Welcome to the seventh installment in my long neglected examination into the origins of a mysterious outfit variously known as Le Cercle, the Pinay Group, the Pesenti Group and a host of other titles. Often described as simply a "foreign policy think tank," the Cercle complex was also a vast private intelligence network that wielded tremendous power throughout the Cold War. Much more information on these activities can be found in an earlier series I wrote on the Cercle complex.
The complex still appears to be a major power to this day, especially for British Tories, as was recently explored here. However, this series is about the origins of the complex, and those lie in mainland Europe. Founded in the period between 1952-53, the complex began as an offshoot of the infamous Bilderberg group and geared towards Franco-German rapprochement. However, Le Cercle always had a more reactionary and Catholic flavor than their counterparts in Bilderberg. Virtually all of the founding members belonged to either the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or Opus Dei. As the years went on, the differences Bilderberg and the Cercle became more pronounced and this led to a partial break between the two outfits by the 1970s.
But even prior to the official founding of Le Cercle, its genesis can be found in the "secret armies" or stay-behind networks that were founded by the US and UK throughout Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII. In theory, these networks would be activated in the event of a Soviet invasion and wage "unconventional warfare" against the invaders. The inspiration for this project came from the stay-behind networks employed by the American Office of Strategic Services and British Special Operations Executive (SOE) on the one side, and Amt VI-S of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) on the other. These agencies were explored in the first installment of this series. Elsewhere, part two considered how assets of these agencies were transferred to the private sector in the aftermath of WWII. Part three principally dealt with the World Commerce Corporation (WCC), the shadowy, intelligence-riddled conglomerate that came to control many of these assets at the onset of the Cold War.
|OSS founder and director William Donovan presenting an award to British Security Co-ordination (BSC) chief William Stephenson. After working closely together during WWII, both men would go on to become directors of the WCC in the postwar years.|
While all of the prior installments provide compelling details concerning the origins of the Cercle complex, to get to the heart of the matter the French stay-behind efforts must be further explored. Le Cercle was, after all, principally a French initiative in the early years and while parts four and five do spent a lot of time on French stay-behind efforts, these are accounts are from the Cold War era.
The true origins of the Cercle appear to reside in French interwar stay-behind efforts, especially those relating to the infamous Comité secret d'action révolutionnaire, more commonly referred to as simply "La Cagoule" (The Hood). The Cagoulards would be active in stay-behind efforts in the interwar years, WWII, and in the postwar efforts as well. What's more, they appear to have played a role in establishing Le Cercle and, in general, wielded tremendous power in France throughout the Cold War.
As such, numerous conspiracy theories concerning this group have emerged over the years. Thus, in order to understand the group, we most also determine what claims leveled against it are legitimate and which are not. With that in mind, this installment shall presently focus on the established facts of the interwar Cagoule. The next installment will deal with some of the more speculative accounts of the organization, while part nine will delve into the WWII and Cold War Cagoule and hopefully tie everything together. With that in mind, on to the Cagoule.
In 1936, French voters rallied behind the Popular Front, a left-wing political coalition comprised of Socialists, Communists, and "Radicals." This brought to power Leon Blum, who was both a socialist and a Jew. As should come as little surprise, the Right was absolutely beside itself. For many of the militant Action Francaise members who had been drummed out during the prior year, Blum's election was definitive proof of the failure of the more moderate line employed by the traditional conservatives during the 1930s. The time for action was now upon them.
At the forefront of this drive for action was the enigmatic figure of Eugene Deloncle, a successful naval engineer and World War I veteran. After briefly toying with a legitimate political organization in early 1936, he and several other disgruntled Action Francaise militants founded a secret organization known as Comité secret d'action révolutionnaire (CSAR) some time between the summer and fall of that fateful year.
Of course, France was awash with militant right wing organizations by 1936 despite government efforts to ban such leagues. What distinguished the Cagoulards were their high level contacts and excessive funding. Deloncle and many of his co-conspirators were solidly upper middle class professionals and as such, had easy access to wealthy capitalist and the French armed forces, both of whom showed an almost immediate interest in the Cagoulards.
