The War years

The War years People & Places Articles
  • Saturday 1 September 2001

Most of France was hit hard by the German Occupation from 1940 to 1944, but down in Bordeaux the wine business was thriving. STEFANA WILLIAMS finds out how this happened

Most of France was hit hard by the German Occupation from 1940 to 1944, but down in Bordeaux the wine business was thriving. STEFANA WILLIAMS finds out how this happened

Life in Bordeaux during the years of the Occupation is a period in history that many Bordelais would prefer not to discuss. Casual enquiries as to what life was like from the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1944 are often met with a slow, furrow-browed headshake, accompanied by: 'It was a difficult time'. Further entreaties to summon up specific events, places and people dredge up only vague fragments of the past.

If one were inclined toward conspiracy theories, the selective amnesia of the Bordeaux collective would raise more than mild suspicion. Exhibit A: Ask anyone in the wine trade – winegrower, cellar master, wine broker or merchant – what the climate was like in 1943. On the count of trois, they will all chorus: 'Hot year. Not much rain. Flowering finished early, end of May. Harvest began 12 September.' Exhibit B: Ask the head of a family-owned château what it was like to have his home lived in by Germans for four years, while he celebrated his fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth birthdays. He will politely respond that his memory of this time is, 'close to zero'.

Persuading someone to conjure up the particulars about a

'difficult time' in their past is a fool's errand. The fool in question (me) visited Bordeaux earlier this year to conduct some research for a film project. My feeble attempts to actually engage anyone in a meaningful conversation about the Occupation was a glorious exercise in futility. So I retreated to the familiarity of the bibliothèque. Thankfully, bits and pieces of what transpired in Bordeaux during those four years have found their way onto the printed page. I soon discovered that the four-year visit by the Third Reich doesn't appear to have dampened the spirits of certain individuals in the Bordeaux wine trade. In fact, business boomed. In 1942 alone, the Germans made a single purchase of one million bottles of the most expensive wine from the area. By the end of the four years, many wine cellars were empty and several Bordelais bank accounts were flush. While it would be tempting to cry 'collaboration', it's not that

simple. To grasp what actually occurred in Bordeaux during the

Occupation, one would do well to follow the franc, the mark and most importantly the wine. What was going on with the wine trade at the time? Who sold wine? Who bought it, stole it, drank it and profited from it? Answers to these questions offer a fascinating look at the extraordinary circumstances surrounding life in Bordeaux during the Occupation. For, in the final analysis, friendship, bravery and a little luck may well have saved Bordeaux and its most prized commodity.

Wilkommen Weinfuhrer

The Germans entered the Bordeaux city limits at the end of June 1940. They arrived soon after armistice was reached and l'Etat français was established in the spa town of Vichy. The fighting-age men from the Bordeaux region had long-since departed, defending their country along the ill-fated Maginot line. Those that survived were being carted off to prisoner-of-war camps. Other Bordelais heeded the call of the Resistance and set about clandestinely tripping up the Germans. Those that remained at home were women, children and men either too old or too young to fight under the French flag. As they waited to be 'occupied', Bordeaux families busied themselves by squirrelling away family keepsakes and treasures, burying valuables and camouflaging all entrances to the wine cellar.

When the Germans arrived, bedlam broke out – châteaux were

ransacked, wine cellars were looted. For two months, it was an all-out frenzy throughout which Bordelais could do little else but witness the incident. The ransacking and rifling came to a merciful halt with the arrival of the officially appointed Weinführer (Wine Leader). The Weinführer system was created to regulate the sale of wine in each of the major wine-producing areas of France. As dictated by Hitler

himself, it was the sworn duty of each and every German commander and soldier to search and seize whatever could be used for the advancement of the German cause. Well aware that the famed wines of the Bordeaux region – Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and others – would fetch a princely sum on the international market, the appointed Weinführer of Bordeaux would play a vital role in fuelling the German war machine.

The choice of Weinführer of the Bordeaux region was a Bremen wine merchant by the name of Heinz Boemers. A longtime importer of Bordeaux wines, Boemers knew many of the Bordeaux wine 'négociants' and the firms of Tastet & Lawton, Cruse, de Luze, Eschenauer, to name a few. In the case of Eschenauer, Boemers had very close ties. Louis Eschenauer was a family friend of the Weinführer. In fact, Oncle Louis was godfather to Boemers' son. Now in his 70s, Louis forged many strong bonds with other German wine importers over the years. Virtually every German officer installed throughout the region was really a wine merchant in

uniform. They all knew Uncle Louis. Case in point is the commander of the naval base in Bordeaux: Kuhnemann. He was the former

head of a very large wine import firm in Berlin and happened to be Louis' cousin. Alas, such alliances to Kuhnemann, Boemers and

even Ribbentrop, coupled with a robust balance sheet, were Uncle Louis' ultimate undoing.

With Weinführer Boemers in place, commerce with the Germans in the wine trade had all the appearance of fair trade. Boemers was adamant that acquisitions be carried out properly and efficiently. His reasoning was simple. One day the war would be over and business would resume. It made no sense to make enemies with lifelong colleagues and friends when war was a transitory state of affairs. Then the Germans devalued the franc. The French were soon paying three to four times more for goods and services than before. The brisk sale of Bordeaux wines to the Germans was, in essence, over-the-counter theft. With a 20% tax added to a bottle of wine and the franc worth next to nothing, it was only a matter of time before a black market developed. It was far more feasible to acquire wines and other necessities through these channels than through legal means.

