The changing image of Vichy in France.
So when President Sarkozy, exhorted by Brice Hortefeux, his Auvergnat Minister of Immigration, and by Vichy's mayor, decided to hold the first international political gathering there since Petain's era, the choice of venue for last November's meeting caused plenty of outrage. Especially as the Sarkozy government has engaged in round-ups or rafles of undocumented immigrants. The word 'rafles' is full of historical resonance concerning Jews of World War II, the most notorious being the July 1942 Rafle du Vel d'Hiv, during which Vichy police forces arrested 12,884 Jews - including 4,051 children, which was far more than the Gestapo had wanted. And the November 2008 conference convened government personnel from the EU to produce more commonality on immigration policies!
The protests about Vichy's past felt somewhat odd, given that there have been such meetings in once notorious places like Berlin or Moscow. One should also remember that it is predictable for human nature in times of war and duress either to 'collaborate' in varying degrees (the word is so iconic as to have become euphemistic), or in varying degrees, to 'resist' (ditto for the euphemism); or both! Once it was easy to look down one's self-righteous nose at all French 'collabos', placing them conveniently in one handy basket; but since 1990 or so, we in the Western world have ourselves become collaborators not with some extreme, terrifying barbarity like Nazism, but at the very least, apathetic in the face of truly disquieting trends. And apathy is obviously a form of collaboration.
But onto these French historiographical changes, necessarily summarized briefly here. Once upon a time everything was black and while when it came to the image of Vichy during World War II. Film buffs remember Captain Renault tossing a bottle of the famed water into the wastebasket, and going off with Bogie to join the Free French in Central Africa at the stirring conclusion of Casablanca. As late as the 1970s, this Manicheanism still held sway, best seen in a fine documentary film that was shown on British television and in North America, played in mainstream theaters, and which we all saw, Le Chagrin et la pitie ('The Sorrow and the Pity'). The two-sided dyptic of bad old Vichy and good Resistance largely continued into the '80s and even part of the '90s. Then came a huge sea change, and now the word 'paradox' must certainly be applied to the picture of Vichy, especially in France itself.
For one, it turns out that Vichy was a many-layered thing. As there were myriad levels of French resistance, so there were many varieties of Vichy behaviour, running (crudely put) from overt collaborationism with the Germans, to weathervane middlingness or a prudent biding of time for a 'conversion', to 'Vichy Resistance' from the get-go. (I made my own small contribution to this growing historiographical field with a biography of Maxime Weygand, published in 2008, including chapters on the general's extreme, courageous Vichy opposition to the Nazis, via supervision of spying aiding the British, preservation of a relatively free French North Africa to Americans and British present there at the time of TORCH, etc.)
Perhaps more people are starting to realize, too, that the first thing wrong with Vichy was what preceded it - aspects of the 1920s and '30s in France, and particularly, the country's precipitous fall to German invaders in 1940. One simply cannot lose to the Nazis, said Weygand quite correctly. Before Vichy, there was already a frenzy of flight in France, a desperate search for safety occurring during that brutal disaster in the spring of 1940, civilians pathetically clogging roads and making military defence even more improbable than it had to be. No-one has captured this atmosphere more vividly than Irene Nemirovsky in her miraculously preserved and beautifully translated Suite francaise. Looking down one's nose at Vichy, one also has to look down one's nose at humanity, and Suite francaise is partly popular because it shows ordinary people (like us) who themselves contributed to the trap that became the Fall of France - and thence, Vichy. Nemirovsky revealed people trying desperately to dodge these wildfires, as she called them, which outran one's every move.
Given that abominable deroute, the armistice was about as good a deal as could be cut, and the best of Vichy - the stand-up ones like Weygand - then fought the Nazis tooth and nail to keep fleet and military aircraft from being used, and especially, to preserve French North Africa from Hitler's incursionary paws. As early as July 1940 the Fuhrer wished to revise heavily in that part of the world, and was thankfully stonewalled by the Weygands (and not the Lavals, known for offering both chicken and eggs). When it came to Admiral Darlan's later idea for more collaboration - seen in the infamous Paris Protocols - Weygand again came up from North Africa literally to scream his displeasure at Vichy (June, 1941), and instead, played ball with the Americans, helping pave the way for TORCH.
In other words there were layers at Vichy, as of course there are in your office or down your street. Here is one example from another continent: I have just finished a memoir I couldn't put down - John 'Red' Shea's Rat Bastards on Boston's Irish mob of 'Southie'. Shea stood up strong (for his misdeeds) and paid twelve years in dangerous prisons, while others, including the supposedly tough, 'ratted', collaborated, ran.
That, baldly put, was the story of Vichy. Is it then tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner? Of course not, but staying in the old rarefied air up on some moral mountain and looking down at Vichy won't do either.
