Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

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