To Speak or Not To Speak: The Politics of World War II Collaboration Through Language

Dan Sachs

As World War II raged in Europe, the linguistic landscapes of countries and communities were forced to change. While France adapted to German boots on the ground, the Swiss did not suffer any incursions into their territory, but rather faced a new Europe with Germany at its helm. The French spoke not only about the German occupiers, but also used specific language to self-identify and label themselves. The French also had to make a choice about which vernacular they adopted. Meanwhile, Swiss people were caught in the middle, having already been native speakers of German. Throughout this article, I highlight language from the film The Sorrow and the Pity, which features French people who lived through the war in Clermont-Ferrand, a town in central France. I also unpack how the author of the book An Iron Wind, Peter Fritzsche, speaks of changes in language use in France and Switzerland. Both the film and book as secondary sources include clips and quotations from people who lived through and took part in the occupation. This article examines two language analysis categories in the context of wartime collaboration and resistance: language as terminology and language as a communication tool. By studying these two categories, we can zoom into how people conduct their daily lives, focusing on the ubiquitous nature of language in the human experience.

Language as Terminology

War and occupation often lead to the adoption of specific terminology that allows those affected to cope with these events. First, I examine how the French, both in Paris and in the Vichy south, referred to one another depending on their political and social identities. Then, I note how French people spoke of their German occupiers. 

In the film The Sorrow and the Pity, a French theater owner in Clermont-Ferrand calls resistance members “terrorists.” This reference aptly fits the adage: “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” Through this language, the theater owner aligns himself with the Vichy government and the occupiers. Thus, his terminology reflects explicit orientation with the occupier, expressing his collaboration with them. Some socialists in the movie recall that they were also called “terrorists” and “bandits.” In referencing those who helped them, they speak of “workers” or “ouvrières” who would acquire goods for the resistance. These actors were not necessarily resistance fighters, but they were aligned with them—and their socialist ideology, clear from the labor-oriented term “worker.” These various terms paint a more nuanced picture than terms like “collaborator” and “resistor.” Even years after the war, French people recall the monikers they had for one another. The different terminologies people used bolstered their ability to recognize the affinities of different groups. 

These stratified monikers are notable in that they do not lead their users to kill their fellow citizens. The resistance members explained that they did not kill “bad Frenchmen.” This terminology reflected that despite working to counter collaboration, many resistance members did not actually kill other French people. In this new situation of occupation, resistance members maintained their scruples while outlining a new term, “bad Frenchmen.”

The French used certain terms to “other” their German occupiers. The occupied French opted to think of the German occupiers as a monolith. They referred to the soldiers as “sauturelles vertes” (green locusts) and “haricots verts” (green beans) because the Wehrmacht uniforms were green (99). These monikers created a strict line between the groups based on visual elements. The use of this terminology did not serve as full resistance, but it may have allowed some French people to avoid reckoning with the extent of their collaboration by pointing out and alienating those soldiers. If all Germans, and only Germans, are “haricots verts,” then the French are innocent of any willing or forced involvement.

Further use of terms like “ils” (they) bolster a we vs. them mentality (109). This conception may have allowed some French people to recognize the harms of the occupier without taking any action, resisting the occupiers in name only. However, this may have played into collaboration by allowing French people to think, I am helping a little just to save myself, but I am not as bad as our occupiers are. This terminology was not necessarily full collaboration or resistance, but it was a necessary mental step for the French, dealing with their new world order at the time. 

Language as a Communication Tool in France

Studying language as a tool for communication raises the following questions: Is merely speaking with the occupier considered collaboration? And is speaking in the occupier’s language considered collaboration? In what seems to have been an aggregate effort to recalibrate to German occupation, French demand for German lessons rose (66). Prior to the war, many French people sought to study English, but during the war, “German replaced English as the most popular foreign language at Paris’s Berlitz School” (66). This phenomenon reflected a general human tendency to adapt to a new environment. Just as someone living in a new land would seek to learn the local language, the French sought to learn the new language of their old land. Some French shops put up signs indicating that they spoke German (96). This placement may have stemmed from economic interests, seeing an incentive in having sympathetic German soldiers as clients. For some French people, speaking German allowed them to live and have job prospects. But at what point does proclaiming it in your shop window count as a political act of collaboration? French people realized that being able to speak with those directly or indirectly governing them could aid them. They saw their future auf Deutsch rather than in English or en Français.

