Just before France fell to the Germans in May 1940, the Champagne region swung into action. Recognizing that their prized bottles would be highly sought after by the Nazi top brass, champagne houses throughout the region concealed their best vintages, bricking them up in the bowels of champagne cellars, burying them in the garden – anything to keep their best vintages from Nazi hands. But despite their best efforts, Champagne soon fell under German control – as did the champagne houses responsible for producing the world’s best vintages.
“The Germans have moved in with a vengeance. They’ve appointed a – we call him a Weinführer – who’s putting the entire region to work. Given the number of bottles he’s ordering every week, it seems that Göring is keeping the Luftwaffe hydrated with champagne alone. It’s a wonder they get their airplanes off the tarmac.”
During the war, Germany’s thirst for champagne was insatiable. In the early days of the occupation, over two million bottles of champagne were stolen by German soldiers, while Hitler himself “requisitioned” over 500,000 for his private cellars alone. Hoping to keep the champagne flowing, the Germans installed a “Weinführer” in Champagne, responsible for overseeing champagne production in the region as a whole: Otto Klaebisch.
Klaebisch was a brandy merchant, familiar with the production, distribution, and sale of liquor – and it was this very familiarity with the industry which frustrated champagne producers. He ought to have known, they muttered angrily, that orders of 400,000 bottles a week bound for Germany was unsustainable! Champagne, after all, takes three years to mature, and each grape must be harvested by hand – and these orders were made taller still by the fact that the Germans had arrested most of the young men who worked for the champagne houses. But Klaebisch was unphased by the sheer scale of what he’d asked the champagne region to do. His advice? “Work Sundays.”
"You recall Sébastien's friend, François? He was arrested three days ago for selling an inferior vintage to the Wehrmacht."
Needless to say, resentment rapidly became the watchword among Champagne’s remaining residents. Needing a way to stand up to the Weinführer, the region’s champagne houses banded together to form a union under the leadership of Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, head of Moet & Chandon (who makes a brief cameo appearance in The Paris Deception!) The champagne houses also found ways to fight back by mislabelling their bottles to conceal their best vintages, and delivering their worst vintages to the Germans (a scene in The Paris Deception has François Tattinger arrested for selling “dishwater” to Klaebisch – this actually happened!) But Champagne had a bigger role to play with the French Resistance.
"Where do you go every night?"
He leaned back. "Don't ask questions that I can't answer," he replied. "It's safer for everyone these days if we all keep to our own business."
Unbeknownst to the Weinführer, Robert-Jean de Vogüé was not only the spokesperson for the champagne houses: he was also the head of the regional French Resistance, and he made sure that Champagne did its part for the war effort. The champagne houses worked alongside the Resistance to sabotage German efforts, hide and protect downed Allied airmen and Jewish families, and hid airdropped provisions. They also kept a close eye on the champagne orders sent down by the Nazi top brass and passed information on to Allied forces, because the Germans often revealed their military intentions through their champagne orders: in one case, instructions to specially cork and pack a large champagne order for travel to a warm climate indicated that the Germans anticipated an upcoming victory in North Africa. The champagne houses alerted the Resistance, who passed the information along to the Allies… and ensured that victory never happened.
Want to learn more about the champagne region during the Second World War? Read Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, by Don and Petie Kladstrup
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Latest Novel
Bryn Turnbull has such a gorgeous way of writing and her details of the art world, especially during WWII, were nothing short of a masterpiece in their own right. The Paris Deception is a story of incredible bravery as two women use clever tactics and incredible talent to save priceless art from being looted. Art enthusiasts and historical fiction readers alike will be drawn into this powerful story.
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