"The Cagoule received significant funding from major France industrial leaders who appreciated its antisocialist agenda, especially from the group associate with Banque Worms. It never achieved the full support of the army that Deloncle craved; nonetheless, it did recruit a number of retired military officers into its leadership ranks and received the quiet approval of many active military leaders, probably even Marshall Philippe Petain. Petain seems to have known about the existence of the Cagoule and used it as a means of maintaining unofficial contact with members of the extreme right and keeping himself apprised of their activities, as did Marshall Louis Franchet d'Esperey, who also provided the organization with significant funding. Between May and November 1936 Franchet d'Esperey sent one of his staff, Colonel Georges Groussard, to investigate the CSAR; this led to at least fifteen meetings with the group's leading members, including Deloncle. Then, in December 1936, a member of Petain's staff, Commandant Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, founded a network known as the Corvignolles, which sought information on communist activity in the army. In March 1937, Franchet d'Esperey facilitated several meetings between Loustaunau-Lacau and Deloncle and probably Groussard as well. These contacts ultimately allowed the Cagoule to feed information to the army intelligence service inside the Deuxieme Bureau of the General Staff, one of two branches of the French army in charge of gathering intelligence, about real or imagined communist conspiracies. Deloncle seems to have left these meetings with the idea that in the event of an uprising, his Cagoulard street fighters would wage war alongside the regular French military."
(Murder in the Metro, Gayle K. Brunelle & Annette Finley-Croswhite, pgs. 102-103)
But before delving into the misdeeds of the Cagoualrds, I would like to consider their foreign intelligence contacts as well. They maintained excellent contacts with Franco's forces, whom they were major arms suppliers of (more on that in a moment), but had even closer ties to the Italians.
"For their part, the Italians were only too happy to cultivate Deloncle and his organization, as long as it didn't cost them too much; but they seem to have had doubts about the ability of the Cagoule to effect regime change in France. Filipppo Anfuso, a midlevel official in Mussolini's government, was charged with the task of maintaining the relationship between the Cagoule and the Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell'antifascismo or Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism (OVRA), Mussolini secret service... In late 1936, Anfuso received a visit from Lieutenant Colonel Santo Emanuele, the head of the Italian counter-espionage service, Emanuele informed Anfuso that he was in contact with an officer in the French deuxieme bureau who in turn was a liaison with a French political group comprised of wealthy individuals. These men were pro-Mussolini and anti-Popular Front in their political sentiments. Anfuso informed his superior, count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, of these developments. Ciano, after participating in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, became Mussolini's foreign minister in 1936. He was also Mussolini's son-in-law. Ciano, after consultation with Mussolini, instructed Anfuso to get as much further information about this French group as possible, which Anfuso proceeded to do, meeting an emissary of the Cagoule in Turin in the spring of 1937. The meeting was held in the office of the head of counter-espionage in Turin, Commandant Roberto Navale, a military intelligence officer. Emanuele, who was present at the meeting, later stated that the French representative was Francois Metenier. In his testimony to the juge d'instruction overseeing the case against the Cagoule, Metenier claim that he had been working secretly for the deuxieme bureau at the time, both carrying out missions in Spain, where he made contact with officers loyal to Franco, and working alongside the Spanish and Italian frontiers with France. He denied that his work was in any way related to the Cagoule. Anfuso subsequently reported verbally to Ciano and in writing to Mussolini about these discussions.
