti-nazis. Some hardly bothered to hide it. Mordrel introduced me to two of them that he said were the most faithful: Captain Wagner, whom I was to meet two or three times again, and Colonel Von Stauffenberg, whom I never saw again. The latter carried an old wound from the 1914 war that made walking difficult for him. He had no scruples calling all Nazis scoundrels: he crushed them with his contempt. I was therefore not surprised when I learnt, a few years later, that his nephew, a colonel of the same name, was the leader responsible for the attack that nearly cost Hitler his life. This Hitler who, in the opinion of the plotters, was leading his country to ruin after having swept it along to conquer Europe, which was why they had supported him at first. The strange quirks of history whereby not only the separatist leaders and militants but also the Breton movement’s militants as a whole, when France was liberated, were accused of having been pro-nazi, whilst in reality it was the nazis who opposed their efforts! The Nazis were in fact pro-French. They were not pro-Breton, even if some Germans were.
There was, therefore, a conflict of administration, and of the services, on the subject, which frequently happens within authoritarian regimes and heavily centralised large States. Not so long ago, France again demonstrated this with the secret services and the police, often with opposing activities, and at times criminal, as they have no hesitation in choosing their methods. The activities of the pro-Breton secret services would probably have been very effective if they had been able to continue functioning in occupied Brittany. At the beginning of the occupation, a number of Breton and non-Breton business men, industrialists and traders gravitated around the “autonomists”, as they gravitate in every country to the sources close to the party about to or likely to assume power. It is an open secret that the financing of party politics depend largely on the profits made by these discreet, efficient “business men”, thanks to “tips” and all sorts of financial transactions, facilitated by their contacts, and connections to those currently in power. Services rendered which of course deserve to be rewarded.
Thus it was that with the support of specialised German services, a number of commercial transactions were considered, from which the profits would have covered the costs of the Breton National Council’s propaganda and activities. It was to operate in the same manner as the company “Holding Interagra” that had made J.-B. Doumeng’s fame and fortune, and indirectly was known to furnish the coffers of the Communist party. This company and its various subsidiaries, born of the resistance, had practically a monopoly on the import and export of agricultural products and equipment with Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Eastern Germany and others. The European Community used it often as an intermediary for the sale of its butter to Soviet Russia. Similarly, the role of the Breton commercial company would have been to centralise and organise the export of Breton products, as well as the import of equipment and raw materials necessary to the Breton economy. One can imagine the funds this holding company could have generated for the Breton National Council’s coffers, if the German secret services had been authorised to make it work! Throughout the occupation, had Brittany not provided and supplied two thirds of France, thanks to a prosperous and anarchic black market.
The whole thing fell through and was rapidly brought to an end by the German administration, whose complicity was necessary, and by their Vichy allies and colleagues. Two months after the arrival of the Germans in Brittany, the presence and activities of the Breton National Council and l’Heure Bretonne were already barely tolerated, and only to the point where they did not give rise to too many incidents with the Vichy Government and its services. Little by little, the German officers most in favour of supporting Breton separatism were moved from Brittany. They were all posted elsewhere. It was not the first time that French intrigue, and the actions of “pro-French” parties and clans, succeeded in having the last word.
The Breton National Council was, therefore, becoming increasingly isolated, both materially and psychologically. But neither Debauvais nor Mordrel were discouraged by this. Both had a sufficient sense of politics to take into consideration this new situation they found themselves in. Neither one of them, nor the great majority of militants following them, were of the sort to abandon the struggle at the first sign of difficulty. Debauvais dedicated his time to reconstituting and structuring the Parti National Breton. Mordrel, publicly in l’Heure Bretonne , and diplomatically, endeavoured to warn the German services in Paris and in Berlin, regarding the Franco-German policy of collaboration already outlined, and that was established a few weeks later in Montoire. However courageous, these warnings were misunderstood by public opinion: they appeared as attacks against the French Government, whose leader indisputably enjoyed the support of the population: they irritated the administration, the civil servants and the important people who had all rallied around Vichy: they incited the former to demand that their German allies impose sanctions, which they themselves would have normally imposed against the autonomists. Already Angeli, préfet of Finistère, had attempted to ban the sale of l’Heure Bretonne: he had the militants, selling it in public, arrested for nearly twenty four hours. They were only released after the German authorities’ intervention. Paradoxically, it was the latter that, as it happens, enforced freedom of opinion. Angeli was the only one left in a prefecture deserted by all its civil servants, as none of them cared to be included in the reprisals threatened by the German army should the préfet persist in refusing to surrender the French flag, still flying on the roof. Heads of division, typists and others of the préfecture’s staff were gathered on the other bank of the Odet, in front of the Hotel de l’Épée, calmly waiting to see what would be the outcome of this impromptu duel. It was also Angeli who had succeeded in convincing Monseigneur Duparc to issue an official condemnation, from his Episcopal pulpit, of the “autonomists” activities. For many months after that, a number of Breton Nationalists in Finistère, members of the P.N.B., were refused access to the sacraments!
The occupation authorities who above all were preoccupied with the maintenance of public order, intervened to try and peacefully solve all those minor incidents which might arise between Breton nationalist militants and French authorities. But once the initial fright and shock of the Occupation had faded away, all it did was to confirm the idea, held by a large majority of Breton opinion, that the autonomists were effectively and efficiently supported by the Germans. The Vichy French authorities also did all they could to substantiate and spread this idea, which was only vaguely true. The London French Committee’s propaganda, which had begun to express itself on the BBC, soon followed their example.
It seemed to me urgent to react in some way. What would become of the more moderate and essential Breton claims if this image, which the traditional enemies of the Breton movement wanted to give it, was allowed to gain ground? Obviously with the aim of discrediting it as a whole, whilst in fact only a small minority had followed Mordrel and Debauvais in their attempt. The formation of a third force seemed to me increasingly necessary. There was a middle road between separatism and centralism which had to be taken: Maréchal Pétain’s declarations on the revival of the provinces and local power, even if this administration only paid lip service to it, opened up this road. Public opinion had to be reassured by officially declaring the claims this implied, in the context of a certain Breton regional autonomy. Vichy also had to be reassured as to the moderate Breton movement’s intentions, which should not be confused with separatism, and which could eventually provide a negotiating partner they could turn to. Lastly but not least, the Germans had to be brought under control, which could be done by becoming part of the political current of compromise towards which they strove with the Vichy government.
My thoughts were still rather vague about all this when, in September, I left Rennes to visit Marie-Madeleine’s mother in Louannec and my parents in Brest, all impatiently awaiting our visits. But I was certain that the steps I would take in that direction would be welcomed by the leaders of a Parti National Breton, now virtually a prisoner of the stand it had taken and the image portrayed of it to public opinion. Debauvais’ pragmatism in the pursuit of his Breton claims would incite him to support these steps. Neither Mordrel’s liking for grand political games, nor Raymond Delaporte’s more down to earth realism could persuade either of them not to see their usefulness, or even their necessity. Before leaving Rennes I gave my official approval, on behalf of Ar Brezhoneg er Skol, to a paper which the leaders of the major cultural bodies had prepared for the German authorities, in order to attract their attention to Brittany’s cultural claims. Roparz Hémon, Raymond Delaporte, Hervé Mazé, Yann ar Beg, Yann Vari Perrot and Loeiz Herrieu had also signed this paper, as leaders respectively of Gwalarn, Breuriez ar Brezhoneg er Skoliou, S.A.V., Ober, Feiz ha Breiz and Dihunamb. I had also drawn up a project of Statutes for Brittany, within the framework of France, and had begun to submit it for the approval and signature of personalities in various circles.
