How France’s champagne makers fooled Nazis — and helped turn the tide of WWII
Next time you raise a glass of bubbly, you may want to consider raising one to the Champagne makers themselves. Moët & Chandon. Taittinger. They are among the most well-known brands in the world, but what’s not as well-known is their role during World War II. These producers in France’s Champagne region helped turn the tide of the war.
This tumultuous time period serves as the backdrop for a new novel, “The Winemaker’s Wife” (Gallery Books) by Kristin Harmel. It’s a historical thriller about two women whose husbands operate a champagne house. Their lives are upended by the German invasion, leaving them facing difficult choices and mortal danger.
The book begins in May 1940, the same month German troops rolled into France. The Nazis set about looting almost anything of value, including art, gold and, in the country’s wine-producing regions, drink.
The Germans saw consuming the bottles as a way to flaunt their victory, and many of the top Nazi officers were wine aficionados. Hermann Göring, the powerful military commander, and Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, were both wine collectors. Adolf Hitler himself did not drink, but that didn’t stop him from amassing a dazzling array of a half-million vintage bottles as trophies at his Eagle’s Nest fortress in Germany.
France’s cellars were quickly ransacked, with soldiers appearing and demanding the house’s best bottles — a scene depicted in “The Winemaker’s Wife.”
“In the first few weeks of the German occupation, soldiers stole more than 2 million bottles from winemakers in the Champagne region,” Harmel tells The Post.
To quell the chaos and to streamline the transfer of wine from France to Germany, the Nazis appointed so-called “weinfuhrers” in the various regions.
The man put in charge of Champagne was Otto Klaebisch, a tall, charming officer who was born in Cognac, France. His family had been in brandy sales until after World War I, when their business was confiscated by France and they returned to Germany.
Before World War II, Klaebisch had been running a winemaking and importing business in Germany, and he was already familiar to many producers in Champagne.
“At first, people were relieved because he came from a family of wine merchants and they thought he’d understand wine,” Harmel says.
Or, as one French winemaker put it, “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,” according to “Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure,” a 2002 book by Donald and Petie Kladstrup.
Klaebisch set about demanding as many as 400,000 bottles per week for Germany — a nearly impossible load — often with little paid to the French producers in exchange.
The German demands put an incredible strain on the Champagne makers, and by the spring of 1941, they decided to push back. The houses banded together and formed a union called the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, which would represent the region’s interests. Heading up the organization was Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, the head of Moët & Chandon and one of the most respected men in the business.
It became his job to negotiate with the weinfuhrer. When de Vogüé complained about the number of bottles demanded, Klaebisch advised him to “work Sundays.”
The clever winemakers, however, soon found ways to stick it to the Germans, including hiding their best bottles behind secret walls in their cellars or mislabeling bottles — slapping the best vintages, such as the 1928, with a “poison” label, or passing off their worst with a label indicating better ones.
The problem with the latter strategy was that Klaebisch had an educated palette and could recognize swill when he drank it. “How dare you send us fizzy dishwater,” the Nazi once berated François Taittinger of the eponymous house. “Who cares?” Taittinger replied. “It’s not as if it’s going to be drunk by anyone who knows anything about Champagne.”
Taittinger was jailed for several days for his insolence.
Another French producer had an even more creative way of dealing with Klaebisch. Lily Bollinger, the head of another famed producer, received the weinfuhrer politely whenever he showed up at the estate. But she offered him an armchair that was intentionally narrow, knowing that the overweight Klaebisch wouldn’t fit into it. He was forced to stand for his visit and never returned to Bollinger again, according to Decanter magazine.
Residents of the area also took more active forms of resistance. They hid arms and Allied soldiers in their cellars. Many Jews, too, took refuge there.
The winemakers also proved a valuable source of intelligence. The Resistance had discerned early on that major German offensives were preceded by large orders of drink.
In one instance, the Germans ordered that the French bottles be specially corked and packed in order to be sent to a very hot country. The French passed this information along to British intelligence just before the Nazi campaign in Egypt began.
De Vogüé was active in the underground French Resistance, heading up the wing in Epernay.
“He had everything to lose, and he didn’t hesitate,” Harmel says. “He stood up for his country because it was the right thing to do.”
Klaebisch and the Nazis became suspicious of de Vogüé, and in November 1943, the Frenchman was arrested and sent to the Ziegenhain concentration camp.
Klaebisch took over operations at Moët & Chandon.
De Vogüé was scheduled to be worked to death at Ziegenhain and barely survived. At one point, he contracted gangrene in his little finger and was forced to cut it off himself with a piece of sharpened glass.
When the British paratroopers finally liberated the camp in May 1945, de Vogüé was so weak that he lay unconscious on the side of the road, near death. A passing soldier who coincidentally had once worked for the Champagne maker recognized him and picked him up. De Vogüé eventually resumed running Moët. (He died in 1976.)
In 1944, the Allies liberated Champagne, and Klaebisch returned to Germany. At the war’s end, he was tried for economic crimes. De Vogüé was called as a witness against him, but instead supported his old nemesis’ exoneration.
“He was in a difficult situation,” de Vogüé told the court. “I don’t believe for a minute that he himself would have ever ordered my arrest or those of my colleagues. It was the Gestapo.”
Klaebisch was released.
Another little-known piece of trivia: The war in Europe officially ended in Champagne. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had his headquarters in Reims, and it was there, on May 7, 1945, that the Germans signed the surrender papers.
A more public ceremony the next day in Berlin is now commemorated as VE Day, but the war actually ended in France.
It’s a fitting tribute to the people of Champagne, who creatively resisted the occupation in ways both big and small.
As part of her research, Harmel interviewed people from the region and found that most everyone had a heroic story about a relative or friend during the war.
“You don’t have to have an enormous voice to stand up for the right thing,” Harmel says. “You just need to stand up.”
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