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The Hunt for Nazi Spies

Fighting Espionage in Vichy France

From 1940 to 1942, French secret agents arrested more than two thousand spies working for the Germans and executed several dozen of them—all despite the Vichy government’s declared collaboration with the Third Reich. A previously untold chapter in the history of World War II, this duplicitous activity is the gripping subject of The Hunt for Nazi Spies, a tautly narrated chronicle of the Vichy regime’s attempts to maintain sovereignty while supporting its Nazi occupiers.

Simon Kitson informs this remarkable story with findings from his investigation—the first by any historian—of thousands of Vichy documents seized in turn by the Nazis and the Soviets and returned to France only in the 1990s. His pioneering detective work uncovers a puzzling paradox: a French government that was hunting down left-wing activists and supporters of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces was also working to undermine the influence of German spies who were pursuing the same Gaullists and resisters. In light of this apparent contradiction, Kitson does not deny that Vichy France was committed to assisting the Nazi cause, but illuminates the complex agendas that characterized the collaboration and shows how it was possible to be both anti-German and anti-Gaullist.

Combining nuanced conclusions with dramatic accounts of the lives of spies on both sides, The Hunt for Nazi Spies adds an important new dimension to our understanding of the French predicament under German occupation and the shadowy world of World War II espionage.

Read an excerpt.

208 pages | 2 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2008

History: European History, Military History

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


“The pungent details give Kitson’s book a particular force: the incidents of head-shearing, the intimations of torture, the leakages back to the German authorities of the places where the spies were held, the contempt of the Vichy secret services for British agents. . . . All these elements make an English edition of the book a necessity.”

Rod Kedward | Times Literary Supplement

“Zooms in . . . on the vexed questions of spying and counterespionage under Vichy, affording an extended example of the kind of detailed research that must underpin any reinterpretation of the années noires.”

Richard Parish | Times Higher Education Supplement

“Previous historians of Vichy espionage have had to rely largely on the (often-self serving) memoirs of French secret agents. Kitson is the first person to have tested these accounts against the historical record deriving from the rich body of archives recently repatriated to France from the former Soviet Union. The result of that important original research, The Hunt for Nazi Spies is a distinguished and skillfully written work."

Julian Jackson, author of France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944

“The story is at once confusing and fascinating. The Vichy regime tracked down left wing resistants and supporters of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. It deported slave workers and Jews to Germany. Yet concurrently, it tracked down and arrested hundreds of German agents who sought to further undermine France militarily. . . . Kitson’s book is a highly-recommended read for anyone interested in the intricacies of counterintelligence.”

Joseph C. Goulden | Washington Times

“The important thing. . . is not these cloak-and-dagger adventures in themselves but what they meant. Simon Kitson’s main achievement is to have put them carefully and sensibly into context. He presents Vichy’s game convincingly as a complex pursuit of state interest somewhat refractory to our neat conceptual boxes labeled pro-Axis or pro-Allied. It needs to be understood on its own terms.”

Robert O. Paxton | New York Review of Books

"Takes a fresh look at Pétain’s French state, which tried to govern defeated France from Vichy from 1940 to 1944; the unfamiliar angle of sight reveals several surprises. Those of us who do not live under authoritarian regimes are always curious about what life in them is like; here is fresh fuel for our curiosity, neatly set out by an expert.”


           "Mr. Kitson’s book is a flawless piece of professional history: original, thorough, subtle, appropriately measured. It has been and will continue to be admired for these reasons alone. There is also much to interest the contemporary student of intelligence, particularly in Mr. Kitson’s discussion of a counterintelligence bureaucracy ’weakened by puerile rivalries.’ It may, however, be overlooked by readers of popular fiction. It shouldn’t be. A reader willing mentally to supply just a few lines of dialogue here and there will find between the lines of this book a dark and cynical spy novel filled with all the wretchedness of human nature, one all the more disturbing for being true."

Claire Berlinski | New York Sun

"It is often said that the best things come in the smallest packages, and this could certainly be applied to this latest book by Simon Kitson. In less than 200 pages he has managed to contextualize and survey a little-known, but nonetheless important aspect of the history of Vichy France in a highly accessible and lucid way. . . . This book provides a fascinating insight into the shady world of wartime espionage that should be required reading for any serious student of Vichy France."

Bob Moore | French History

"A valuable examination into the historical and moral morass of Vichy."

Michael Miller | American Historical Review

"A fascinating trip into the shadowy world of espionage and counterespionage in Vichy France. . . . [Kitson’s studies] have provided us with a valuable case study of the implications of the ambiguities and inherent contradictions in Vichy’s policies of sovereignty and collaboration, an instance where the two repeatedly collided with revealing resuilts."

Lynne Taylor | H-France

"[The] conclusions greatly enhance our historical knowledge of Franco-German relations and the nature of the Vichy regime . That they are presented alongside superior archival research and engaging prose only increases the value of this highly recommended work."

Samuel Kalman | European History Quarterly

Table of Contents

      Preface to the English Language Edition
      Glossary and Abbreviations
      Chronology of World War II France


1    Organizing German Espionage

2    Becoming a Spy

3    The Structure of French Counterespionage

4    Secret Service Ambiguities

5    Everyday Counterespionage

6    The Fate of the Spies

7    Understanding Vichy’s Policy



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