Few French people were sure of where the war would go, further muddying the difference between collaboration and resistance. Uncertain of the future, some people “wondered if France and Europe would be ‘Germanized’ for twenty years, for fifty years, for a century” (66). Speaking German may have helped bolster French resistance efforts through potential espionage and information gathering—knowing the enemy. Yet, at the early stages of the war, one may not have been able to wage resistance effectively. One journalist noted in 1941 that while the “French bourgeois vituperate[s] against collaboration,” and yet, “they are learning German: so they must believe it has a long future” (66). This alleged hypocrisy shows that studying language as a means of collaboration does not provide any easy answers. Rather, one can see that people would revile cooperation with the enemy, all while hedging their bets regarding the long-term outcome of the occupation by studying the language of the occupier.

Language could be used as a manner of welcoming or not welcoming the occupier. Though the German soldiers generally kept to themselves, they “did break the silence to ask for directions” from time to time in occupied Paris. Some French people used their true or feigned lack of German language skills to resist. A regular response was a “mumbled ‘I don’t know’ or ‘nix compris’” to avoid discussion with the Germans. These responses could tease or push away the inquiring German. Very early in the occupation, a journalist wrote that one should not see the Germans as temporary “tourists” or “visitors.” Instead, he proclaimed that they were “conquerors” (96). He instructed his readers not to welcome them in any way. However, it also provided a way for the occupied to ignore their new situation: if you do not speak with the occupier, you can continue denying reality by refusing to acknowledge it. 

In interpersonal relations between French people and soldiers, one might have equated communicating with collaborating. Cases of French women and German soldiers having relationships connected the sequence of speaking, flirting, fraternizing, and ultimately collaborating (107). In The Sorrow and the Pity, the troubling punishments for women who were suspected of having relations with German soldiers reflect that throughout France, people often interacted with the occupier. Ultimately, in An Iron Wind, Fritzsche concludes that “Conversations between the two groups were plentiful,” more than the possible retroactively stigmatized actions suggest. Thus, it is hard to decide if the use of language as communication fits into the resistance-collaboration binary.

Language as a Communication Tool in Switzerland

In Switzerland, speaking German was not considered collaboration because much of the population already spoke the language natively. During the war, there were instances when the Swiss President’s native French words were translated into “German words with a Nazi ring to them,” like the infamous “Führer” from the French “guide” (75). This serves as an example of translation à la Nazi—part of a slow but prevalent attempt to recalibrate to “the new European order,” a form of collaboration.

The Swiss people were not fully adopted into the greater German sphere of the new Europe, yet they did acquiesce and adapt to it. Some explain that the French faced attentisme, or “wait-ism,” a policy of waiting to see where the war would go. I would suggest the term actuelisme, or “present-ism,” to refer to Swiss realistic recalibration to the reality of widespread Nazi control of Europe, including its resources and infrastructure upon which Switzerland relied. This situation fits into the joke, “Six days a week, the Swiss work for Hitler, on the seventh they pray for the victory of the Allies” (88). This maxim suggests that despite supporting Nazi Germany economically, the Swiss still hoped for its ultimate failure.

Despite this acquiescence, Swiss army officer Henri Guisan prepared his soldiers to protect the Swiss border from a potential German invasion. He “put emphasis on the idea of ‘resistance’ rather than ‘defense’” (77). This word choice may have aligned the Swiss with other resisting parties throughout Europe. I concede that both “resistance” and “defense” are reactive, but perhaps defense is more reactive and implies less agency in the soldiers’ actions. Instead, Guisan outlined a specific plan to protect the homeland; while defense feels purely militaristic, resistance feels much more total and spiritual. Though the Swiss compromised economically to the new European order, factions within the country were prepared to align themselves against Nazi Germany, reflecting some of this resistance through their use of language.

One can examine collaboration and resistance in France and Switzerland through the use of language as terminology and as a tool for communication. The use of language as terminology indexes outward political alignment, while the use of language for communication reveals implicit political attitudes in daily life. The use of specific sets of terms may clarify whether the speaker resisted or collaborated during the war, but it also suggests that those terms helped people cope with an ever-changing environment. When studying language as a tool for communication, we must remember that potential political motivations depended on one’s origins and economic interests. Examining communication as a lens for understanding collaboration and resistance during World War II makes clear the polysemy of a word or phrase, which could sometimes suggest both collaboration and resistance at the same time.

Image: Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

Dan Sachs is a junior at Georgetown University, studying Linguistics, Theology, and Jewish Civilization. He seeks to understand the connection between language, nationalism, and religious belonging.

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