Historian debunks claims that Coco Chanel served in the French Resistance
It was not stated how the curators had found the documents
PARIS (AFP) New documents surfaced in September indicating that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel may have played a double role during World War II, serving not only as an informant for the Nazis but also as a member of the French Resistance.
But a historian who has analysed the new evidence says he has “serious doubts” about her alleged membership in La Résistance, suggesting the French fashion icon may have used the documents to restore her reputation after the war.
The previously unseen documents were revealed to the public in mid-September at the opening of a London exhibition tracing the life and legacy of the French couturier.
Alongside more than 50 of Chanel’s iconic tweed suits and a whole room dedicated to Chanel No. 5 perfume, a part of the “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” retrospective also dealt with the designer’s wartime past.
Chanel’s links to the Nazis have long been established by declassified documents. She spent the war living at the Ritz after falling in love with German intelligence officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
In July 1941, at the height of World War II, the Nazis registered her as a “trusted source” and gave her the code name “Westminster” due to her close connections with the British government and especially Winston Churchill.
In 1943, Chanel was, among other things, tasked with the secret mission of trying to persuade Churchill to negotiate with the Germans.
But the exhibition included two new documents claiming she was also part of the French Resistance. The first is a certificate allegedly showing her membership in the Resistance between January 1, 1943 and April 17, 1944 in which Chanel is described as an “occasional agent”.
The other shows her affiliation with the “Eric” underground resistance network and lists her code name as “Coco”. “We have verification from the French government, including a document from 1957, which confirms her active participation in the resistance,” exhibit curator Oriole Cullen told The Guardian at the time.
“Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto” opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on September 16. It was not stated how the curators had found the documents.
The new findings intrigued French historian Guillaume Pollack, a specialist on the French Resistance, who last year published a book on the history and inner workings of the movement’s networks.
“It really surprised me, and I thought to myself: ‘Chanel in the Resistance? How in the world could I have missed something as big as that?” he recalled, saying he went on to spend two weeks chasing down the documents.
He finally found them in the French military archives in the eastern Paris suburb of Vincennes.
“When I opened up the file, something struck me right away: It was basically empty. Aside from two official documents, there was nothing there. I’ve rarely come across such a dry file,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, Pollack explained, such files are filled to the brim with information explaining the exact role and actions of the resistance member in question, and are backed up with several third-party testimonies.
Pollack explained that the reason for this is that these files were compiled by the French government after the end of World War II and conform to special legislation that stipulates how and under what circumstances a person can be officially recognised as a onetime member of the French Resistance.
“If one thing is clear, it is that in order to be called a résistant (member of the Resistance), you need to have been active as such and recognised [by others] as such.”
“In this case, there is none of that – not a single trace,” he said, noting that a bare-bones certificate with Chanel’s name does not offer convincing proof.
An important year for Chanel
The second document, citing Chanel’s role in the Eric network, also puzzled Pollack: “It seemed really strange to me.”
Eric was a French resistance network that, for the most part, operated in the Balkans. Pollack said that even though its leader, René Simonin, was repatriated to Paris in 1943 and the network continued to work from the French capital for another year, there is no mention of Chanel in any other documentation related to the network apart from the affiliation certificate found in the military archives and presented at the exhibition.
On top of that, the network name, “Eric”, was written over a part of the document that had clearly been whited out.
Pollack said he also questioned the date that Chanel’s membership certificate was issued: 1957. Chanel was 74 years old at the time, and Pollack said that was unusually late compared to other Resistance members.
It was also “the year Chanel was honoured with the ‘Oscar’ of fashion”, he said, referring to the prestigious Neiman Marcus fashion award created in 1938. At the time, it was one of the only international fashion designer awards in existence.
No reason to keep it secret
Pollack said that if Chanel really was a member of the French Resistance, she would have had no reason to keep it secret and it would likely have been known before now.
“Especially considering the context surrounding Coco Chanel [who has long been known as a collaborator], it just doesn’t make sense.”
She may have had documents produced to rehabilitate her tarnished reputation in certain circles after the war, Pollack suggested
“In the 1950s, several different Resistance veteran organisations emerged. It would have prompted a lot of questions from former Resistance fighters” if Chanel had claimed to have been part of the movement, Pollack said, noting she would most likely have had to justify her role by providing details on what she did, where, when and with whom.
Pollack said he has “doubts, huge doubts, about this documentation” that has newly been discovered. “The certificate proves nothing.”