Vineyards in Decline

The years of occupation in Bordeaux plodded by and the residents marked time with little incident. For the négociants, even with

an anaemic franc, the wine business was thriving. Before the

Occupation, négociants were sitting on a surplus of disappointing vintages from the 1930s. Now they were able to unload the

inventory quickly and profitably. Ironically, this was even the case

for merchants that had become, by token of their citizenship,

enemies of Vichy. Some actually found their bank accounts in better shape at the war's end than in 1940. Within 18 months, the wine cellars throughout the region were all but depleted. No one seems to have taken into consideration replenishing the inventory. Also, the region-wide shortage of labour was ruining Bordeaux's most prized agricultural product. It was impossible to maintain the vineyards as before. Neglected vines went to seed, orderly rows between the vines gave way to grass and weeds, cows grazed in and around the greenery. Plus, the lack of

copper sulphate and sulphur required to make pesticide spray

compounded the problem. The result was painfully low yields.

The money-making wine machine of Bordeaux and other wine-growing regions was grinding to a halt. For many French soldiers, this predicament spelled freedom. Prisoners with pedigrees in the vineyards were let out of camps to work in the vineyards. One such freed prisoner was Thierry Manoncourt of Château Figeac. In 1940, Manoncourt was residing in Paris, studying agriculture, when he was called to arms. Sent to a disciplinary camp after refusing to work as a labourer for the Germans, Manoncourt was set free in 1943 for the harvest. At that time, nobody resided at Château Figeac on a year-round basis. With one working electrical socket and water from the rain-collection tanks, Château Figeac was bypassed as a suitable place to billet German soldiers. For Manoncourt it must have seemed like Shangri-la. But even with more hands throughout the region, the damage of the vines had already been sustained due to sheer neglect. In the case of Château Figeac, the harvest of 1943 and a handful of harvests thereafter, were about half the normal yield.

Au Revoir Les Allemands

When the Germans got the order to pull out of France towards the end of August 1944, the French were only too eager to send them packing. If only they had gone quietly. Bridges and thoroughfares both in and out of town were blown sky-high.

What took place when the Germans evacuated Bordeaux is

speculative. For when the Germans left the Bordeaux environs on

27 August, 1944, it was a relatively quiet affair. According to his defence, Uncle Louis Eschenauer pleaded with Kuhnemann not to demolish the bridge, buildings or roads. His pleas were heard and they left without incident. Some semblance of this story was told to the judge during Louis' trial for unwittingly collaborating with the Germans. He was found guilty of all charges and fined 62 million francs. Those sympathetic to his plight explained that almost every négociant was doing business with the Germans. In the case of Uncle Louis, his most obvious crime was a flamboyance and flaunting behaviour concerning his business dealings with the Germans.

Another incident occurred before the Germans left Bordeaux. There was, in fact, an official order to blow up the port of Bordeaux upon the German evacuation of the city. It was only a matter of time before what had been four years of relative quiet was going to be obliterated by this last hurrah of devastation. Little did anyone know that this fait accompli would be derailed in the name of l'amour.

A young German soldier, Heinz Stahlschmidt, was in love with a French woman. She was also a member of the Resistance. Upon

hearing of the final assault being planned, the woman entreated her lover to gain access to the blockhouse where the munitions were housed. A copy of the blockhouse key needed to be made. The woman's Resistance contacts could not be recruited to copy the key. So Stahlschmidt took up the challenge. Copied key in hand, he cycled to the blockhouse, entered and set fire to the munitions. The blockhouse armaments exploded as Stahlschmidt pedalled away to safety.

This story and others were told to me by Don and Petie Kladstrup. The couple spent three years gathering the stories about the men, women and children who were living in the various wine-growing regions of France during the Occupation. Their findings are the

subject of the recently released book, Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure (Broadway Books, 2001). They write extensively about Bordeaux during the Occupation and have been instrumental in giving new voice to a difficult time

in the history of the French.

Stefana Williams is a freelance writer.

PANEL: Rothschild Loyalties Run Deep

Cyril Ray, author of Lafite (Stein and Day, New York, 1978), recounts the story of how Madame Gaby Faux, the book-keeper of Château Lafite-Rothschild, went to great pains to protect what she could of the Rothschild's valuables during the

occupation. A little over a week between the departure of the last Rothschild and the arrival of some 50 Germans to take up residence in the château, Madame Faux and the remaining staff were very busy. Some 2,000 bottles of old wine were moved from an easily accessible cellar area to a series of remote cellar passages. There they remained undetected for four years. Madame Faux also deftly transferred the ownership of the

larger cellars of fine wines from the members of the Rothschild family who were forced to forfeit citizenship upon their escape, to Alain and Elie Rothschild. As the two brothers were prisoners of war, Madame Faux was determined that the property in their names would be protected under the terms of the Hague or Geneva conventions. While the name juggling was ultimately unnecessary, these unselfish efforts are a testament to the deep loyalty Madame Faux and the staff felt for their employer.

Panel tastings

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