This project of Statutes, which was none other than the first draft of the one that was unanimously adopted two years later by the Comité Consultatif de Bretagne, was based on Maréchal Pétain’s declarations, whose message on centralisation and revival of the “provinces” had considerable echoes in Brittany and elsewhere. It therefore asked that Brittany be granted a status of regional autonomy on an administrative level, as well as on a financial and institutional resources level. It foresaw the formation of a regional assembly, dubbed “provincial” for the occasion, provided with extensive decision making powers, particularly as regards cultural matters, and the establishing of a regional executive, responsible for the application of these decisions. The numerous approaches I had made in favour of the teaching of Breton had convinced me that Breton cultural claims would never be met, as long as the Bretons were not themselves in possession of the necessary powers to implement and apply them. Obviously, it was a political and institutional problem above all, and there was no point concealing it. Administrative autonomy was itself a pre-condition for the cultural autonomy we sought: it was clear we would never fulfil the latter if we had not first won the former. It was an essential hurdle we had to surmount. It seemed to me that the time had come to do so. Was not the failure of the separatist’s project an added reason to follow along that road, now that the declaration of the new head of State himself had opened it up?
It was, of course, far from being the Conseil National Breton’s program, and also that of the Parti National Breton, or P.N.B. which Debauvais was trying to reconstitute. But was separatism none other than the desperate solution of those who no longer believed it was possible to obtain a reasonable autonomy within France, or at least one comparable to that which Brittany enjoyed until the French revolution? Debauvais, Mordrel and Delaporte, who only sought the liberty of their country, were just as likely to understand and accept this reasoning as those Breton personalities , whether rallied around the Vichy government or not, whom I would now endeavour to gather around a precise provincial autonomy program.
My mother-in-law lived at the time in a small modest house on the outskirts of Louannec, in Kakousiri. This place was in fact quite a distance from the town in order to be used in olden days as a refuge for lepers or “cacous”, who were kept apart from the rest of the population. Kakousiri was in the countryside, by the road leading to Louannec’s little station, not far from farm buildings still occupied by the Marrec and Daniel families. The proximity of Lannion was an opportunity for me to visit its senator-mayor, Edgar de Kergariou, who was an old friend of my fathers. He had, in common with Ribbentrop, once earned his living selling Champagne. But the similarity ended there. He was a faithful supporter of Yves Le Trocquer and had succeeded him in the Senate. Taldir Jaffrenou, who looked after his political contacts, had appointed him honorary bard of the Gorsedd. It was from Kergariou that I learnt I was not the only one to think in terms of gathering together a moderate third Breton Force. Taldir had begun to collect the signatures of leading personalities of the major Breton associations on a “Request to Maréchal Pétain”, reminding the new head of State of Brittany’s unchanging administrative and cultural claims. Kergariou had promised Taldir that, when the time came, he would go to Vichy himself, alone or with some of his colleagues, to hand over the Request to Maréchal Pétain, which he actually did the following December. Taldir had been trying to contact me. I wrote and told him to include my signature.
Some time later, I learnt that Régis de l’Esrourbeillon and Roger Grand, ex-parliamentarians, on behalf of L’Union Régionaliste and L’Association Bretonne, had prepared an “exposé of the Province of Brittany’s legitimate claims” to present to the new head of State. It stated that the Province should have an “administrative autonomy compatible with the unity of the French State”. This document was actually handed over to Maréchal Pétain in November. L’Ouest Éclair , whose directors had greatly feared an “autonomist” take-over of their press when the Germans arrived, had deemed it necessary, through the pen of Jean des Cognets, to be in line with this trend of “regionalism” respectful of French unity defined by the head of State. Their long editorial entitled “Les Libertés Bretonnes”, published before my arrival, had drawn attention. Of course, Jean des Cognets, who was both clever politician and shrewd businessman, was establishing his distance from the leaders of Breiz Atao and L’Heure Bretonne. But there was no reason to suspect the sincerity of his personal feelings when he wrote, at the time, to Taldir Jaffrenou :
– “Regionalism? – as much as you want. Autonomy? -Yes, as far as possible. Separatism?- No.”
In reality with those few words he conveyed what was also the standpoint of Breton public opinion at the time. And anyway, had it not always been the policy of Rennes’ major daily newspaper to reflect public opinion rather than to lead it, a concept perfectly in accordance with the commercial interest of an informative daily paper?
It was a pleasure to be back in Lannion , the banks of the Léguer with their rows of seagulls lined up on the guardrails like white music notes, the Brélevenez steps lined with quiet houses and flowering gardens. I went again to visit La Clarté, and roamed the beaches of Perros, guardians of certain childhood memories. I also visited some of the Breton militants I knew in the area: James Bouillé, ex-president of Bleun Brug, Father Bourdelles, teacher at Saint-Joseph’s, a man with a clear mind and strong convictions, my old friend Marius Le Toiser, who had opened a lawyer’s office in Place du Centre, Abel Omnès and a few others. All this helped to complete my information. Before arriving in Brest, I already knew that a not inconsiderable number of sympathisers and supporters in favour of a Breton Claims Policy, though moderate of course, but solid and specific, could be brought together. The regional autonomy laid out in the Statutes for Brittany did not give rise to any fundamental criticism nor hostility amongst those I met: it drew numerous approvals. Whether fought for or not, the prospect of independence, opened up by the Conseil National Breton and by “L’Heure Bretonne,” had presented the problem under a different light. It had, for a few weeks, made independence credible. The armistice had made it impossible then. The prospect of “autonomy”, within the framework of French unity maintained by the new government, attracted those “reasonable” and moderate, not to mention the opportunists.
This attitude of mind affected not only those circles traditionally favourable to Breton claims but also a large slice of public opinion that, until then, had been indifferent to or unaware of them. If I sought for a comparison with a more recent period, I could only compare the attitude of mind then to that which appeared immediately after the advent of the socialist government in 1981. In both cases, though in very different political environments, Breton public opinion expected the new authorities to overthrow the old, who had systematically ignored and generally fought against Breton requests and claims. In 1940, Maréchal Pétain, if not his government, was explicit about decentralisation and the reinforcement of local and regional autonomies, which implied a profound modification of previous governments’ policies. In 1981, Francois Mitterand and his ministers were no less explicit, which was completely divorced from the policy maintained by all his predecessors since the Liberation.
Brest, early in September of 1940, was still relatively unscarred by the war. But there were frequent air raids and the British repeatedly bombed the naval dockyard. There were few quiet nights. My parents stoically faced up to the situation, as did also the great majority Brest’s population. For my father to abandon the Treasury buildings at night was out of the question as a senior civil servant, mindful of the duties and obligations of his post and the example he should set for his subordinates. He occupied a large apartment situated over the offices, on the corner of place Wilson and rue Jean Macé, in a building adjoining that of “La Dépêche de Brest”. My father’s decision to stand firm was unshaken even when, a few months later, an enormous bomb, having passed through the upper floors, landed unexploded in the machine workshop of “La Dépêche de Brest”. It could easily have destroyed both buildings! This incited the paper to leave Brest, doing its printing first in Rennes and then in Morlaix. Neither was it in my mother’s nature, who had always displayed a great stoicism of character, not to remain, whatever the circumstances, at her husband’s side.
My father told me how, in liaison with the local director of the Banque de France, and after numerous incidents, he had been able, in extremis, to ensure that the French holdings of gold and the country’s banknotes were loaded onto French warships. The governor, Générale Fournier, during the “drole de guerre”, had deposited most of the holdings of gold from the Banque de France in various hiding places in Brittany. Knowing then the weakness of the regime and of the country, he wanted to ensure that these considerable reserves of French gold, in excess of two thousand tons at the time, would not fall into German hands should they besiege Paris. But as Brittany had also been threatened by the rapidly advancing German army, it had been necessary, using all sorts of improvised means of transport including taxis, to move these gold reserves to Brest in order to prepare for their evacuation by sea. By the end of the month of May, the cruisers, Jeanne d’Arc and Emile Bertin, had already evacuated two hundred tons of it. At the beginning of June, the liner Pasteur cast off from Brest with two hundred and thirteen tons. The day the Germans entered Paris there were still over a thousand tons of gold dispersed around Brest. Lorries, vans and even carts were requisitioned to carry out a constant shuttle to the harbour, whilst German troops were drawing closer by the hour. On the 17th and 18th of June, the admiralty provided ships which took on board several hundred tons of gold bullion and coins. As there was a shortage of manpower, they had offered the prisoners, of the Pontaniou detention centre, their freedom in return for their help with the loading. But the Germans were at the gates of the city and already surrounding the harbour, which they took under machinegun fire. The fuel depot was set on fire, and so it was in the glow of that light, the night of the 18th of June, that the last ships cast off. The civilian authorities had appealed to the port admiral to engage the German army in negotiations to discuss the surrender of the city, in order to gain time and allow for the holding of gold to be completed. The conditions for this surrender had been discussed on the telephone. The fact that the Brest port admiral bore the very Germanic name of Traub and his counterpart, the German admiral who would be taking over his post, was a Huguenot descendant and bore the very French name of Arnaud de la Perrière, certainly made these conversations easier.