"A few months later, Anfuso had a second meeting with a member of the Cagoule, this time at San Remo. The intermediary again was Emanuele, but the Cagoulard was none other than Joseph Darnand, former colleague in Nice of Cagoule arms broker Juif and now head of the Cagoule there. Darnand turned over to Anfuso a letter of credit signed by Franchet d'Esperey. Anfuso had some doubts about the authenticity of the letter, although unnecessarily, as Franchet d'Esperey was a major supporter and financier of the Cagoule. Anfuso informed Mussolini about the results of the second meeting, and Mussolini showed a lively interest in the possibility of an alliance. Anfuso later claimed that his involvement in the affair ended at this point, although he subsequently learned that the Italian military did respond favorably to the Cagoule's request for weapons. The high-level support for the Cagoule among prominent French conservatives, along with ample funds they were willing to supply the Cagoule for weapons purchases, helped smooth the way for this rapprochement between Mussolini and the French fascists, an accord that reached its high point with Deloncle's trip to Rome in October 1936, when he met Il Duce himself and subsequently speculated on a Rome-Paris-Madrid alliance."
(Murder in the Metro, Gayle K. Brunelle & Annette Finley-Croswhite, pgs. 128-129)The high level contacts the Cagoule enjoyed in both the French and Italian governments is a compelling indication that the secret network was being used as a back channel between the French far right and Mussolini. As Brunelle and Finley-Croswhite had indicated earlier in their work, many on the French far right at the time coveted an alliance between France, Fascist Italy, and the Spanish Nationalists. This would constitute a kind of Catholic/Fascist Latin League that would serve as a counterbalance between Anglo-American power on the one hand, and Nazi Germany on the other. Such a concept was appealing to Mussolini, who had become concerned about Italy becoming an outpost on Nazi Germany (which proved to be well founded). However, nothing was possible so long as Blum's Popular Front remained in power in France.
It probably goes without saying, but the situation in France was quite complex in regards to the Spanish Civil War. Leon Blum was a staunch supporter of the Republican cause and had desperately wanted France to intervene on their behalf. However, he faced stiff opposition domestically from the French far right and internationally from the UK, where many British Tories quietly hoped the Nationalist would prevail. As such, Blum resorted to clandestine and technically illegal arms shipments to the Republicans.
"Arms smuggling was a primary activity of the Cagoule, both in order to stockpile weapons for themselves and their followers in France and to raise funds by exporting weapons to Spain. Thus it is unsurprising that one of the charges the police leveled against the members of the Cagoule they indicted and/or arrested was arms trafficking. The police also uncovered numerous direct connections between the Cagoule and the Spanish Nationalist. The leaders of the Cagoule, when not purchasing arms from Belgium and Germany for their own use, were active in smuggling them to the Nationalists in Spain. Most of the money to acquire these weapons came from industrialists in France, who secretly hoped that the largely civilian Cagoule would be able to rally French defenses against the socialist and communist threat within France's own borders. Mussolini's government was also a source of funds for Cagoule arms purchases. The weapons themselves were often transported via Switzerland. In this respect, the Cagoule was tapping into an extensive network of overland arms smuggling via Switzerland that already existed, in which many weapons were funneled into France and through France to Spain. Many German weapons reached Franco's Nationalists by this itinerary, or by a sea route that originated in Belgium, went from there to England, and then on to Spanish or Portuguese seaports. By the same token, the Cagoule was able to import weapons from Spain, including ammunition for Mauser guns that have been manufactured in Toledo and other munitions, including machine guns, from San Sebastian. The Parisian police found some of the Spanish weapons stored in a hidden depot on the boulevard de Picpus."
(Murder in the Metro, Gayle K. Brunelle & Annette Finley-Croswhite, pgs. 125-126)The amount of weapons stockpiled by the Cagoule in France in the span of less than two years was absolutely staggering. Brunelle and Finley-Croswhite describe it as "one of the most spectacular weapons collections in France --or anywhere else in Europe --outside of national armies..." (pg. 136). Elaborate underground depots to house the arms in were also constructed. Some of these underground facilities even featured prison cells, where communists and collaborators would theoretically be held once the revolution began. This should again emphasize the fact that the Cagoulards did not want for funding.
|a Cagoule weapons cache confiscated by the police|
On the other hand, the Cagoule managed to wage quite an effective terror campaign during their brief existence. The group has been linked to several high profile assassinations, some of them carried out on behalf of foreign intelligence services. The most noteworthy was the assassination of the Rosselli brothers, Italian socialists who had developed into fierce critics of Mussolini's regime in exile. The Cagoule liquidated both in France on behalf of the Italian security services.
