When allied troops stormed Normandy beaches 70 years ago, German troops had already occupied most of France for five years. One of the lesser-known areas of WWII studies is the impact German occupation had on France’s most prized possession, its wine industry. This piece of WWII history is brilliantly chronicled by Don and Petrie Kladstrup in their book “Wine & War,” published in 2001.
One of the more fascinating accounts related in the Kladstrup book occurred just a few days before Germany’s surrender when French troops were first to reach Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Situated in the Bavarian Alps, Eagle’s Nest, though not called that by Hitler, was completed in 1938 as a gift from the Nazi party for Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939.
Hitler never lived in Eagle’s Nest, opting instead for a house further down the mountain. Situated at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet and only easily accessible by a long tunnel and an elevator rising hundreds of feet through a granite shaft, Eagle’s Nest proved unpopular with Hitler, who suffered from acrophobia and claustrophobia.
Eagle’s Nest and its passages, unbeknownst to invading Allies, was a repository for the spoils of war. As Allies approached, departing Germans blew up the elevator. The only way for Allied forces to access the Nest was to scale the steep cliff to the mountain top perch by foot.
A young Frenchman, Bernard de Nonancourt, from the Champagne region, was selected to make the climb. Upon reaching the top Nonancourt found a treasure trove of an estimated half million bottles of wine, many of them magnums housed in the bowels of the Nest including the finest wines from the regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux along with rare ports and cognacs though it is said Hitler did not imbibe.
Nonancourt observed with some amusement many bottles labeled “Reserved for the Wehrmacht.” This was a subtlety producers employed to indicate to the knowing that bottle content might not be premium cuvee.
After the first wave of German occupation, French winemakers and their occupiers peacefully coexisted. As the war heated up and more German foot soldiers were deployed, looting of fine wines by the invaders ensued. German upper echelon oenophiles realized wanton looting of rare and precious wines was a sacrilege. To that end, weinführers, a word coined by the French, were appointed to oversee major wine areas.
The weinführers were not necessarily Nazi sympathizers, according to the Kladstrups. Heinz Bömers, weinführer of Bordeaux, was familiar with the region. His family owned Bordeaux Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte prior to its confiscation by the French government after World War I.
Bömers became a wine merchant specializing in French wine after the family’s exile to Germany. He was on excellent terms with Bordeaux producers most of whom viewed Bömers as a friend. Champagne did not fare as well with their weinführer Klaebisch, who demanded 500,000 bottles of Champagne a week, an impossible number, to quench the thirst of the Third Reich. The French attempted to meet these excessive demands by pawning off bad vintages and watering down wines along with other nefarious activities. If offenders were caught, punishment was severe.
One of many wine family tragedies occurred near the end of the war. Baron Philippe de Rothschild fled his prized Bordeaux first-growth property, Mouton Rothschild, to join Charles de Gaulle’s forces, leaving behind his wife Comtesse Elizabeth de Chambure and their small child, thinking the Comtesse would not be harmed because she was not Jewish. She was taken from her Paris apartment and gassed in a concentration camp three days before the camp was liberated.
The Baron and others came back to a devastated industry. Battles had decimated vineyards and left them strewn with mines and unexploded munitions. Surviving vines were in poor condition because of lack of chemicals to treat vine pest. In the end, the retreating desperate Germans conscripted vineyard workers into their army, confiscated farm equipment and farm animals leaving no one or no thing to work vineyards. Even with substantial help from the French government it would be decades before the industry recovered.
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