These negotiations had delayed the entry into the city, and the arrival at the harbour of the German units by a few precious hours. It had also given the German army a chance to make its entrance into Brest, with music leading a flawless march like a parade, in the most perfect order. When the German navy contingents landed on the quays and naval dockyards, it had only been three days since the British troops stationed in Brittany had re-embarked from that same place, to the population’s great relief. Those who replaced them wore a different uniform. But they found no troops, ammunitions, warships nor fuel depot in the city and harbour: all essential installations had been rendered useless.
Ouessant, where a detachment of the French navy was stationed, had held out for two more days: a rumour had been circulated in the islands, that the Germans interned all males liable to be called up. The surrender of the Islands was also done on the telephone, once Admiral Traub and his German colleague, Arnaud de La Perrière, whose name could only inspire them with confidence, had given their word that this was not the case. Apparently L’Ile de Seine was not advised of this in time: the flotilla carrying those men liable to be called up, who did not want to be “interned”, had already set sail when the Germans landed there peacefully. In the history of this war, many became “heroes” purely by chance. It is always incongruous, unflattering and even dangerous to refuse the laurels awarded you by public opinion. After all, legends are even more essential to the collective consciousness of nations than reality. Thus it was that L’Ile de Seine, according to Générale de Gaulle, became “half of France” for a while. In reality his appeal for resistance, which no one heard, had nothing to do with it. In fact, half of those people from L’Ile de Seine continued to exercise their fishing trade in Britain’s Cornwall.
My father, whose position did not allow him to be involved in politics, corroborated my information that the “autonomists” had fallen into discredit in the eyes of public opinion, due to the rallying around Maréchal Pétain that took place after the armistice. In Finistère however, where the parliamentary representation had voted in the majority against the full powers granted to the latter, people’s minds were more divided than elsewhere regarding the new government. I realized this for myself when I accompanied my father on a trip to Quimper, during which he introduced me to the Senator and Mayor of Ploaré, Francois du Fretay, who became one of the faithful supporters of the projects I put forward to him. Being a man with an open and cultivated mind, he had not rallied to the Maréchal’s policy without reservations. He kept up his contacts with the “other side”, which became stronger over the next few years. Douarnenez, which was on his doorstep, became one of the main embarkation centres for Great Britain. Eighteen months later, he was arrested by the Germans and imprisoned for a few weeks: not long afterwards, I proposed that he be co-opted as a member of the Comité Consultatif de Bretagne, which was seconded by the regional préfet, Jean Quenette. We became firm friends: consolidated a few years later when I, in turn, became an outlaw. He helped me in every way he could, in spite of the trouble this could lead to. I choose to emphasise this here, as courage and loyalty are not the most widespread of human qualities.
It was also around this time that I met Jacques Guillemot. He was an important industrialist, connected through his wife to the Chancerelle dynasty, and was secretary of the Finistère Canning Association. He had rallied enthusiastically to the plan for the revival of the provinces outlined by Maréchal Pétain in some of his broadcasts. He was a militant Christian and had a large family with ten children already, at the time. As a former member of L’Action Francaise, he naturally rallied to the new regime’s slogan, “Work, Family, Nation”. It seemed to him that the creation of a militant newspaper, working towards achieving provincial autonomy for Brittany, was one of the ways of coming closer to a decentralised and decentralising system of monarchy, with power being limited by the exercising of numerous civil liberties, as it had been in France of old. This “King President of the French republics” could be the cementing of a political system that would not sacrifice the diversity necessary for the fulfilment of regional autonomies, to the requirements of the State’s unity. A sincere man, sometimes hard in business, he was quite blunt and had no time for subtleties. He was of a breed that can not remain indifferent to the problems of their time. It seemed to him unthinkable not to become involved: for him a wait-and-see policy was the same as deserting, and he had nothing but contempt for the prudent and timid who took refuge in it. He was the one who, a few months later, made possible the creation of the daily “La Bretagne”, thanks to the financial support he commanded. In an age when others sought refuge in prudence and held back, Jacques Guillemot had the courage to fully commit himself in support of the ideas he felt were just.
He paid dearly for this courage later on: his activity at the head of the daily “La Bretagne”, and of the other daily “La Dépêche de Brest, made him the victim of numerous hostilities, some of which were prompted by commercial motives. His blunt nature was the cause of other hostilities. Although the political responsibility of both papers was mine and not his, he was condemned and imprisoned solely for having made it possible.
The Finistère préfet, appointed in September of 1940, bore the name of Georges. My father knew him well: they had met a few years earlier at various official functions, which they attended in similar capacities at Chateauroux in Indre. A pleasant and articulate man, Georges was typical of those top-ranking civil servants whom I would label as a type B, that is to say a “Beni-oui-oui” or Yes man. The préfet, by definition, is a civil servant in authority, and the type B are those who try to exert as little as possible of that authority in order to please everyone more or less: diplomatic and courteous, they are generally well thought of by the population: they are the ones who “do not cause fireworks”, and who honourably complete their uneventful careers, but usually in postings that are considered second grade. That Georges was appointed to Quimper, probably stemmed from the fact that he had to succeed a predecessor who was a type A or an autocrat, that is to say a préfet who seeks to exert the authority his position gives him, to the maximum. Those who face and arouse as many hostilities as approvals, without hesitation, are those who, if their careers have not been abruptly halted, usually succeed in obtaining top-ranking positions. Either the Ministers of the Interior wanted that department where they ruled, to be rid of them or, they wanted fully to utilise in some other place the highly authoritarian capacities and character they showed. Angeli, from whom Georges took over, was a type A. The German authorities, with whom he had been having numerous difficulties, had asked for his transfer. He was therefore given a promotion in the then Unoccupied Zone. Though this did not prevent him, later on, when he had become regional préfet of Lyon, from being arrested and pursued for treason and being “in collusion with the enemy”. It is true that at the time it was mainly a question of getting rid of those who were in the way, rather than taking disciplinary action against the unworthy ones.
Unlike his predecessor, Georges knew how to get around people. He also spoke fluent German. He had heard of my projects but, as a top-ranking civil servant tied to the unity and centralisation of the State, did not indicate any enthusiasm for them. He never told me so, however, nor did he make any objections. It so happens he was interested in the predicament I was in, of a civil servant on leave from the Ministry of the Interior and for the moment unable to return to his post. The visas that the German authorities granted for the Vichy civil servants to cross the demarcation line, were generally restricted and granted parsimoniously, even sometimes refused depending on the current mood. Besides, I confided to Georges that I had no wish to go to Vichy, and would prefer a posting with the Ministry of the Interior based in Paris. It was the end of September and my leave had already expired. During the first few days of October, Georges got in touch with my father and offered me a temporary posting at the sous-préfecture of Morlaix. The present holder of the position had been appointed elsewhere and had not been replaced as yet. My father strongly urged me to accept. Probably as he also contemplated, with some apprehension, the projects I entertained of founding a militant newspaper and fighting for regional autonomy by presenting the claims, which I had summarized and clarified in my Statute proposal. But the realisation of these was still far from settled.
