Part 2 (Part 1: A Mother’s Day Gift: the Friendship of Louis Chevrillon and Herbert Hoover)
By Thomas F. Schwartz
On December 15, 1938, Chevrillon wrote to Hoover presenting a grim future for France and Europe. Commending Hoover on his strong public statements against the German government’s oppression of Jews on what is now referred to as Kristallnacht, an exasperated Chevrillon wrote:
“That such wholesale persecution be possible under our so called civilization is an outrage to the human mind. Unfortunately, public opinion here has ceased to react to the frightful crimes perpetrated just beyond our frontiers.
When one thinks of the wholesale massacres of priests and nuns in Spain, of the systematic chronic assassination in Russia, of the scandalous oppression in Germany and Italy, one can only say that the human brain has a limit set to the comprehension and realization of such horrors—they have become part of the daily bread served by the press to the public whose interest is dulled by the mere repetitions of crime!
We in France lead our hum drum lives as if the world were not dancing on a tight rope with its eyes closed and a tremendous precipice below.
We nearly fell off in September, when war was just averted by a hair breadth and we do not seem to be at all aware of the very heavy bill that we and the English have paid to avoid it.
Germany has most attained its ends and won a second bloodless victory. By the Munich conferences, Europe has reached a turning point in its history. The whole planetary system of European powers has been profoundly altered. The secondary planets such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, Serbia will now revolve around the new German sun slowly but surely progressing East. Ukraine will no doubt follow and we will have to sit still until the whole system has grown into a huge particular mass that will then set out to absorb us. We only have ten or twenty years respite which we will live in constant alarm of an attack.”
Chevrillon’s prediction came much sooner, for less than a year later, the Germans invaded Poland and the French and British declared war against Germany. With the German invasion of France in May, 1940, Chevrillon penned a stoic letter to Hoover on September 2, 1940:
“We are beaten, we have signed an armistice and we must stick by it and endure. Of course with modern armament it seems an easy matter for Germany to keep us in bondage, a disarmed people cannot revolt against tanks, machine guns, and air bombing planes but I cannot help thinking that in a new reorganized Europe moral forces will, or at least may, dominate over material strength. And also the English or rather British situation is far from desperate and I look forward to a more humane peace than what we anticipated a month ago.
We will be now going through years of misery, industry will be ruined, and production of food will be reduced to something very small, given the German privileges. Next winter will see an appalling shortage of food, coal and an enormous increase of unemployed.”
Hoover immediately responded: “My main concern in this letter, however, is to know if there is anything personal that I can do for you. Your friends here would be glad to see that you get financial support to enable you to care for your family if you can tell us how we can reach you. Furthermore, if it were possible that you would wish to send the boys to the United States and a way could be found for them to get here, I would be glad to take charge of them. I do not know that America has any better outlook than Europe for the long view future, but perhaps life would unfold for them better here than there if they wish to make the change.” Hoover also sent word to Millard Shaler whose London meeting with Hoover in 1914 resulted in the creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Shaler’s office in Lisbon also handled matters for the Belgian American Education Foundation, the organization created from the residual funds of the CRB. Hoover wanted Shaler to keep in communication with Chevrillon and assist him in whatever way necessary.
On December 28, 1940 Chevrillon indicated to Shaler that “I feel very much like a man walking along a very light rope that might snap any moment.” Realizing that his situation in Vichy France was difficult but not oppressive, Chevrillon indicated to Shaler that Hoover “has been more than kind and now that he has written and telegraphed in such a brotherly way and generously even suggested to take my whole family under his care, I wonder whether I could through him obtain a loan which I would certainly repay.” Shaler quickly sent the following telegram to the Belgian fund in New York:
“Chevrillons address Two Rue Jouxt Aigues Toulouse Stop Family well and all must remain France for business reasons Stop Chevrillon would greatly appreciate one hundred thousand franc loan which will see him through Stop After consulting Chief cable decision following which you cable what amount dollars necessary.”
Throughout the war Hoover continued to correspond with Chevrillon and continued to have Shaler and others out of the Lisbon office check on his friend to make certain he was not in want for food and funds. Chevrillon never forgot Hoover’s generosity nor did he ever regret staying in Vichy France throughout the war.