When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, Monaco officially took a neutral position. Louis II, however, paraded through the streets of his country in a French general’s uniform. Although he was already 70, he was appointed general of a division in Cannes. No one had to doubt which side of the global conflict he was on.
On September 5, according to the agreements of the 1918 treaty, three hundred French soldiers were stationed in Monaco so that France could guarantee the protection of the dwarf State. In the first weeks after the outbreak of the war, a plan was even worked on to have most of the inhabitants of Monaco evacuated to a refugee camp near Lodève (Languedoc), if the situation became unsafe for them.
Everything changed drastically when in May 1940 the German army invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. The elderly Marshal Pétain was put in charge of unoccupied France, based in Vichy. This government was officially responsible for the protection of Monaco. At the same time, the southern French coast was attacked by the Italian army. On June 14, Menton and Cap Martin were captured and annexed. The locals (many of whom had left on time and were housed in refugee camps in Languedoc) were even obliged to speak Italian in public again. Monaco’s position was shaky as Mussolini claimed a return of the Rock to Italian authority, which in his eyes had been stolen by the Grimaldis. However, the Germans did not want a conflict over Monaco and made it clear to the Italians that they had to leave this for a while. After the Armistice on June 22, 1940, the Principality became an enclave in an Italian-occupied zone of southern France.
Louis II himself fled to his country residence in northern France, but when the castle of Marchais was claimed by the Luftwaffe to serve as headquarters, he returned to the palace on the Rock. Pétain appointed his confidant Emile Roblot as Minister of State, leaving the Vichy government in power in Monaco. Louis II, who himself was a great admirer of Pétain, could no longer decide on his own. Life in Monte Carlo was restarted. As if nothing had happened, the Casino even reopened on August 3. The hotels and restaurants even to be supplied through a black trade in food and goods, but there were also customers.
The neutral position of the Principality offered many refugees the opportunity to go into hiding or to use it as a springboard to safer places. Many Jewish families found shelter in Monaco. The German occupiers complained to Pétain about the fact that Jewish bankers in Monaco could still continue to do their work and asked for measures to be taken. On July 3, 1941, this situation came to an end because Louis II, under pressure from Pétain, forbade Jews to perform certain functions. This also led to the departure of opera director Raoul Gunsbourg, who had given the Monaco opera worldwide fame, and the theatre director René Blum. It led to a lot of sadness and frustration.
Monaco’s independent status was certainly in jeopardy during the war. The Italian army decided on November 11, 1942, to occupy the independent country as an ‘irridenta’. This raid initially led to the arrests of Italian anti-fascists who fled, but some Monegasques were also arrested. The situation for Jewish refugees in Monaco became precarious, although the Italians sometimes turned a blind eye.
This situation changed when the Allies attacked Italy from North Africa in September 1943. The Italian government capitulated on September 8 and within a day the country withdrew its soldiers from Monaco and there seemed to be no longer any question of occupation. The Monegasques were relieved, but that mood did not last long because the next day German soldiers came to take command of the occupation. The Hôtel de Paris became the headquarters of the Gestapo and in l’Hermitage the officers spent the night. The port of Monaco was immediately banned for pleasure yachts to make room for the German navy, which had to be vigilant against an Allied invasion from the South. The Nazis started a French-language radio station from a studio in the Principality for their own propaganda: this was the beginning of Radio Monte-Carlo.
Remarkably, the Casino remained open during the German occupation. There was still a lot of gambling and partying. SBM did remarkably well in those years. Monaco also became the centre of illegal trade and the black market. It is suspected that many Nazis, when the defeat of Germany was already certain, managed to funnel capital to South America via Monaco. Louis II’s role in this situation was murky, to say the least, as some pre-war debts of the Principality also disappeared like snow in the sun. According to the Americans, the Prince was uncooperative with the Allies during the liberation.
A year later, on September 3, 1944, the German occupation came to an end. Three weeks earlier, the landings had taken place in the Var, between St. Raphael and Toulon, and the Midi was liberated. In the week of August 23 to 28, the port of Monaco was bombarded with air raids by the Allies. During a night bombardment, some houses were hit.
Monaco suffered material damage from the war at the last minute. The American soldiers initially believed that they did not need to liberate Monaco because they were under the impression that the country was neutral. The communists of the Monegasque resistance even tried to depose Louis II with the intention of establishing a socialist republic, but the Allies did not really like that.
In the French resistance there was the idea of having Monaco annexed immediately. The Regional Commissioner of the Republic asked General de Gaulle for advice on what to do. The tall general’s answer was remarkable: “If you had done it without asking my advice, I would have had to reprimand you officially, but you would have received my approval personally. But now that you are asking my permission, I must forbid it.”
Monaco had once again kept its independent status by a narrow margin.
MAIN IMAGE: Locals talk to American MPs after the Liberation, centre, Louis II