The German army's official surrender in Reims on 8 May 1945 - Victory in Europe (VE) day - tasted particularly sweet for the canny, local Champagne winemakers and workers who spent much of World War Two outfoxing the occupying forces, writes Julian Hitner.
From merciless pillaging to despotic administration, perhaps no winegrowing region suffered more frustrations during World War II than Champagne. But is it not strange how the seemingly worst occasions in a region’s (or nation’s) history almost always wind up leading to moments of triumph? A finest hour? For the Champenois, the challenges faced under Nazi occupation were precisely this: a five-year period of unprecedented beleaguerment, yet one positively inundated with instances of resourcefulness and selflessness.
Following the surrender of France on 22 June 1940, the major winegrowing regions of the nation were placed under charge of the ‘weinführer,’ each with a mandate to supply the Third Reich with copious quantities of wine. In Champagne, the man appointed for this task was Otto Klaebisch. Born in Cognac and belonging to the family firm of Matteüs-Müller, the Champenois were relieved to learn that their overseer had actually been involved in the wine (initially brandy) trade. In the words of one producer: ‘If you were going to be shoved around, it was better to be shoved around by a winemaker than by some beer-drinking Nazi lout.’ Such sentiments proved short-lived.
Unlike other weinführer stationed throughout France, Herr Klaebisch seemed to truly enjoy the accoutrements of military life, almost always wearing his uniform when conducting affairs. He was also callously greedy. After a fleeting glance at the château of Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, he sent owner Bertrand de Vogüé and his family packing.
But for the Champenois, the most potentially dangerous character trait of Herr Klaebisch was his temper. Under strict orders from Berlin, the amount of Champagne he expected per week – usually for minimal compensation – was colossal (up to 400,000 bottles). Winegrowers and houses were thus compelled to mislabel and conceal as much of their stock as possible (see box on p41 for more on the unparalleled ingenuity of the Champenois). As an experienced taster, however, Herr Klaebisch was more than capable of detecting fraudulent bottlings. On occasion, his suspicions drove him to fury.
One such incident occurred when the weinführer invited Roger Hodez, secretary of the Syndicat des Grandes Marques de Champagne (an association representing the major houses) for an aperitif at his office. Herr Klaebisch poured a glass for them both, asking his guest what he thought of the wine. Before Hodez could reply, the former made his thoughts clear: ‘Let me tell you what I think. It smells like shit! And this is what you want me to give the Wehrmacht to drink?’ Hodez was subsequently thrown out of the office.
On another occasion, 20-year-old François Taittinger was summoned to appear before Klaebisch, who was upset that the young man’s firm had submitted demonstrably inferior bottlings. ‘How dare you send us fizzy dishwater!’ he exclaimed. Taittinger’s retort: ‘Who cares? It’s not as if it’s going to be drunk by people who know anything about Champagne!’ The weinführer immediately threw him in jail, albeit for just a few days until François’ eldest brother Guy could secure his release.
To handle such volatility, creative diplomacy proved a much better approach. At Bollinger, ‘Madame Jacques’ devised her own means of keeping Herr Klaebisch (at least directly) out of the way. Receiving the man with courtesy and dignity, she offered him an armchair so narrow that it was unable to accommodate his considerable girth, compelling Herr Klaebisch to continually stand throughout his visit. For the rest of the occupation, he never called on Bollinger again, and the chair remains at the house today.
This incident aside, there was unquestionably no person better able to handle Herr Klaebisch than Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé. As head of Moët & Chandon, and a man with extensive family links to some of Europe’s most powerful families, de Vogüé was just about the only person to whom the weinführer ever displayed any deference.
Until de Vogüé’s arrest in 1943, the two men had many meetings. For their part, the other major houses entrusted de Vogüé with securing as many concessions as possible. And while de Vogüé’s victories were few and far between, there is no doubt his efforts prevented the Champenois from becoming considerably worse off during the occupation. One such effort was the creation of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).
By the spring of 1941, it was clear that Champagne was on the brink. By this time, many houses were haemorrhaging unimaginable quantities of wine as requisitions kept rising. At Pol Roger, the situation was becoming critical, having been ordered (among other things) to dispatch enormous quantities of the celebrated 1928 vintage to Berlin every month. Then-president Christian de Billy noted: ‘We never had a lot of it and tried to hide what we could, but it was so wonderful and so well known that it was impossible to keep it out of German hands. Klaebisch knew it was there.’
The response of the Champenois was one of unprecedented unison. On 10 April 1941, de Vogüé called together producers and growers to set up an organisation that would represent the interests of everyone in the Champagne industry. ‘We are all in this together,’ he stated. ‘We will either suffer or survive but we will do so equally.’ Three days later, the CIVC was established, and has continued to function as the representative body of the region to this very day.
That said, at the time of its founding the objective of the CIVC was a tad more simplistic: to enable producers to present a united front to the occupiers and speak with a single voice. Not surprisingly, de Vogüé was appointed its top representative. Although Herr Klaebisch was unhappy about the creation of this new organisation, he was compelled to do business with its members. He outlined his position to de Vogüé in a rather acrimonious meeting: ‘You can sell to the Third Reich and its military, and also to Germancontrolled restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, and a few of our friends like the Italian ambassador to France and Marshal Pétain at Vichy.’
When informed of just how much Champagne was expected to be delivered each month, de Vogüé asked the weinführer how the CIVC could possibly carry this out. His opponent’s boisterous response: ‘Work Sundays!’ Although the two men eventually came to a compromise, such an episode illustrates the nature of their relationship, as both seemed to understand just how far the other could be pushed. To an extent, the CIVC was reasonably successful in defending its interests against Herr Klaebisch and his enforcement officers. Eventually, it was even granted permission to sell a quarter of its annual production to civilians in France, Belgium, Sweden and Finland. The CIVC was also able to keep most firms running by rotating experienced workers from one Champagne house to another. Through such cooperation, most establishments could endure.
However, it is important to remember that the CIVC was not the only organisation working towards making peoples’ lives better. Throughout the occupation of France, the French Resistance was extremely active in the Marne département. Early on, freedom fighters had become aware of the fact that major Champagne shipments to a specific part of Europe or Africa tended to precede a significant military offensive. A notable example of this occurred in late-1941, when an enormous order included the unusual request that bottles be specially corked and packed so that they could be sent to ‘a very hot country’. That country turned out to be Egypt, where General Rommel was about to begin his North African campaign. The Resistance passed along this information to British intelligence in London.
In such ways, the Champenois successfully survived the occupation of World War II, confounding the weinführer at (almost) every turn in a widespread, selfless campaign to protect that which mattered most. Not long before Champagne’s liberation, Herr Klaebisch was recalled to Germany, leaving behind millions of francs’ worth of unpaid bills and a wounded pride from which he likely never fully recovered. This was a pathetic and wholly anticlimactic conclusion for the weinführer of Champagne.
By late-August 1944, most of Champagne had been successfully liberated. General Eisenhower moved his headquarters to Reims in the spring of 1945 to oversee final operations and await the unconditional surrender of Germany. This finally occurred on 8 May 1945, when much of the Continent dug out as many bottles of Champagne as was humanly possible to appropriately celebrate the conclusion of the worst armed conflict its inhabitants had ever experienced.
Looking back 70 years later, VE Day represented perhaps the most dramatic turning point in the history of the Champenois. Unlike in World War I, the damage to vineyards had not been extreme, and it was not before long that most houses and growers were able to get back on their feet. Seven decades later, the golden age – while pausing to catch its breath from time to time – continues onwards and upwards. Come war or peace, Champagne is always triumphant.
Written by Julian Hitner