One of the ironies of the Nazi Occupation is that it led the most upright, church-going citizens into criminality. Men and women who would not dream of telling a lie, let alone defrauding the government or disobeying a law in 1938 found themselves routinely using false papers, sneaking across borders and generally disregarding the law in 1944.

They did so from higher motives, of course. Church-going rescuers placed the laws of God, which prioritize the value of human life, above the laws of the Nazis and their collaborators. Once they had identified the Nazis as evil – which wasn’t hard to do, especially if you were trying to help Jews – then they felt themselves absolved of the necessity of obeying Nazi laws.

As a devout member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, John Weidner had scruples about disobeying the laws of the Etat Français (French State) in the Vichy zone. Petain’s government was the legally constituted French authority, and there were people willing to debate whether it had shown itself as evil or not. It was a whole lot harder for a Christian to come up with a defense of the Nazis.

So once the Germans occupied the Vichy zone on 11 November 1944, John Weidner felt himself to be curiously freer than he had when the Germans had been paying lip service to Vichy’s sovereignty, despite the evidence of his own eyes when German troops and police agents appeared on the street.

As he explained it in 1968, after the Germans occupied southern France, “… in fact, morally, we felt freer. The situation was clear and simple. Until the occupation of the southern zone, we had felt obliged to follow certain legal rules. The fact that the Germans were everywhere, inspecting documents everywhere, permitted me to use false papers, to cross the [Franco-Swiss] frontier clandestinely and help others to cross it clandestinely, without any of it posing a moral problem for me. I was free to choose the conduct that I wanted because the Nazis made the law for a territory that did not belong to them.”

Obviously, the pious didn’t have a monopoly on righteous actions during the Second World War.  There were both atheists and believers in Dutch-Paris.  But the church-goers had a different set of scruples and a different path to see themselves clear of them.  It’s fortunate for the people they helped that Weidner and other devout rescuers were able to see beyond the letter of the law that they had been taught to follow as good citizens in order to serve the demands of a higher, more abstract law.