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The real story behind Coco Chanel's collaboration with the Nazis, as featured in 'The New Look'

Eve Crosbie   

The real story behind Coco Chanel's collaboration with the Nazis, as featured in 'The New Look'
  • Apple TV+ "The New Look" shines a light on Coco Chanel's murky history as a Nazi informant and spy.
  • The fashion designer was recruited to be a part of a failed Nazi operation named 'Modelhut' in 1943.

"The New Look," Apple TV+'s new historical drama about the lives of France's leading mid-century fashion designers, offers a take on Coco Chanel that's never been committed to screen before.

Previous iterations have given audiences Chanel the tortured artist, Chanel the romantic, and Chanel the underdog who rose to become one of the world's most renowned fashion icons. Todd A. Kessler's new 10-part series presents audiences with a more complex, controversial portrait: Chanel, the secret Nazi agent.

While "The New Look" is ostensibly about how Christian Dior ushered in a new era of haute couture with the launch of his first collection after World War II, it also tells the arguably more fascinating story, of how Chanel was recruited by Nazi-German military intelligence service in 1941, and spent the rest of her life trying to hide the truth.

How deep the fashion icon's Nazi collaboration ran was made public for the first time in "Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War," by Hal Vaughan, published in 2011.

The foreign service officer-turned-journalist, who relied on freshly declassified documents provided by French and German authorities, believes Chanel was not only a willing participant in Nazi operations but a lifelong antisemite.

Chanel's antisemitism was 'noxious and notorious'

Born in 1883, Chanel spent her adolescence in Catholic-run convents and boarding schools after her mother died when she was 11.

During these formative years, Chanel was exposed to rampant antisemitism, Vaughan theorizes, pointing to the Dreyfus affair in 1894 that divided French politics for a generation. The scandal involved a Jewish-French artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongly convicted of treason.

"Chanel could not have escaped the Catholic Church's propaganda campaign against the Jewish officer Dreyfus," Vaughan writes, adding that later in life, the founder and namesake of the Chanel brand's "fear and hatred for Jews was noxious and notorious."

When World War II broke out in 1939, Chanel closed her couture house, which many interpreted was for patriotic reasons. At the time, she was living in the Hotel Ritz, which was seized by the German military in 1940 when the Nazi occupation of Paris began.

It was while the hotel was used as a Nazi headquarters that Chanel began a relationship with Baron Hans Günther Von Dincklage, a German-British aristocrat working in the German embassy with links to the Nazi military intelligence organization, the Abwehr.

The early years of World War II

Chanel's love affair with the high-ranking intelligence officer proved beneficial; through Von Dincklage, nicknamed Spatz — German for sparrow — she rubbed shoulders with senior-ranking Nazi officials and was able to secure the release of her nephew and heir, André Palasse, who was a prisoner-of-war in Germany.

She also leaned on her Nazi associates to help her wrangle back her perfume company which she had sold to her Jewish business partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, in 1924. She petitioned German officials to invoke newly established Nazi legislation that forbade Jewish people from owning property and business enterprises.

What Chanel didn't realize was that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming mandates against Jewish people, had temporarily given a Christian French businessman ownership of Parfums Chanel. He returned the business to them after the war ended.

"Chanel was the consummate opportunist who was going to get what she wanted," Vaughan writes of the designer. "She knew exactly what she was doing. She didn't see any harm in it."

However, Chanel's entanglement with the Nazis came at a price.

Operation Modelhut

In exchange for the release of her nephew and their attempts to seize control of her company, Chanel was asked to use her Allied connections to help the Nazi cause in 1943.

Given the codename "Westminster" (possibly an allusion to her decadelong relationship with the Duke of Westminster), Chanel was tasked with delivering a message to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, on behalf of Walter Schellenberg, a Nazi spy. According to Vaughan, who relied on contemporary intelligence documents, Schellenberg wanted the SS to "broker a separate peace deal with Britain" without the Führer.

The operation, named "Modelhut," saw Chanel travel to neutral Madrid accompanied by Vera Bate Lombardi, who was to act as an intermediary and pass over a letter written by Chanel to Churchill. It fell apart when, upon arrival in Madrid, Lombardi — who had been duped into believing that the trip was intended to explore launching Chanel couture in the Spanish capital — discovered the real purpose and denounced Chanel as a Nazi spy.

Chanel's later years and complicated legacy

Shortly after the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Chanel was arrested and questioned about her relationship with the Nazis.

Without any evidence to support their suspicions of her covert espionage activities, she was freed within hours, telling her grand-niece when she returned home that Churchill had orchestrated her release.

In 1949, and then living in Switzerland, she was asked to appear before the war crime trial of a former associate, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, who had claimed that she had been involved in a Nazi operation. She again denied the accusations.

Per Vaughan, after that, "the details of her collaboration with the Nazis were hidden for years in French, German, Italian, Soviet, and US archives" until he stumbled upon them while researching the life of a man who the Wertheimer family sent to Paris to stop Chanel's attempts to reclaim control of Chanel No.5 under Aryan laws.

After Vaughan's book was published in 2011, the Chanel Group released a statement acknowledging the founder's wartime relationship. It pointedly referred to Dincklage not as a Nazi but as "a German aristocrat."

"Clearly it wasn't the best period to have a love story with a German, even if Baron von Dincklage was English by his mother and she (Chanel) knew him before the War," it continued.

Chanel, who died in 1971 at 87, continued her relationship with Von Dincklage after the war for several years. In 1954, she reopened after her couture house. While the French press gave her a lukewarm welcome due to the rumors about her wartime associations, the collection was praised worldwide and she cemented her position in the history books of fashion as a name to remember.

The first five episodes of "The New Look" are now streaming on Apple TV+. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays through April 3.

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