At the defeat in 1940, the Protestants’ attitude was similar to that of most of the French : to trust Field Marshal Pétain. The break with the Vichy regime came as early as October 1940, triggered by the persecution of the Jews.
Was France resigned ?
During the phoney war (1949-1940) the National Synod of the French Reformed Church (ERF) claimed “the need to support France in this war which has been imposed upon it.” After the collapse of the French army, the Vichy regime seemed legitimate to most of the 800,000 French Protestants on both sides of the partition line between the occupied zone – northern France and Atlantic coast with 200,000 to 300,000 Lutherans – and the free zone – southern France 500,000 to 600,000 Reformed Protestants.
Field Marshal Petain announced the armistice as unavoidable, the government demanded full power and dismissed the parliament “sine die”. In this tragic situation, as François Labouchère said, “the difficulty was not to do one’s duty, but to first define it.” Most of the French trusted the field marshal ; left-wingers respected him for having spared the blood of the troops in the First World War, and right-wingers adored his proclaimed “nausea” of political parties. Part of the Protestant community accepted the new regime and welcomed efforts to achieve national and moral rectitude, two ideological themes of the “National Revolution”, summed up in the motto “Work, Family, and Country”. It was deemed positive by some pastors, but rejected by most for whom it was a rejection of the republican motto “Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood” to which they were most attached.
Free zone and occupied zone, contrasting situations
In the southern zone, non-occupied until November 1942, religious authorities only dealt with Vichy. In January 1941, the Rev. Marc Boegner, then president of the French Protestant Federation, and anxious to pursue a policy of presence which would protect the protestant community, accepted to take a seat in the National Council of the French State along with three other Protestants.
In the occupied northern zone, religious authorities depended on the German occupants who were wary of churches whom they considered as ideological opponents. The German authorities feared the Rev. Marc Boegner’s pro-Englishness as well as the “spiritual link between French Protestantism and the Anglo-Saxon world”. Already on 10 July 1940, the Rev. André Numa-Bertrand who was responsible for Protestantism in the occupied zone, had proclaimed that “evil is not in being vanquished, but in losing one’s soul ; and it seems that ‘official’ France has lost it”. Freedom of worship however was preserved, because it did not oppose Occupation politics.
On the other hand, in the annexed territories of Alsace and Lorraine, the policies of nazification forbade Christian publications, closed down religious schools, and sent the students of the theology faculty in Strasbourg to Tübingen.
Until the end of the war very few Protestants were active supporters of Pétain, like the Anglophobe and antisemite vice-admiral Platon, or Noël Nougat dit Vesper. The latter led the extreme right-wing movement Sully before the war, and became a notorious collaborator. On 22 August 1944, he and his wife were shot by members of the Resistance.
The Protestant refusal
Many Protestants, however, rejected the principles of the National Revolution, its true nature soon being revealed as following Nazi ideology. Several reasons can be cited for this rejection :
- the fact of belonging to a persecuted minority ;
- the structure of Protestantism in more or less autonomous communities made opposition easier than for the Catholic hierarchy ;
- the fear of some that the Vichy regime would return to fundamentalist Catholicism ;
- the increasingly anti-republican ideals of Vichy ;
- greater openness to the outside world, through reading the Journal de Genèveand listening to Sottens’ Geneva radio ;
- the significant role of women in spiritual resistance and in Cimade’s humanitarian work.
Besides, in January 1941, the magazine Foi et Vie (Faith and Life), directed by Charles Westphal and Pierre Maury, had already published – despite censorship – Karl Barth’s “Letter to the Protestants of France” dated 1940, urging resistance to Hitler’s regime. Karl Barth was an unrelenting opponent of the Nazi regime and inspired the Confessing Church, opposed to the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) imposed by Hitler. The letter was circulated by pastors Roland de Pury and Georges Casalis.
In September 1940, Marc Boegner asked Protestants not to enrol in the French Legion of Combatants, since the pledge of allegiance to the marshall seemed to open the way to rather ambiguous commitments.
In March 1941, the break from Vichy was provoked by the anti Jewish laws. During the summer, Boegner officially protested against the deportation of Jews in his letter (20 August 1942) to Field Marshall Pétain. On 22 September 1942, the National Council of the ERF sent pastors a letter to read from the pulpit of all parishes on 4 October. It read “The Reformed Church of France cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of thousands of human beings who have found asylum on our soil… The gospel obliges us to consider all men without exception as brothers… the church is obliged to make heard the cry of Christian conscience”.
In March 1943 the setting up of the Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service), for young men born between 1920 and 1922, boosted the Resistance and provided extra resources for the underground forces.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for those French Protestants who resisted Nazification, and were willing to sacrifice their lives in the process. We honour their memory and pray for others of good will and with standards of justice, integrity and righteousness to resist evil in our world today, confronting the principalities and powers and speaking out your truth. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.