Thus it was that, at the beginning of October, I settled in to the Morlaix sous-préfecture. Georges had issued an order of appointment to Morlaix, and had undertaken to sort out my administrative situation directly with Vichy. The sous-préfecture was at the time situated on the rue Ange de Guernissac, practically under the viaduct near l’Église Saint-Melaine, in a dark old building to which a smaller brighter building had been added for the offices. Off the street there was a maze of small, narrow, picturesque streets. The large lounge was as sinister as it was solemn, and poorly lit. It was mainly furnished with a red velvet Voltaire lounge suite. The sous-préfet’s bedroom, looking out on the street was just as dark. Marie-Madeleine and I settled into a smaller, sunnier bedroom with bright cretonne curtains on the windows that looked out onto the back of the building, overlooking some old rooftops gathered around the church. We had also inherited the ex-sous-préfet’s domestic help; a young Spanish refugee who relieved Marie-Madeleine from most of the heavy domestic responsibilities associated with a house that size. She knew the place better than we did.
By the stairs and on the first floor landing, I had noticed two very large and quite good full length portraits of the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, which had been presented to the sous-préfecture by them on the occasion of their official visit to Morlaix in 1863. I wondered which of my predecessors had bowed to republican scruples to the extent of putting these two portraits away, where visitors could obviously not contemplate them! I had them put back in the large lounge in more suitable positions, a well deserved tribute to the artist who had painted them. I do not know whether my successor will have left them there. The sous-préfecture has, in fact, been moved elsewhere, since Alexis Gourvennec and his friends of the peasants’ commando demonstrated that it was too easy to seize and occupy it.
– “Have you visited the cellars?” asked Penther, the architect in charge of work for the Administration, who was one of the first to visit me.
We went down there together: the vast cellar on several levels, where the central heating’s boilers were, was full of crates and various boxes containing several thousand tins of condensed milk, a considerable quantity of household linen, sewing machines and various other items.
– “This was all intended for the refugees,” explained Penther. “Most of it is there since the beginning of the war: some of it comes from stocks left behind by the British in their camp at Saint-Thégonnec, when the British troops hastily re-embarked from Brest as the Germans advanced.”
– “And if you need petrol,” added Bloc’h, the sous-préfecture’s permanent secretary, “go to the police station; they will fill up your car, free of charge, as long as stocks last. They are storing the fuel we were able to seize from the camp at Saint-Thégonnec before the population got hold of it. We were also able to seize tens of thousands of cigarettes: but your predecessor who was a heavy smoker smoked them all.”
I carefully avoided any further inquiries as to the whereabouts of the English cigarettes, and marvelled at the chain-smoking capacities of my honourable predecessor, M.Mauléon.
The pillage of the British camp at Saint-Thégonnec remained a legend in the region for a long time. As soon as the troops had left, the townsfolk and those from the countryside nearby, all headed for the camp with wheelbarrows, tractors, carts, lorries and cars, carting off whatever they could lay their hands on: huge stocks of tinned food, coffee, tea, chocolate, condensed milk, flour, biscuits, sugar, linen, uniforms, cigarettes, tobacco and various other goods were used to swell the stocks in the houses and farms throughout the area. The British had fled: why leave it all to the Germans? As for the French administration and services, no one thought of them. Was the administration still in existence and would it not also disappear? The civilian authorities were powerless and unable to neither control the confusion nor stop the looting. They probably also thought about the precariousness of their authority during those days when everything faltered. Fanch Gourvil, another of my first visitors, who had a good sense of humour, told me the story of a farmer he knew who had filled his carts with large heavy bundles that looked promising. No one took the time to check the contents of the crates and boxes they were grabbing! But it turned out that these bundles he had carried off contained countless rolls of toilet paper!
– “I have enough to go around the world and to last me all my life,” groaned the unlucky one, in despair at having made such a bad choice in his haste.
I found very few matters waiting to be dealt with on my desk. Being a conscientious civil servant Bloc’h had seen to everyday affairs. He was a friend of Mazé, the radical deputy mayor of Sizun, to whom he bore a physical likeness: they both had long, thin and rather ascetic faces with high cheekbones. Before the war, Mazé had his municipal council vote in favour of the Ar Brezhoneg er Skol campaign for the teaching of Breton. But he voted against giving Maréchal Pétain total powers. I congratulated him on his negative vote when he came to see me: he seemed very surprised. He probably had not expected such an independent and frank reaction from a sous-préfet, even an acting one.
There was a municipal crisis in Plounévez-Lochrist. The Mayor had a disagreement with his assistants and had resigned.
– “It would be better to go and see what is going on there,” Georges had said, “but make sure you take Trémintin along with you also. He has been to see me and has phoned me several times about this. I have already wasted several mornings with him, as he suffers from some kind of verbal diarrhoea. I would like him not to mention it again.”
Trémintin was the deputy mayor of Plouescat, and I knew him well: he was one of our faithful supporters in our campaigns for the teaching of Breton. He was the one who had prepared the private member’s bill, which had resulted in the Desgranges report and in the Chamber of Deputies’ Educational commission’s favourable vote. He considered his district to be his personal property. His distinctive grey beard was seen all over the area, making a great many, often interminable, speeches punctuated by gestures with hands deformed by rheumatism. Together we paid a visit to the protagonists of Plonévez municipal council. I made a point of slipping a couple of Breton sentences into our discussions. This took everyone by surprise. A sous-préfet who could speak Breton, even though he spoke it badly, and did not treat it with scorn! This was unheard of! Many months later, Trémintin was asked what had become of the sous-préfet who spoke Breton!
Maréchal Foch’s property, situated on the Trégor bank of La Penzé, had been occupied by the Germans. The Maréchal’s wife was worried as to what might happen to the Maréchal’s belongings. His solicitor came to see me about this. We called on the Morlaix Feldkommandant and then went to see the property. I succeeded in obtaining an assurance that Maréchal Foch’s office would not be used and that all his personal belongings, letters, photos and manuscripts would be assembled there. In fact, the occupation forces generally scrupulously respected the properties they occupied. A few days later, I received a note from the Marechal’s wife, thanking me for intervening on their behalf.
Otherwise, during the few weeks I occupied this post, I conscientiously fulfilled the infrequent representational duties that were my responsibility, such as visits to the 1914 War Memorials on All Saints’ Day and on Armistice Day. I accompanied Dr. Le Jeune, deputy mayor of Morlaix, to a few official meetings at the prefecture. I also had the privilege of presiding over Morlaix district Council’s last informal session, as these assemblies had just been suspended. They still are. It was mainly to preside over the sharing out of the Ausweiss, or driving permits for cars, issued by the Germans, which entitled you to a supply of fuel. I had to restrain Lancien’s enthusiasm. He was the Carhaix Mayor and Senator, who would have monopolised all the Ausweiss allocated for the district, just for his canton.
All this while, I continued to be concerned about the Breton situation. The responsibilities of my post provided me with ideal opportunities to gather private information from local dignitaries and personalities. Most of these, apart from a few exceptions, supported Vichy. Many had done so without enthusiasm and some with reservations. But the government was the government, and its authority was respected, even if certain aspects of its policies were not approved of. The weight of the occupation had not yet made itself felt as much as it did later on. Still fewer were those who continued to have confidence in the eventual victory of the “British”, even though they wished it to happen. The birth of the “Gaullism” phenomena had not as yet come about. The incidents at Mers-el-Kébir, and of the Breton victims there, had left their mark in a department which had quite a number mobilised in the Navy. The latter as a corps had, in fact, never liked the British.
It was only later on, after the United States joined in the war and as the allied victory became more likely, that “Gaullism” finally formed a genuine public movement. On a political level, during that time while I fulfilled my responsibilities in Morlaix, nobody thought about it.
