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Josephine Baker's entry into the Pantheon: how the star fought Nazism during World War II

Josephine Baker, star of the interwar period, put herself at the service of France to fight against the Nazis. With her interpersonal skills and courage, she lent a hand to the Resistance.


Josephine Baker's entry into the Pantheon: how the star fought Nazism during World War II
The singer and dancer Josephine Baker surrounded by officers of the French army during the ceremony where she received the Legion of Honor and the Cross of War, August 19, 1961, at the castle of Milandes (Dordogne). - AFP -


"I have two loves, my country and Paris." In her famous song, Josephine Baker proclaimed her attachment to France and its capital. When she sang it for the first time in 1930, she was a huge star of the Revue nègre, a musical show that helped popularize jazz and black American culture in France. It is not only on stage that this native of Missouri, born in 1906 in a poor environment, will shine. Her induction into the Pantheon on Tuesday, November 30, nearly a century after the song's debut, is a tribute to the selflessness she demonstrated during World War II, a period in which she distinguished herself as a spy.


When France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Josephine Baker lived between the capital, where she performed in a revue at the Casino de Paris, and Le Vésinet (Yvelines), where she owned the villa Beau Chêne. She obtained French nationality two years earlier, after her marriage to the Jewish broker Jean Lion. The 2nd Bureau, the French intelligence service, was then looking for "honorable correspondents", "that is to say, trustworthy personalities whose notoriety and acquaintances in diplomatic circles it intended to use to infiltrate them and obtain information", explains historian Frédérique Neau-Dufour .


For the love of France


The officer Jacques Abtey, spy within the 2nd Bureau, met the dancer in his home in Le Vésinet, in September 1939. The idea was submitted to him by the impresario Daniel Marouani. Skeptical at first, the soldier was quickly won over, especially since the artist was excited about the project, as he recounts in his book La Guerre secrète de Joséphine Baker (published by La Lauze). "It is France that made me what I am, I will keep an eternal gratitude. France is sweet, it is good to live there for us people of color, because there are no racist prejudices, she assures Jacques Abtey. Have I not become the darling child of Parisians?"  


"I am ready, Captain, to give them [the Parisians] my life today. You may dispose of me as you wish."

Josephine Baker in "Josephine Baker's Secret War"


"She wanted to defend her new homeland, it was a completely sincere and spontaneous commitment," her former private secretary Michèle Barbier. "She was very cocardière," confirms the biographer Emmanuel Bonini, author of La Véritable Joséphine Baker (published by Pygmalion). Arriving in France in 1925, after fleeing the segregationist United States, Josephine Baker remembers being well received. "French people, French women, immediately kind," she tells Marcel Sauvage, who has retraced her life in long interviews in Les Mémoires de Joséphine Baker (ed. Dilecta). 


"At the time, in France, racism existed, even if it was expressed differently than in the United States," contextualizes Frédérique Neau-Dufour. In the French colonies, black people did not have the same rights as Europeans. In the metropolis, the few non-white people are generally considered inferior." But Josephine Baker's personality and status as an artist helped her to make a place for herself, the historian explains.


She hid weapons and resistance fighters


As early as October 1939, she provided "the first proof of her effectiveness," says Emmanuel Bonini. Courted to be the star of a communist propaganda film that was to "highlight the oppression of Blacks in the French colonies," she received the Swedish banker Olof Aschberg, who was behind the project, at Le Vésinet. The latter was suspected of being the main distributor of propaganda funds in France. The lunch at the Villa Beau Chêne served as a test for the 2nd Bureau to record conversations. The film, however, was not made.


On June 22, 1940, the armistice between France and Germany, requested by Marshal Pétain, was signed at Rethondes, in the forest of Compiègne (Oise). Josephine Baker then decided not to go on stage. "She always said that she refused to perform in front of the Germans, but when the Nazis arrived in Paris, black people were banned from the stage. And she has little desire to associate with this racist regime, especially since she married a Jew, "said  the journalist and writer Liesel Schiffer, co-author of These immigrants who have made France (ed. Aubanel). 


Josephine Baker finally reached the free zone and the château des Milandes, near Sarlat (Dordogne), which she had been renting for two years, in early 1940. "She tries to show a life of star of the time, she is taken in photo, she meets the local farmers, but it also serves as a link with the resistance established in the vicinity, in the maquis,"  the owner of the place, Angelique de Labarre. She hides weapons or resistance fighters there. The Germans knocked one day at his door. The artist does not give up: "I think that the officer cannot be serious. It is true that I have redskin grandparents, but they buried the hatchet a long time ago, and if there is one dance I have never danced, it is the war dance," reports the Vésinet Historical Society. "She didn't give a damn," nuances Emmanuel Bonini, "she even said to her neighbor, 'Thank God they left, I was going to pee my pants.'" 


