Biskupska on Morgan, 'Hitler's Collaborators: Choosing between Bad and Worse in Nazi-occupied Western Europe'

Author: 
Philip Morgan
Reviewer: 
Jadwiga Biskupska

Philip Morgan. Hitler's Collaborators: Choosing between Bad and Worse in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 384 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-250708-2.

Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-War (March, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54226 

In Hitler’s Collaborators: Choosing between Bad and Worse in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe, Philip Morgan provides an essential synthesis of wide-ranging Nazi occupation policy across western Europe from a base of secondary sources in several languages. Vichy France provides the brunt of the discussion, but inclusion of the Dutch, Belgian, Danish, and Norwegian experience make this the first truly western European story to exist in English. 

This study demands a place in the literature on Europe under the Axis. Alongside studies on individual occupations, it supplements arguments about the Nazi project as a whole. It provides a counterweight to Mark Mazower’s Berlin-centric Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (2009) and Peter Fritzsche’s Paris vs. Warsaw comparison in Iron Wind: Europe under Hitler (2016) and will convince their readers to pay attention to the agency of the occupied.

Morgan shows how local “technocrats” (bureaucrats, industrialists, businessmen) accommodated German demands. His central thesis is that western European elites eagerly established patterns of collaboration in 1940-41 following their governments’ lead because it was in their interest to do so. The main wartime tension was not between collaboration and resistance, but in demonstrating the ability of local regimes to fulfill German needs from Brussels to Paris. This argument sidesteps the question of ideological support for National Socialism, but Morgan’s evidence shows that ideological compatibility was in no way required for officialdom to collaborate. 

Timing is everything in war and Hitler’s Collaborators pays careful attention to the “when” of collaborating relationships. The first chapter, “Starting at the End,” comes last chronologically, describing how collaborators were defined in the postwar and then investigated, pardoned, and punished. The myth of “passive resistance” is shown in formation and the link between reestablishing political legitimacy and punishing collaborators well made; this short discussion will be widely useful. Afterward, four chapters predominately on summer 1940 to summer 1941 explain how occupation collaboration quickly became “normal” and “routine” (p. 146). This year is the heart of Morgan’s argument, during which elites sought relationships with occupiers, anticipated their needs, and retooled economies in the interests of the Third Reich. This support for their occupiers kept decision-making elites at their posts, put their countries’ economies back together, and prevented local resistance or occupier crackdown. These men not only thought Germany would win the war; they were certain their own best interests lay in helping it do so. Following this discussion are the two most interesting chapters on collaboration “against the grain,” on Jewish persecution and labor requisitions for the Reich, the two matters at which western Europeans balked. They occurred late in the war, when western Europeans could imagine Germany losing. Morgan’s argument for local pushback is better in the case of labor deportations than Jewish persecution, for which the evidence is less robust, but both offer markers for how far western Europeans were willing to go in order to maintain relationships with Nazi Germany. They were willing to sacrifice the lives of their Jewish neighbors, especially in France, but were less interested in losing their own autonomy and fought tooth and nail to reduce German labor quotas.

The characters are a group brought out of the shadows. Exiles emerge as thoughtless and out of touch, exacerbating tensions, misunderstanding negotiations, and claiming the moral high ground vis-à-vis Germany when their own lives and livelihoods were not at stake. Instead, Morgan’s local collaboration-drivers held long tenure at their posts. They were civilians to a man and tended slightly authoritarian. This is not a study of Vidkun Quisling or Philippe Pétain, though Pierre Laval gets his due. Instead, Max Hirschfeld, Dutch secretary general of the Economics Ministry, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, the “driving force of Vichy collaboration” (p. 136), and the Baron Paul De Launoit, the “uncrowned king of Belgium” (p. 131), take center stage alongside the institutions, ministries, and industries they tirelessly sustain. 

Local fascism and antisemitism enter the story as the war continues. Morgan claims that western European fascists did not become partners with the Nazi occupation administrations for a practical reason: fascists were political outliers lacking substantial popular support. This made them unattractive as partners—except in the Norwegian case, which the Germans had cause to regret—and the Germans retained existing authorities, emphasizing “business as usual.” In the final years of the war this shifted, with local fascist militias acquiring power through participation in the dirty work of Nazi persecution. The SS enter the story when the collaboration system begins to stumble in summer 1943 and finally breaks down in summer 1944, as good a sign as any that the Germans are losing the war. Those interested in the variety of SS behavior across occupied Europe should supplement this with Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler (2012), because Morgan retains his focus on how local elites preserved their influence, not on what their occupiers and their police and military counterparts wanted. The empowerment of local fascists backed by the SS in 1944 becomes a clear sign that the occupations have gone awry.

This is a fine and sometimes disturbing book about how and why wartime collaboration worked, and why the western European elite so eagerly embraced it. Morgan’s detailing of their motivations reveals that collaboration should not be considered in opposition to resistance but alongside it, as the same people took part in the one activity and then the other as circumstances changed, keen to preserve their own positions and the good of their local communities, whatever the larger cost to be paid. 

Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Morgan, Philip, Hitler's Collaborators: Choosing between Bad and Worse in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54226

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.