From then on, obtaining the maximum number of concessions possible in favour of Brittany from the established government, could only meet with the approval of the majority. In the past few years, Brittany was already in the forefront of movements with all sorts of claims from the State. That the Germans were there could only encourage Brittany to make further claims, though only as long as these did not arouse the fundamental hostility of the French government and its administration towards those claims, too readily compared with an “autonomy”, which had been compromised by attempts at an alliance with the occupying force originally. A very delicate political and psychological situation that was certainly not easy to make the most of, in spite of Maréchal Pétain’s speeches on the rebirth of the provinces.
The French administration certainly pursued silently its fundamentally anti-Breton policies: it was a source of satisfaction to them that the German authorities had given up all their policies supporting Breton “separatism”, but they were careful not to say so, preferring to let public opinion believe the contrary: also no one was aware of this phenomena nor wanted to believe it.
Amongst the documents which had been left on my desk, I had found on my arrival the order, given in July by Angeli, to proceed with the arrest of Mordrel and Debauvais, “on condition that they were not accompanied by German officers”. The order remained unfulfilled. A few days later, Bloc’h brought me a report from a Morlaix primary school inspector, requesting the dismissal of Armand Kéravel , a primary school teacher who with Kerlann was the coordinator of the Ar Falz group and their publication, which had been founded by Yann Sohier to promote the cause for the teaching of Breton in public education circles.
According to this report, apart from a few minor reproaches of a general nature, Kéravel had refused to comply with the blackout. His wife had not hidden the fact that she considered herself Breton first before being French: he entertained communist and anti-militaristic sympathies, etc… practically all the reproaches made against him were based on the Breton feelings and activism he displayed in his professional and private life, which in the eyes of his hierarchical superior were obviously signs of his sympathies for Breton self-government.
I therefore summoned the primary school inspector and told him, to his great astonishment, that I could only transmit his report advising that I was not in favour of the measures he requested.
– “Only those who are strangers in our country,” I told him, “could still confuse the defence of the teaching of Breton with sympathies for Breton self-government, and even if he is an “autonomist” or “communist”, I added, “it would then purely be a question of beliefs, against which I would refuse to take disciplinary action.”
I therefore passed on the report, along those lines, to the préfet, adding that if measures, such as had been requested , were taken against those involved in defending Breton culture and language, it would only assist in the spreading sympathies for Breton self-government. Georges, who was aware of my feelings on this point, approved my action. Thanks to his negotiations with the Finistère Inspection Academy, the disciplinary action that had been requested was substituted by a straightforward transfer for administrative reasons, within the department, which avoided any discredit.
This incident seemed to me significant of the state of mind that persisted within the administrative spheres in regard to Brittany and the Breton movement: nothing had changed with the advent of Vichy. Because of my responsibilities I became aware that, in fact, it was not the government who governed; the extreme centralisation and uniqueness of the governing power had, in reality, handed over the task of governing to the thousands of ants who administered. It seemed to me equally significant that, at the same time, the first meeting Jacques Guillemot and I had in Quimper with Von Delwig, who was in charge of press surveillance in Finistère, I obtained confirmation of the German authorities’ official policy towards autonomy. We had come to speak to him about our projects, as we could not manage without the intervention of the German press services or Propagandastafel if we wanted to publish another newspaper.
– “I know,” he told us, “that some of our services have supported Mordrel and Debauvais’ “separatist” projects. This policy is no longer appropriate: it is contrary to the one we are pursuing now, which is to collaborate as closely as possible with the French government and administration. I do not believe we could possibly allow the spreading of separatist propaganda now without arousing the hostility of Vichy.”
We carefully made it clear to him that this was not our aim, and that we wished to further the construction of a Breton province with local, administrative, financial and cultural powers, in direct line with projects for the renewal of the provinces outlined by Maréchal Pétain. There was no question of undermining French unity or of conducting a separatist policy. In doing this we were, in fact, faithful to tradition and to the long struggle of a Breton movement with only an avant-garde minority advocating separatism.
The idea seemed to appeal to this intelligent and well bred aristocrat, whose remark displayed a great refinement of mind and manners. The policy we advocated allowed him to reconcile the wishes of a number of Bretons, who called on him, with his superiors’ concerns of not undermining the Vichy government’s authority. A few weeks later, after having consulted his superiors, he advised us that, in principle, his services had no objection to our projects. He was transferred to Rennes at the beginning of the following year, and continued to display a liberal-minded attitude towards us, for which he was soon reproached. Some of his successors did not understand, as he did, that our aim was to publish a newspaper whose structure and content would be mainly Breton and not a daily with news items like the others, subject to the same instructions from Brest to Nancy. We therefore had to be different from the others and take an independent position towards these instructions, which few of our future colleagues could afford to take. Jacques Guillemot and I believed that the success of our venture depended on this. We had to consider all aspects from our point of view, and decide according to Breton interests in so far as these differed from those of Paris and the rest of France, thus demonstrating the necessity for a political, administrative and cultural autonomy for Brittany and the Bretons. The rest, in particular the continuation of the war and international politics, would be of secondary importance and, for us, would only be considered strictly for information and not for propaganda. This, of course, did not suit the German services, which finally made this clear to me, later on.
I was keen to get in touch with Hervé Budes de Guébriant, my neighbour and constituent from Saint-Pol-de-Léon. He was to become one of Vichy’s highest ranking dignitaries, and it was broadly hinted that Maréchal Pétain was to appoint him Governor of Brittany when the new provinces were established. I went to Landerneau to visit him at the Agricultural Unions’ main office. He was its president and had his offices there. We met again several times, later on. The Count of Guébriant was a “gentleman”, in the true and traditional sense of the word. He was born too late into a vulgar world, where little by little the spirit of chivalry, the subtlety of finer feelings, innate politeness common to both peasants and aristocrats, and a profound respect for the values on which Western civilisation was founded, had all but disappeared. His tall stature accentuated his natural distinction. He was, in every sense of the word, a very big man. Later on, in “Bretagne Écartelée”, I described him as a gentleman lost in the midst of this century’s vulgarity. He did not hide the fact that he was of the Ancien Régime. He did not mind blaming some of democracy’s problems on universal suffrage. Nevertheless, no one was more welcoming than he was towards the ordinary little people of humble background. No one did more to improve the lot of the Breton peasantry, placing the Breton peasant movement in the forefront of progress and planning, leaving similar French organisations far behind. He was the direct descendant of the Breton aristocrats who founded “L’Association Bretonne”, which was the first organization for the defence of our interests, our values and our identity, created in the middle of the last century, only half a century after the revolutionary turmoil had left Brittany defeated, ruined, decimated and deprived of its liberties. L’Estourbeillon was the only one who could measure up to him: though Guébriant had a more practical mind. He was not involved in politics: he built for the future. There was no one better qualified than he was to take on the presidency of the “corporation paysanne” which Vichy assigned him. He also felt at ease with the slogan, “Work, Family, Homeland”, defined by the new regime.
The restoration of the provincial autonomies was bound to meet with the approval of Guébriant, whose ancestors had sat on the “États de Bretagne”, before that assembly had been abolished by the revolutionary coup in Paris in 1791. Some eighteen months later all he did was, legitimately and naturally, to succeed them by accepting to sit on the “Comité Consultatf de Bretagne”, where his advice was always invaluable. He was also very attentive from the beginning towards the projects I put forward to him, though he was of the opinion they would be difficult to carry out. He promised to make several inquiries in Vichy to find out if we could benefit from some help from the State for such an undertaking, which lay within the framework of Maréchal Pétain’s considerations.
During the months that followed he invited me on two occasions for working sessions with his closest colleagues, to examine more closely what steps could be taken . He also invited Francois de Fretay and Jean Crouan to one of them. The latter, who was deputy of Châteaulin, was the only one to show some reluctance. He had supported the action of Ar Brezhoneg er Skol but it seemed to him inadvisable to become involved in a political action that could too easily be labelled “autonomist”. Right from the beginning of the occupation he had taken a “wait and see” position, a standpoint which, as the hostilities dragged on, gradually extended to numerous circles, whether hostile or not to Vichy.