"She never really aroused suspicion because her reputation preceded her, she seemed a bit carefree. It was unimaginable that Josephine Baker could be a spy."

Angelique de Labarre, owner of the castle of Milandes


It is all the same a warning: it is necessary to redouble vigilance. Two days later, she received a visit from a man who had come to give her documents on German aviation so that she could hand them over to General de Gaulle. She feigned disbelief and refused, aware of the danger.


"Who would dare to search Joséphine?"


Josephine Baker then flew to Spain and Portugal on missions. "She was received in embassies, opened her ears, played the clown, signed autographs when she went through customs... Thanks to her, the spy Jacques Abtey, who accompanied her as a secretary, went incognito," details Emmanuel Bonini. To avoid her being discovered, Paul Paillole, in charge of military counter-espionage, invited her to resume her artistic activities. "There is no better screen for you," he told her, according to her memoirs. At the end of 1940, she landed in Marseille where she was to perform Offenbach's operetta La Créole.


But the war quickly took over: she and Jacques Abtey were needed in North Africa. At that time, the Americans had their eye on the area," says historian Frédérique Neau-Dufour. Josephine Baker being of American origin, Jacques Abtey thought she could make useful contacts with the Allies and pass on information to the Free French." She cancelled her performances and landed in Casablanca in 1941.


Once posted in Morocco, Josephine Baker multiplied her travels: Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon. She collected information written in friendly ink on her sheet music or stapled to her bra. "But who would dare to search Joséphine Baker down to the skin?" she laughs in Joséphine (Robert Laffont), a book written with her fourth husband. She eventually fell seriously ill, staying nineteen months in bed from June 1941 to December 1942, in a Casablanca clinic. Threat of peritonitis, tachycardia, septicemia, occlusion... These health problems do not stop her: the artist makes her room a hub of allied intelligence. She worked in favor of General de Gaulle, who had bad press with the Americans. "She saw in him the incarnation of the ideal of France, of the spirit of enlightenment. She was under the spell of his epic character," says Frédérique Neau-Dufour. 


"Remarkable courage and composure"


On June 6, 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy, Josephine Baker was on her way to Corsica in a small plane to make propaganda for the general. The plane crashed into the sea. She was saved by Senegalese riflemen. A few weeks later, she was officially integrated into the French army with the rank of second lieutenant of the auxiliary female troops of the French air force. This was a first recognition of her action which called for others. In 1946, she received the Resistance medal. It was not until eleven years later that she received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'honneur, which were finally awarded to her on August 19, 1961 in the grounds of her château des Milandes.


What role did Josephine Baker play in the history of the Resistance? Did her interpersonal skills and her participation in social events in North Africa and Europe really do France a favor? "She and Lucie Aubrac are two faces of the female resistance," says Frédérique Neau-Dufour. "She took risks to play this role, but she did not obtain any vital information," moderates Emmanuel Bonini. It was the spirit and courage she showed that impressed."


The decree making her a knight of the Legion of Honor, published in the Journal Officiel in 1957 and reproduced by the Société d'histoire du Vésinet, refers to the "precious information" collected, "remarkable courage and composure" and the "beautiful figure of the French woman in the service of the Resistance." In a letter to Emmanuel Bonini in September 1990, Colonel Paul Paillole stated that he would not be "loyal to [his] responsibilities as head of the service if [he] affirmed that the services rendered to our country and to the Resistance by Josephine Baker were essential and considerable. But he also writes: 


"I would be ungrateful if I did not remember the enthusiasm of this brave girl, her fierce desire to put her talent at the service of France, her performances made of charm, but also of unfailing patriotic feelings, of immense generosity."

Colonel Paul Paillole, of the military counter-espionage in a letter addressed to Emmanuel Bonini


When the war was over, Josephine Baker returned to Les Milandes with "her rainbow tribe", the 12 children she had adopted, and went back on stage for a last stand in April 1975. On the 10th, she collapsed in her Paris apartment after a stroke and died two days later. Nearly forty years later, she becomes the sixth woman to enter the Pantheon, joining fellow resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Sophie Berthelot (as wife of former minister Marcellin Berthelot, himself a Pantheonist), physicist Marie Curie, and former minister and deportee Simone Veil. "This has an obvious political significance for Emmanuel Macron. He wants to highlight that foreign immigrants have defended the mother country, and he could not find a better example, concludes Michèle Barbier. Josephine Baker would have been happy, she liked to have her actions recognized."

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Adam Noh

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