During the Second World War, many well-known fashion brands were accused of collaborating with the Nazis. However, Coco Chanel, the iconic founder of the luxury brand, is not only accused of fraternizing with high-level Nazi officials but that she capitalized on her powerful connections to oust Jewish business partners in her company. Her loyalty to the German party did not end there.
Recent French documents revealed that she also may have been Agent 7124 (Codename: “Westminster”) for the Nazi intelligence organization, the Abwehr.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops, maintaining her apartment situated above the couture house at 31 Rue de Cambon. She claimed that it was not a time for fashion; as a result of her action, 4,000 female employees lost their jobs. Her dislike of Jews, reportedly inculcated by her convent years and sharpened by her association with society elites, had solidified her beliefs. She shared with many of her circle a conviction that Jews were a threat to Europe because of the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union.
During the German occupation, Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz. It was noteworthy as the preferred place of residence for upper-echelon German military staff. Her romantic liaison with Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklagea German diplomat in Paris and former Prussian Army officer and Attorney General who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920, the handsome von Dincklage would meet and become lovers with Coco Chanel. The two moved in together, residing for a period in Paris’ Ritz Hotel.
Chanel was enlisted as an Abwehr spy under the command of General Walter Schellenberg.
The stylish designer journeyed to Spain with Baron Louis de Vaufreland, whose responsibility was to identify who could be drafted into spying for the Third Reich. Chanel regularly rubbed shoulders with the British nobility, including the British ambassador to Spain, providing Vaufreland with an excellent cover.
World War II, specifically the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and business enterprises, provided Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by Parfums Chanel and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The directors of Parfums Chanel, the Wertheimers, were Jewish. Chanel used her position as an “Aryan” to petition German officials to legalize her claim to sole ownership.
- On 5 May 1941, she wrote to the government administrator charged with ruling on the disposition of Jewish financial assets. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that Parfums Chanel “is still the property of Jews” and had been legally “abandoned” by the owners.
“I have,” she wrote, “an indisputable right of priority … the profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business … are disproportionate … [and] you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered in the course of these seventeen years.”
Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to Félix Amiot, a Christian French businessman and industrialist. At war’s end, Amiot returned “Parfums Chanel” to the hands of the Wertheimers.
During the period directly following the end of World War II, the business world watched with interest and some apprehension the ongoing legal wrestle for control of Parfums Chanel. Interested parties in the proceedings were cognizant that Chanel’s Nazi affiliations during wartime, if made public knowledge, would seriously threaten the reputation and status of the Chanel brand. Forbes magazine summarized the dilemma faced by the Wertheimers: [it is Pierre Wertheimer’s worry] how “a legal fight might illuminate Chanel’s wartime activities and wreck her image—and his business.”
After the war’s end, Chanel was never prosecuted for her active collaboration with the Germans. After Germany lost the war, the defeated couturier spent seven years in Switzerland with her lover, Baron von Dincklage. Eventually, in 1954, she managed to re-establish Chanel with the surprising aid of Pierre Wertheimer .
At the end of the war, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for war crimes. He was released in 1951 owing to incurable liver disease and took refuge in Italy. Chanel paid for Schellenberg’s medical care and living expenses, financially supported his wife and family, and paid for Schellenberg’s funeral upon his death in 1952.
Next time you spray a bit of Chanel just think of it’s history.
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