This attitude had already also spread to some Breton militants, though few in number in actual fact, according to the conversations I had with Fanch Gourvil and Kéravel at the Morlaix sous-préfecture . The former, who was an old Breiz Atao militant, and had counted himself among the extremists in the old days, had come to see me to warn me against certain Breton militants that I had received visits from, one of them being the young Le Bars who, he told me, was closely associated with the distribution of L’Heure Bretonne, a weekly paper of the Breton National Party. When I expressed my surprise at his attitude regarding this, he added that he did not want to have anything to do with the Mordrel and Debauvais “gang”, who were guilty of having sought the support of the Germans for their propaganda. When I pointed out to him that according to the information I had obtained, their activities were no longer supported by the Germans but simply tolerated, he confined himself to saying that in any case it seemed to him inadvisable to try anything during the occupation and that there was nothing else for it but to submit and wait. An understandable attitude for which no one would have dreamt of reproaching him if subsequently, at the time of the Liberation, he had not joined the ranks of those who slandered and persecuted his old friends.
Kéravel was a different case: he had never been a Breiz Atao militant, and his communist sympathies labelled him straight away as one of the opponents of the new regime. I had asked him to come and see me regarding the report made against him by the primary school inspector. He told me he had refused to follow the leader of Ar Falz, Delalande Kerlan, who had joined the Breton National Party and was an active member. I knew also that, though he had not renounced his Breton convictions, he had distanced himself from the communist party, which had gone underground and which, after the German-Soviet pact, had advised cooperation with the German soldiers. Thus, from a different angle, he came to the same standpoint as that of Gourvil: he thought it inadvisable to engage in any militant activity as long as the Germans were there. One had to confine oneself to living and enduring.
This convergence of thought, coming from two Breton militants of different ages, different past and different ideas, gave me food for thought. These opinions were certainly very much in the minority of the Breton movement at the time, whether cultural or political, separatist or regionalist. The latter, particularly on this point, reflected the Breton population who had accepted the new order, in the same way as it accepted all the changes that the regime in Paris had imposed on it for the past one hundred and fifty years. It was quite normal of course that the presence of these strangers in uniform was hard to bear. They had come uninvited to live amongst us. But it was up to the French government, who was responsible for their presence, to make them leave at some stage. In the autumn of 1940, it was as yet too early to predetermine the solution to the conflict, or know its final outcome. Should one wait, or not, act or not?
I had never asked myself this question before: I had carried on just as the State, whose civil servant I was, had carried on. Should the State cease to function because the Germans were there and part of France was occupied? Then what would become of the population without this protective screen between it and the present victors? Refusing to take action was to refuse to live, could life stand still? The Occupation and the Vichy government were mere episodes in the history of Brittany: it had lived through many others in the course of time. It had held firm: this had to be maintained through the continuity of its defence, its interests and its rights. Was it not simply cowardice to refuse to take action, to live, to defend oneself and to conquer? All because of a passing incident in the eyes of history that was certainly temporary! This “wait and see” attitude, which must not be confused with patience, can sometimes be considered a skill. More often than not it is a convenient disguise for laziness or cowardice, according to the circumstances: it always seemed to be contrary to the fundamental laws of life.
On reflection, I decided that Kéravel and Gourvil’s standpoint, together with all those who joined the “wait and see” rank later on, was based much more on sentiment than on reason. I had no more sympathies for the Vichy government than I had had for the governments which had preceded it. As far as I was concerned they were all mere facts which I had to take into account in my activities. The presence of the Germans was just another one along the way. It had to be taken into account, of course, but could be used in so far as it weakened the structure of the French State, which had become less resistant to the reforms we had always requested. Seeing that this State continued, we ought also to continue the struggle, maintain our presence and establish the permanent nature of this Breton identity which had survived all the measures this State had taken to make it disappear, and had overcome conquests, wars and persecutions. Why leave the privilege of endurance just to the French State?
I have always had a historical understanding of the relationship between Brittany and France. For me it has always been a case of two distinct national identities whose differences remain, even though their fate has been closely linked for the past couple of centuries. Looking at it from that angle, the Vichy government and German occupation were but secondary phenomena, which could not alter the fundamental character of our struggle. Brittany is a nation, which the French State denies and will not allow. This nation has permanent rights. These rights must be maintained, no matter what kind of regime or government the State has who holds it in its power. At a certain point in history, their interests may differ and their defence follow different paths, as the Breton people’s interests are not always synonymous with those of France. This seemed to me to be the case now: Brittany was not responsible for the occupation it was being subjected to: there were now three opposing national entities, Brittany, France and Germany. Why accept that only the last two should have the right be heard? Why should the Vichy government be reserved the privilege of not taking into account the official claims of the former, not having to face up to them, whilst their predecessors had to do it? I had also not forgotten the advice given by one of Louis Philippe’s Interior Ministers to his préfets, on the 1st of July 1833, emphasising the progress made by the departmental press, and pointing out that this was a new development of politics and civilization, which must also be taken into account by administration and government. Whether the Germans were there or not did not alter the problem. They would not always be there and who knew what France’s destiny would be when the hostilities were over? Though caution and a “wait and see” attitude may have dictated that one should not undertake anything, this did not apply to courage and character. Also, as Albert Camus emphasised later, “The choice of action one makes does not always presuppose a clear understanding of the consequences of that action”. “However”, he added, “there is already a big difference between those who choose to take a risk and those who choose to keep quiet.”
I was nearing the end of my stay in Morlaix. Following along the same lines as preceding governments of France, Vichy was bound to look with suspicion on my presence in the sous-préfecture. At central administration, there were those who stressed the imprudence of having entrusted a responsible post in Brittany to a Breton militant, whose loyalty towards the State was not unshakable. Thus it was that, following orders from my superiors, I went back to Paris at the end of November, just a few days before my successor, Monsieur Nevière, moved in, and I returned to the delegation of the Ministry of the Interior in occupied territory. I had every intention, when the time came, of asking for extended leave for personal reasons, as soon as negotiations had been completed and financial support collected to enable the creation of the Breton daily, which Jacques Guillemot and I had settled on and finalised.
I realised that the situation was a delicate one. On a Breton level, it was important to try and avoid discredit in the eyes of public opinion caused by the separatist (called autonomist) propaganda, accused of collusion with the occupier, which in reality was not as close as it was thought to be. It was important, therefore, to distance ourselves from them, find new words and formulas capable of fitting directly into the current preoccupations for the revival of the provinces referred to by the new leader of the French State. There was no other solution at the end of 1940, but to follow the latter closely, using the ideas he had broadcast, to prevent the echo of our fundamental claims from being silenced completely as well as to try and put them into practice. It was necessary to have a Breton propaganda, which paradoxically could appear to be supported by French leaders by opposing the propaganda, which wrongly appeared to be supported by the Germans. It was the only way of reassuring a Breton opinion that frequently needs to be reassured. It had been traumatized by the defeat, but at the time the greater majority had rallied behind the new head of State, vaguely or not feeling that by signing the armistice he had avoided the worst. Furthermore, the new government should openly be asked to support the moderate Breton propaganda we were preparing, as being an efficient weapon against “separatism”, which could become dangerous to French unity. It was quite obvious that France would always refuse to tolerate that principle. It was also a case of practical necessity, as few public newspapers could survive without outside financial support: I had few illusions on that score.
Neither had I any illusions regarding the French administration’s visceral hostility towards our claims, no matter how moderate. It was therefore necessary to try and by-pass the latter, and bring into play the prestige and authority of Maréchal Pétain and the politicians who supported him against the State’s traditional structures, in a way playing off the government against the State. A virtually impossible task under normal circumstances but made easier by the fact that the State was traumatised by its defeat, that many in its midst were divided, that it’s very existence had been challenged, that it’s authority over a territory cut off to the north and east and cut in half by a demarcation line difficult to cross, could only be exercised with much greater difficulty than before the invasion. The Free Zone and the Occupied Zone were already two different worlds.