There is also compelling speculation that the Cagoulards were behind the murder of Dimitri Navachine, a former Russian communists who had broken with the Soviets and was an adviser to Blum at the time of his death. They have also been linked to the death of Laetitia Toureaux, the mistress of a leading Cagoulard and Italian spy who betrayed the designs of the OVRA (the Italian secret police) and the Cagoule to French authorities. Nor is Toureaux the only traitor the Cagoulards liquidated either. A pair of arms traffickers, Maurice Juif and Leon Jean-Baptiste, whom the Cagoule believed were misappropriating funds, were murdered by the organization in February 1937 and October 1936, respectively.
|French police gathered round the body of Dimitri Navachine. The former communist is a curious figure whom we shall return to in the next installment.|
The Cagoule were hardly satisfied by Blum's ouster and the decline in support for the Popular Front, however. On September 11, 1937 (yes, 9/11), a pair of bombs were set off in Paris that left two police officers dead. They came to be known as the "Etoile attacks." The targets were the headquarters of two separate business associations. The selection was quite deliberate.
"... Indeed, the bombs at l'Etoile were apparently set because the head of the Cagoule, Eugene Deloncle, grew tired of waiting for what he believed was the inevitable communist uprising that would bring his pro-right organization into the limelight. He therefore decided to create the impression that a communist takeover was in the offing by placing bombs in locations that would cause much of the public logically to connect the explosions with left-wing violence. Deloncle later called the bombings a 'warning shot across the bow' ('un coup de semonce'). This was not mindless violence, but rather purposeful action meant to focus public discourse on the fate of the Third Republic."
(Murder in the Metro, Gayle K. Brunelle & Annette Finley-Croswhite, pg. 100)
|the aftermath of one of the Cagoule's 9/11 bombings|
The Cagoulards were of course not the only interwar group to employ these methods. Another curious instance is that of the infamous Thule Society. As was noted in my series on the Thulists, the secret society helped give rise to the Freikorps movement, paramilitary organizations that also stockpiled arms and suppressed communism in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Later, many Freikorp veterans drifted into the SA.
The Cagoulards also featured aspects of a secret society, including an elaborate initiation ritual. The lower rungs of the Cagoule were largely paramilitary forces, though not as professional as the Friekorp raised by the Thulists. Still, there are some curious overlap. There is also the bizarre 9/11 connection. The Thulists, and later Nazi and fascist movements, would have strange links to the date of November 9, the birthday of Thule Society founder Rudolf von Sebottendorf. November 9 is 11/9, 9/11 in reverse. Both dates have curious ties to the far right. Most recently, Donald Trump was declared US President on 11/9.
The army, however, was having none of it. They refused to support Deloncle, forcing him to call off the counter-coup after he had already activated his forces. What's more, after the 9/11 bombings and the near coup on November 15-16th, it seems that his backers had had enough. Support from the army and leading industrialists appears to have been primarily driven by fear of Blum and his Popular Front. But after Blum was driven from office, the usefulness of the Cagoule had begun to run its course. What's more, the actions of Deloncle and company since September had begun to threaten the gains made during much of that year. If the Cagoule were able to carry out another major attack and it was linked back to the outfit (and its backers), public support for Blum and the Popular Front would again emerge. For obvious reasons, this was not desirably to the traditional French conservative establishment.
As such the police, who had been aware of the Cagoule since February 1937, began to roll up the operation by the end of November. By early 1938, virtually all of the leading Cagoulards, including Deloncle, were incarcerated.
This was hardly the end of the Cagoule, however. Indeed, the remnants of the organization would re-emerge during the Second World War and beyond and this version was far more powerful and deadly than the interwar incarnation. But before getting to that, we must first consider the legends surrounding the Cagoule, which will dealt with in the next installment. Until then dear reader, stay tuned.