The idea that Coco Chanel worked as an undercover agent for the Nazi Germany remains controversial. Born as Gabriel Bonheur Chanel, the French designer was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century. Her perfume and little black dresses catapulted her to global prominence and secured the longevity of her fashion empire. She revolutionised the fashion industry and liberated women from the bondage of corset. However, despite her status as a legendary and revered designer, she had a dark past a few know about.
Several historians have long suspected that Chanel was a Nazi agent. Declassified German and French intelligence materials from the archives of the French Defence Ministry unearthed by Hal Vaughan seemed to confirm this. In his 2011 biography, Sleeping with the Enemy, the late American historian and journalist detailed how the French designer collaborated with the Nazi Germany during World War II.
Another 2014 French documentary based on the obtained wartime documents, L’Ombre d’un Doute or The Shadow of a Doubt, presented by historian Franck Ferrand discussed the role of Chanel during World War II. The socialite, accordingly, worked directly with the German military intelligence. This documentary marked the first time a French state broadcaster admitted that Chanel worked for the German military intelligence as an undercover Nazi agent.
Coco Chanel as agent F-7124, codenamed Westminster
Chanel had linkage with several prominent officials working directly for Adolf Hitler, including being the mistress of Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an attaché at the German embassy in France who also worked as a high-ranking officer of the Nazi secret police Gestapo.
Hitler and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels had high reverence for Baron von Dincklage. The intelligence officer was also credited for running an expansive espionage operation in France during the 1930s.
She also stayed in Hotel Ritz in Paris during the war and was at close proximity with ranking German officers and agents, including Herman Goering and Goebbels. The hotel was the headquarters for German air force in France. This association with the Germans has stirred speculations that Coco Chanel was a Nazi agent.
Vaughan further highlighted the fact that Chanel began working for SS intelligence chief General Walter Schellenberg as early as 1941.
The declassified documents further revealed that the Nazi military intelligence division known as Abwher was directly responsible for recruiting Chanel. The Nazi agency gave her the agent number F-7124. They also instructed her to operate under the codename Westminster—an apparent reference to her affair with the Duke of Westminster 20 years earlier.
French traitor and trusted German agent Baron Louis de Vaufreland was specifically responsible for recruiting Chanel under certain terms and deals.
Documents from the French Préfecture de Police also suggested that Chanel was a suspected Nazi agent during World War II. The documents actually described her as a couturier and perfumer who was using the codename Westminster and the agent number F-7124.
Activities as a Nazi agent and Operation Modellhut
Central to the missions of Coco Chanel was to use her prominence to meet people or prospects who could help German Nazi gain a competitive advantage during World War II. For example, she travelled to Spain and accompanied French traitor and trusted German agent de Vaufreland whose job was to identify men and women he could recruit or coerce into spying for the Nazis.
Chanel personally knew Sir Samuel Hoare, the British Ambassador to Spain, through her previous relationship with the Duke of Westminster. She essentially provided de Vaufreland with the needed cover for carrying out recruitment assignments.
A former German agent and defector also told British intelligence that Baron von Dincklage had a plan for Chanel to work as an agent for the senior Nazi military official and leading member of the Nazi party Heinrich Miler in Berlin.
Nonetheless, the most elaborated mission carried out by Chanel was the 1943 covert operation codenamed Modellhut. As described by Vaughan, the mission chiefly involved General Schellenberg tasking the French designer to use her contacts to deliver a message from the SS to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The details of the Modellhut have remained confusing. However, as discussed by Vaughan, Germany was at the losing end by 1943. Some Nazis wanted to breakaway from Hitler. They also wanted to negotiate a separate truce with Britain. Chanel was the perfect person to connect these defectors with the British government given her previous associations with British politicians.
Chanel was to interface with British socialite Vera Bate Lombardi whom the Nazis allegedly recruited and exploited. The socialite had the role of acting as an intermediary who would deliver a letter penned by Chanel to Churchill. But operation Modellhut was a failure. Churchill never responded to the letter.
Reasons for siding with Nazi Germany
There are several reasons why Coco Chanel agreed to become a Nazi agent. She initially wanted to become closer to the Nazis that occupied France to protect her standing in the society during World War II.
Both Vaughan and Ferrand also discussed that the French designer worked with the German Nazi to advance her business interest by exploiting anti-Semitic laws that prevented Jews from owning a business in Nazi-occupied territories.
In other words, one of the reasons why Chanel agreed to work as a Nazi agent was to recover her Chanel No. 5 perfume and solely acquire the revenues generated by her perfume business. Note that she earlier sold this business to the Jewish Wertheimer family in 1924. Nonetheless, Chanel failed at recovering this business because the Wertheimers had already sold their stake to the Christian French businessman Felix Amiot at the start of the German occupation of France in May 1940.
Another reason why Chanel became an undercover agent for Nazi Germany involved an attempt to help free her nephew from a prisoner-of-war camp. It was possible that Baron de Vaufreland had promised Chanel to do so if she agreed to become a member of the German military intelligence.
It is still hard to firmly conclude that Coco Chanel was a Nazi agent who carried activities relating espionage. Her role during World War II did not directly involve covert armed activities. She was not a spy according to Vaughan. Espionage activities include stealing any information that could compromise the operations or advantage of an enemy. Perhaps, the more appropriate description is that Chanel was a German agent who acted primarily as a facilitator.
The Free French Purge Committee of France nevertheless interrogated the French designer in September 1944. However, the committee had no documented evidence of her collaboration activity and was obliged to release her. There were also speculations that Churchill had her freed.
Chanel fled to Switzerland in 1945 with Baron von Dincklage where they spent the rest of their lives for the next 10 years. By 1954, she felt the need to return to France and to the fashion industry by re-establishing her fashion house. She gained an unlikely financial support from the Wertheimer family.
Further details of the biography by Vaughan are in the book “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War” published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf.