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On the Trail of Casablanca

Meredith Hindley's new book tells of the wartime refugee route that inspired a classic.


“With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas,” intones the unnamed narrator at the start of Casablanca, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year. As the prologue continues, a swift montage shows a spinning globe intercut with documentary footage of throngs of refugees fleeing Nazis advances, while the voiceover goes on to describe a roundabout trail leading from Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, Algeria and on to French Morocco. As Meredith Hindley points out in her compulsively readable, deeply engrossing new history, Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II, many paths led to and from the North African outpost during the war years. Much as we may think of a film like Casablanca as purely a Hollywood confection—it was made in Burbank, California, after all—it spun its yarn from real political and historical events unfolding on the other side the Atlantic and along the rim of Africa. 

PublicAffairs, 465 pp., $30.00

Starting in September 1939, just weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland, the sultan of Morocco pledged his support for the French and their efforts to fend off an impending invasion. He assigned no fewer than 47,000 Moroccan soldiers to France. That battle, which took place less than a year later, would not end well for the French, who suffered a stunning defeat. The specter of a brutal Nazi occupation combined with the inauspicious terms of the Franco-German armistice to send millions of civilians in flight. In her account, Hindley provides a thumbnail sketch of the Fall of France, almost cinematic in nature, which derives from a set of the aerial snapshots taken by a French pilot from inside the cockpit of his Potez 63: “Click. The German army advanced. Click. The French army retreated. Click. The refugees poured south, clogging the roads.”

Among those flooding the roads during the weeks after the armistice was Josephine Baker, the celebrated African-American entertainer. Baker had taken up residence in Paris in the mid-1920s and performed for the French troops defending the Maginot Line, along France’s eastern border, in the months leading up to the Nazi offensive. Instead of following the mass exodus to Marseilles and onward to Lisbon, Baker piled her things in a car bound for her chateau in the Dordogne region. “Along for the ride in the Packard,” recounts Hindley, “were her maid Paulette, a Belgian refugee couple she’d been helping, and three of her dogs. She also packed extra petrol for the trip, storing it in champagne bottles.” Baker would soon offer up her services to the French resistance, spying on enemy officials and transporting military secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music and pinned inside her garments. When Paris, under the German occupation, was no longer a hospitable place for her to return, she would follow a tortuous route to North Africa.

Many activists, artists, spies, writers, and refugees would follow a similar route. Like Baker, the Hungarian-born novelist Arthur Koestler, who finished Darkness at Noon in Paris just before the Nazis marched in, would make his way to Casablanca. There he’d use a doctored Emergency Certificate to gain access to a Portuguese fishing boat bound for Lisbon. Hindley also tells the story Edmund Schechner, an Austrian Jew who volunteered for the French army in its fight against the Nazis, and after the defeat made his way to Marseille and onward to Casablanca. Thanks to a benevolent U.S. consul general named Herbert Goold, Schechner managed to elude the strict American visa quotas and gain trans-Atlantic passage. Finally, there is the courageous and indefatigable Hélène Cazès-Bénetar, a Moroccan Jew, who established the Committee for Assistance of Foreign Refugees in Casablanca in the summer of 1940, when boatloads of Jewish refugees from Nazi-engulfed Europe swelled, and who returns at a number of key junctures throughout the book.

We also learn about the essential figures in the Vichy cabinet—Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, his minister of the marine Admiral Jean-François Darlan, and delegate general for North Africa, General Maxime Weygand—and their chronic infighting. At the same time, Hindley follows each and every step taken by the Allied leadership under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and the exiled Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. At the heart of Destination Casablanca, Hindley reconstructs the spectacular Operation TORCH, launched in the early days of November 1942, when General Patton’s troops used their cunning and their might to produce a complete Vichy surrender in Morocco and Algeria within 72 hours. Although the Nazis never had an especially strong presence there, part of the strategy behind TORCH was to minimize the impact of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Libya and prevent the Nazi foothold from expanding on the African rim. In particular, the Allied victory in Casablanca provided a boost in military morale, while keeping the Nazis from using the strategic North African port as launching pad for their European conquests. 

Even military officials and politicians take on a certain dramatic character arc in Hindley’s rendering. Pétain emerges as a kind of cult figure among the masses—the iconic figurehead of Vichy, his face emblazoned on municipal buildings in Casablanca (and in Casablanca, it turns out). The aging Weygand, who had been highly decorated as a commander in the Great War, was reluctant to cede any power in French Morocco to Germany and was generally willing to work with the Americans, even before the Patton-led operation. And Darlan, a notorious Nazi collaborator, “a Hollywood-style villain,” as Hindley dubs him, earned his share of enemies both among the Allies, who attempted to appease him after TORCH, and among the French soldiers and civilians in Morocco. On Christmas Eve 1942, a 22-year-old student named Fernand Bonnier greeted him in his office holding a Rubis revolver. He shot Darlan twice, in the face and the chest, and then fled; although Bonnier was caught and charged with murder, he declared in his final unrepentant words before a military tribunal, “I have liberated France.”

As for the Allies, they had their own big personalities. “You must succeed,” General Patton exhorted his troops, “for to retreat is as cowardly as it is fatal.” He added, with characteristic tough-guy swagger: “Americans do not surrender.” Significantly, the TORCH battle became a test case for the idea of “unconditional surrender,” discussed by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Just weeks before the conference, on New Year’s Eve, Roosevelt raised his glass to “the United States of America and United Nations Victory”; that same evening he enjoyed a private screening of Casablanca at the White House. Ironically, on New Year’s Day, the Luftwaffe dropped a few rounds over Casablanca, hoping to hit the port where U.S. Navy ships remained anchored. This didn’t shake the unflappable Patton, however. “It was better than the greatest Fourth of July demonstration possible to imagine,” he jotted down nonchalantly that day. For Roosevelt, unconditional surrender was not a matter of destroying the civilian populations of the Axis powers, but rather of destroying “the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.” He’d used a similar line when he delivered a radio address, in French, after the troops landed in Morocco: “We come among you solely to destroy your enemies and not to harm you.” 

In the book’s final chapters, Josephine Baker returns to Hindley’s story, arriving in Morocco after the TORCH victory, and after her career and her health had suffered several setbacks. There she experienced something of a rebirth, performing at the aptly titled Liberty Club in Marrakech, where black and white GIs, otherwise segregated on the front and at home, were free to mingle and enjoy themselves. At the Rialto Theater in Casablanca, on April 30, 1943, Baker entertained the Allied troops again at a benefit for the French Red Cross; after each show the band would play “La Marseillaise,” “God Save the Queen,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the military men would join in. In between numbers, Baker often spoke to the troops, offering words of support and encouragement. “As for getting mad because of race prejudice,” she told the African-American servicemen, “wait till the war is over. I will come back to the States and join in the fight to break down segregation, but let’s win the war first.” Baker would perform again, in mid-August, for a gala in Algiers with de Gaulle in attendance. To thank her for her work, de Gaulle presented her with a Cartier gold Cross of Lorraine.

For those readers, like myself, who have watched Casablanca more than a few times, it’s hard not to see certain affinities between the stories that Hindley chronicles here—much more than mere backstory, widening the lens and introducing a cast of historical players who never even made it into the story meetings in Burbank—and the film made three quarters of a century ago. When she reports, for instance, on a lecherous ship captain named Imre Horvath who was known to exploit desperate female refugees by offering them a coveted spot on the SS Arena in exchange for sex, I cannot help but think of Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and his equally deviant schemes.

Or when, in May 1941, a certain Nazi General Paul Schultheiss arrives in Casablanca to oversee the armistice commission, I had to picture Conrad Veidt’s diabolical grin as the plane carrying his Nazi entourage lands. Finally, after the some 33,000 American troops arrive in Casablanca, and a black market begins to thrive (LIFE magazine told a more wholesome version of this in its cover story “Date in Casablanca” from February 1943), it’s impossible not to imagine fly-swatting Signor Ferrari, played with sinister charm by Sidney Greenstreet, at work behind the operations.    

Quite fittingly, Hindley ends her book with a short postscript devoted to disentangling some of the lingering questions concerning the history that Warner Brothers compressed and riffed upon on screen. Though there never was a Rick’s Café Américain in wartime Casablanca—nor an American saloonkeeper who gave the gin joint its name—there was a Hôtel Transatlantique, whose lively bar was known to attract an international, largely anti-Nazi clientele that came for the jazz and plentiful cocktails. The city never had a crooner named Sam, but uncannily enough, there was an African-American former jockey who bore the same name and worked as a night watchman at the American consulate. 

Stranger still, there actually existed something akin to Letters of Transit, those golden tickets that in the film guaranteed free passage to Lisbon and onward to America, which were purportedly in the possession of General Weygand. And, yes, Weygand is the same name that, in actor Peter Lorre’s inimitable Viennese accent on screen, sounds almost indistinguishable from “de Gaulle,” leaving legions of film fans scratching their heads and wondering how the signature of the exiled head of the Free French would carry any weight among the Vichy brass in Morocco. Confection or no confection, the charmed classic made in Hollywood’s dream factories and the granular history recounted in Hindley’s superb book fundamentally complement each other, entertaining and instructing us with their timeless tales of political intrigue, moral compromise, acts of courage and cowardice.