P.Ingrand was the préfet delegated by the Ministry of the Interior to the occupied territories. Offices had been found for him, in the rue de Varenne. My friend, Raymond Delaporte, was in charge of his cabinet. Amongst his general staff I found Jean Chapel, a Breton from Saint-Pol, and some others of my colleagues. The Ministry’s central services had been set up in Vichy, and practically all the buildings of Place Beauveau, of rue des Saussaies and of rue Cambacérès were occupied by the German services: getting my old office back was out of the question. Finally, an office was found for me in a requisitioned building, rue des Pyramides, a stone’s throw from the Palais Royal and Les Tuileries, where departmental headquarters, reduced to the level of one or two civil servants, had been set up. I had absolutely nothing to do there: not a very cheerful office, as it looked out onto a courtyard and was rather dark. But no sound at all could be heard from there.
My already well established reputation, and the echo of my propositions had preceded me in Paris. As soon as I arrived I made the first move and informed Raymond Deugnier of my activities and projects. A few days later, Ingrand called me and I had a long conversation with him about the Breton problem, which he did not know much about, and about the action I intended to take thanks to the creation of the newspaper. I pointed out that I intended asking the government for financial help for this as well as, when the time came, to request a leave of absence for personal reasons.
– “I will prepare a detailed memo on the problem for you,” I told him, “and another, shorter one, specifically regarding the project for the newspaper.”
Ingrand neither approved nor disapproved. He had already, on behalf of the government; recently intervened with the German authorities in order to put forward to them what steps could be taken that would finally put an end to Mordrel and Debauvais’ activities. But he also belonged to the B category of préfets. He was careful not to deviate from the administrative orthodoxy. It was not in his nature to say yes, anymore than it was to say no.
– “In any case ,” he told me, “ the matter of financial support for another newspaper depends on the Ministry of Information and I will submit the memo to them that you are preparing for me on this”.
A few days later, through Raymond Deugnier, he had both my memos, and I heard he had submitted the one concerning the creation of the newspaper to the Ministry of Information.
At the same time, I had decided to enclose with the two memos a request for leave of absence, assuming that it would take longer than anticipated to process it. On one hand, the negotiations for the creation of the newspaper obliged me to make more frequent trips to Brittany than I had anticipated, and on the other hand the conditions of life in Paris were becoming more difficult. Supplies were becoming scarce; coal was practically impossible to find, which made it very difficult to heat our apartment in rue des Artistes. We had been glad to get back to it, but it was cold being just under the roof. Also, Marie-Madeleine had just started her first pregnancy. I could not contemplate having her spend the winter, which already showed signs of being a harsh one, in such difficult circumstances. On one of my trips, I settled her into a hotel in Rennes so that she could look for a furnished apartment to let. The time had come to make other arrangements as, when I returned from that trip around the end of December, I found the washing recently washed had frozen in the bath. Paris was really beginning to take on the appearance of a war zone. There was very little traffic and the curfew was very strict. Stripped of its crown the “city of light” was also stripped of its attractiveness. The black market world was beginning to catch on. But on a good day, the architectural riches of Paris and its large avenues, without their surplus of cars, had never looked as lovely and at their best advantage.
Right from the beginning of my first trips to Paris, I had contacted my Basques friends. Landaburu, Alberro and Leizaola were still there, but the building in Avenue Marceau, occupied by their government in exile had, under German orders, already been evacuated and placed at the disposal of the pro-Franco government. Many Basques refugees had moved away from Paris: some had gone partly underground. Problems with residence permits and travel passes continued: they had become even more complicated owing to the presence of the Germans who, even more so than the French, wanted to maintain good relations with the Spanish. I found I could sign numerous authorisations or other papers myself, without consulting anyone thanks to the ministry’s seal, “on behalf of the préfet delegated by the Minister of the Interior within the occupied territories”. The German services that had to countersign them were completely taken in as long as the seal was correct. Usurpation of post maybe: but I never regretted doing it.
I had learnt from Mordrel that General Werner Best was interested in minority issues. He had become a top-ranking civil servant of the German military administration in France, which had its headquarters at the Hotel Majestic.
– “He is from the Rhineland,” he told me. “He knows all the problems arising from national minorities and nationalist movements in Western Europe very well. As a student, he fought against the French occupation of the Rhineland, particularly against the attempts at Rhine separatism stirred up by the French at the time. As you can see he knows all the problems.”
Accompanied by Alberro and Landaburu, I therefore went to visit Dr. Best, drawing his attention to the Basques’ refugee problem in occupied France: he listened to us with much interest. Tall and distinguished with a legal background, his conversation displayed a great knowledge. Mordrel had not misled me. He knew all about the Breton and Basque problems and was particularly interested in them on a personal level. He had already heard of my own journalistic projects. I learnt later on that the outcome of this visit had benefited the Basque refugees’ situation in the occupied zone. The former Basque government in exile’s leaders in Paris were granted the possibility of receiving the financial subsidies conveyed to them by their South American emigrants in order to maintain the Basques government’s skeleton services in Paris. This then enabled them to come to the aid of the most destitute.
Alberro and Landaburu had also reassured me regarding the fate of President Aguirre who fortunately had not returned to Paris.
-“He is safe and sound,” they told me. “The invasion of Holland by the Germans caught him by surprise, but he was able to find asylum at first in a South American embassy. Fortunately, our fears in his regard were in vain. Maybe you have heard that the Germans seized the President of Catalonia, de Companys, and handed him over to Franco’s supporters, who shot him. If the President had remained in Paris when the Germans arrived, it is possible he would have suffered the same fate. By providing him with the necessary papers for his departure, a few days before the Germans’ attack in the West, you may in reality have saved his life.”
José Antonio de Aguirre, in fact, wrote a book a few years later relating his odyssey and how, thanks to being granted a South American passport, he had been able to travel all over occupied Europe and even to meet, incognito, Spanish diplomats in Berlin! He did not return to Paris until the end of the Hostilities. Soon after, he settled on the French side of the Basques country in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. He was back in his native land even though his legal citizenship there was that of a foreigner. He died there prematurely in 1960. His funeral was an occasion for a patriotic gathering of Basques from both sides of the official border. The Spanish police, assisted by the French police, took the opportunity to “pick out” the Basques Nationalists, so-called Spanish subjects, who had come to pay tribute to this historic leader now gone.
His successor, Leizaola, pledged on his coffin to maintain the Basques’ national legitimacy. He did in fact do so: he lived long enough after the death of Franco to be able to pass on his powers, under the tree of Guernica, to the new president of an autonomous Euskadi, who was elected by the Basque parliament, when Basque autonomy was established after recent reforms to the Spanish constitution finally made this autonomy possible.
It was in my new office, rue des Pyramides, that Raymond Delaporte came to visit me towards the end of December. After asking me if we could speak freely, without fear of eavesdroppers, he asked if I knew of the existence of Kuzul Meur or the secret Grand Council of Breton Nationalism.
– “ No,” I told him, “though I think it probable that such a body exists and if it does not exist we should invent it, even just purely for reasons of practical and political efficiency.”
I decided then that it was better to take him off to the Palais Royal gardens, which were deserted on this bitterly cold December morning, in order to continue our conversation without any fear of being interrupted or overheard. Delaporte informed me of the political situation that had just developed in Rennes and which concerned the Breton National Party. Debauvais and Mordrel were forced to resign from their posts directing the National Party and L’Heure Bretonne, and even to leave Brittany. He did not elaborate on the reasons for their departure, but I gathered that the Germans were involved. I knew also of the steps against the Breton “autonomists” taken by Ingrand, my direct boss, with his German counterparts. I had a good idea of the pressures being put by Vichy on the German embassy, where I knew they would find a sympathetic ear.
-“Our friends in the Kuzul are pressuring me to take over from Mordrel and Debauvais the leadership of the Parti National Breton and the paper.” Delaporte told me. “There can be no question of abandoning the action we have undertaken, even if we all agree to modify our policy owing to the present circumstances. In any case we are forced into changing our personnel. You know, of course, that my personal position differs from that of Mordrel. But, as on your side you are putting together a much more moderate Breton policy along the lines of the one you carried out for Ar Brezhoneg er Skol, I feel it is necessary that we should coordinate our policies and our action. I have therefore replied that my acceptance depends on your answer, as I feel it is essential, should you accept that you have a seat in the Kuzul. They must retain their strictly secret and underground nature, of course, and continue to be absolutely confidential.”
In answer to my questions, Delaporte pointed out that the Kuzul had already been in existence a good ten years and that, together with Mordrel and Debauvais, he was one of the founding members. It had been considered necessary to bring in those responsible for the Gwen ha Du organisation and then the Special Services lead by Célestin Lainé. Finally, more recently, Roparz Hemon had also been brought in, hoping that he would be able to coordinate the cultural movement as a whole.
The pursuing of policies for the revival of a nation, which today would be termed as a national liberation policy, transcends all other political divisions. It is quite normal for the latter to express themselves within an organised political society with powers and institutions enabling it to direct or choose its destiny. This is the case where France is concerned but it was not and is not yet that of Brittany.
Until Brittany’s identity is recognised and it’s right also to shape an organised political society with institutions and distinct powers, political divisions or the “choices of society”, it is presented with nothing but divisions or choices defined, thought up and developed by a dominant political society. These choices, therefore, thought up and developed according to the interests, ideas and concerns, which being those of the dominant society, can only very seldom be those that suit the dominated societies and people. In the first place, therefore, Brittany should have those possibilities, and the right to make its own choices, returned to her. Separatists, autonomists, federalists or regionalists were all fundamentally in agreement with this necessity. Hardly any regionalist or autonomist would not have joined in the independence if it had come about after the collapse of France the previous year. Conversely, hardly any separatist would not join in the autonomy if it was to come about in some shape or form. All at least agreed that it was a necessary stage. First of all Brittany must become a reality: from there on, to speculate on what the Bretons will do with their autonomy or independence, is just an exercise in style or an ideological dissertation. The main thing is that they should be in a position to do so themselves. Whenever Brittany suffers an injustice, such that its language, culture and its very being is threatened, the resistance to any of these only serves to unite all Bretons. This is why there is not, nor in fact will there ever be, any differences between supporters of Brittany other than differences of tactics, of opportunism, of degree or of character. This is still the case even when the dominant society tries to demonstrate the contrary, obviously with the intention of creating divisions: the Bretons who become involved in their schemes are to be pitied as, in reality; they are playing into the hands of their enemies.
This is also why I have always thought that dialogue between people is a necessity. On a personal level I had already tried to coordinate politics and men who differed sometimes deeply, on an economic, social, cultural or ideological level but who, in spite of their differences, remain fundamentally in agreement on the necessity of restoring freedom to the Breton people, together with the rights and institutions, which in the course of history they had been deprived of relatively recently.
I therefore had no hesitation in accepting Raymond Delaporte’s proposal and told him that he should go ahead and make the most of my consent. A few days later on a cold January morning, I attended my first meeting of Kuzul Meur, which was held in Rennes at the apartment of a relatively unknown militant of Breton nationalism. Mordrel had been put under house arrest in Germany by the German authorities, thus becoming the first Breton to be temporarily deported. He was therefore absent, and was also absent for the few other meetings I attended later. They were subsequently held more and more infrequently. Debauvais, however, was there that first time, but had apparently relinquished all political responsibilities: most of them, including Mordrel’s, had now been taken on by Delaporte, assisted by his younger brother Yves.
Delaporte took stock of the new situation to which the Parti National Breton and L’Heure Bretonne had been obliged to adapt, and that had brought about the reshuffling of the Kuzul. For my part, I explained my activities concerning the creation of the planned daily paper and the policy I intended it to follow. Within a coordinating body that reflects the usefulness of dialogue from the top, disagreements rarely surface. It has to do with trying to avoid harming or fighting each other through lack of information or understanding. The pursuit of the goal transcends all differences: over and above the tactics, the minor details, the disparities of character and feelings, it is this goal that draws people together, and towards which they converge. I felt that all those present were convinced of this necessity. The changes within the P.N.B., together with the creation of a daily paper with moderate tendencies were consistent with the new political situation, arising from the “collaboration” that had been established between Vichy and Berlin. It had to be taken into account. Even Celestin Lainé understood this. Because of this new pro-French policy of the victorious Germans, he had to hand over to them the arms that Le Helloco had been able to carry off, thanks to the Gwalarn, just before the war, and which were intended for his special services so that they could be used against the French if necessary .
I had only met the lawyer, Hervé Le Helloco known as Bob, once before. He was a man of great discretion and did not readily confide in anyone. He was in reality the founder of Gwenn Ha Du. He recruited Lainé, a chemical engineer, who had added the destruction of the Rennes monument to his panel of exploits. As were also André Geoffroy, who had attacked the Quimper prefecture, Hervé Delaporte, Bayer du Kern and others. The last two had carried out the Ingrandes attack on the border of Brittany, where they had cut the railway line of the train which Herriot, the president of the Council, had taken to come and celebrate the fourth centenary anniversary of the union of Brittany to France! Gwenn Ha Du had been in abeyance since the war and had more or less merged with Lainé’s special services. At the moment, Bob restricted himself to dealing with the eminence grise, more of an unofficial rather than official liaison agent between the Breton activists and certain German services. His calm was invaluable when discussions became too heated.
Célestin Lainé, who was also at that Kuzul meeting, had equally been obliged to place the activities of his special services in abeyance, in view of the new political situation. Nevertheless, they continued to train in secret as the presence of the Germans prevented all visible demonstrations of activity. The German foreign affairs services and those of the army mainly wanted to maintain good relations with the Vichy government, its ministers and its civil servants. Their instructions were quite precise: they were to limit themselves to ensuring that “nothing should politically incite the French population”. There were already enough problems between Berlin and Vichy without having to bother with those the Bretons might create in addition. I had never met Lainé before. He appeared to be distant, a little unreal and lost in some kind of inner contemplation, inaccessible to common mortals, which only the initiated could share.
– “He’s a type of priest,” Mordrel had told me. “He has a direct line with God the Father: it’s impossible to reason with him. He believes. The main thing is that he should believe in the right way, but there is no guarantee of that!”
The comment was very relevant. It was obvious that Célestin Lainé, known as Naël, liked to shroud himself in mystery, making his days into nights and nights into days, according to Mordrel also. He was a man with a set idea, but one wondered as to how far this idea could lead him if the circumstances leading to it were to change, as they already seemed to be doing at the time. Meanwhile he was as secretive and impenetrable as his secret service. He was careful not to speak of his activities in any specific way. What he was doing in the Kuzul was not clear, apart from finding out about the activities of others without revealing anything about his own. As for Roparz Hemon, whom I had seldom met before, he was about to take charge of organising Breton broadcasts from the Rennes –Bretagne transmitter, under the general management of Professor Weisgerber, an eminent Celtic sympathiser, who had been mobilised for this post by the German authorities. Roparz was also a man of few words. Absorbed in his work, he devoted himself completely to the illustration of the Breton language. He personified it. He went straight ahead, looking neither to the left nor to the right, convinced of the necessity of his mission. He had little interest in politics. He did not feel that political games were worth the time one would have to devote to them. His character as a whole, in fact, did not incline him to discussion. He did not have the patience to convince those who did not share his beliefs. I quickly realised that the only effective dialogue possible was that which Raymond Delaporte and myself could both carry out, in a more practical way, on a political level. And for this, in view of our personal connection, the Kuzul was hardly required to put it into practice.