No more was Vichy one thing or uniquely bad than was the 'Resistance' of a piece, or all good. Rod Kedward correctly identifies the creation of a defining 'Resistance myth' after World War II by Gaullists (le grand Charles having inherited armies, hidden arms, even a refurbished Algiers villa from Weygand, and glittering generals like de Lattre and Juin from Weygand's hatchery); and by French Communists, anything but pure from August 23, 1939 to the Nazi invasion of Russia. June 22, 1941. But the picture for most remained till recently a clean-cut one, a river clearly separating good and evil, with each group on its own bank.
One muddying catalyst was obviously le cas Mitterrand, to which one must now turn. The so-called scandal of Mitterrand starting out Vichy and ending Resistance was broken in August, 1994 with a bestseller by Pierre Pean, to which Mitterrand on TV ten days later essentially responded: What do you pups know about that exigent period? There followed in English books like Joseph P. Morray's Grand Disillusion: Francois Mitterrand and the French Left (1997). But in 2008 the subject re-exploded, consonant more generally, with a whole re-examination of France's wartime past. Serge Moati brought out a 'docu-fiction' on Mitterrand a Vichy for French television, accompanied by another programme featuring interviews on the late President's Vichy past. A book collecting these comments by distinguished historians followed later last year. And nuancing was now the order of the day - on a Mitterrand wounded in the war, an escapee from German stalags, and thence, gaining a job at Vichy working on the issue of French war prisoners, to whom he apparently sent many phony documents to help get them out. Decorated by Petain, he then resigned his position in January 1943, after full German occupation of France and 'Lavalization' at Vichy. From then on 'Morland' (his code name) was hunted by the Nazis as he enrolled returning French prisoners into the Resistance, and tried to link up with de Gaulle, who was predictably cool to him when finally they met. Mitterrand was better received by French Communists, and had already begun modifying his Catholic-Conservative background; hence his evolution to the political left after the war and growing fissure with de Gaulle.
How bad was this wartime resume? How shocking? Not so much, according to the takes in 2008 of Henry Rousso, Pierre Laborie et al. This despite friendship Mitterrand evinced after the war for Rene Bousquet, secretary general of Vichy's police, who had orchestrated the great Jewish deportations (more on that to come).
Other nuanced works appearing in the past year included a translation from French to English of Simon Kitson's book, called The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France. As happened to me working on Weygand, Kitson was 'surprised' to find Vichy agents sedulously spying on the Germans, executing people aiding the Reich, and putting shoulders to the grindstone for an Allied victory. Of course we are again talking of the 'best' of Vichy here - Weygand himself, who gave his all to the creation of a spying network, and super spooks like Paul Paillole, who resigned at war's end, rather than work for a 'unifying', and it felt falsifying, de Gaulle.
By 2008 the term 'Vichysto-Resistant' was a hot buzzword in France, such as in Benedicte Vergez-Chaignon's Les Vichysto-Resistants de 1940 a nos jours of that year. Again, Weygand figures strongly here, including in a chapter called 'L' American Way of Vichy'; as do Lemaigre-Dubreuil and other members of 'the five' linking from a Vichy optic to the Americans before TORCH, and studied in a recent, fine book by William Hoisington, Jr. Chaignon's work on Vichysto-Resistants made the concepts of Vichy and Resistance equally more limber, showing how few had heard de Gaulle on June 18, 1940, and how relatively few gravitated toward him before 1943. Instead, the book makes one think beyond obvious careers like those of future Marshals Juin and de Lattre, both cutting teeth under Vichy in North Africa, then helping to liberate France under de Gaulle. Others too often forgotten include General Aubert Frere, a Vichyite supervising illegal squirrelling of arms, and paying for it with deportation to and death in a German camp. I think also of my 99-year old friend Colonel Serge-Henri Parisot, marechaliste (supporter of Marshall Petain) before 1942; but also spying on Nazis at the risk of his life in Morocco, before turning to the Allies in November '42, and becoming an 'official Resistant' in France (partly for helping nab the Milice's horrific Joseph Darnand).
The multiplicity of forgotten Resistance organizations operating in the Vichy era includes Carte, run by a painter, and studied in another 2008 book by Thomas Rabino, with a subtitle (I translate) of: 'The History of an Anti-German, Anti-Gaullist, Anti-Communist and Anti-Collaborationist Resistance Network'. Again, the co-opting of an apres-guerre 'Resistance narrative" (Kedward's term) by both Gaullists and Communists shoved groups like this one firmly under the popular radar - basically till the present. Yet the British had found Carte the most significant of Resistance networks prior to 1943 in the Vichy zone.
Which feeds into Robert Belot's book of 2006, translating as 'The Resistance without de Gaulle'. His argument? That both the animal eventually called 'resistance', which initially had many homegrown, improvised varieties, and a political de Gaulle benefited by the latter's co-opting efforts at war's end. In fact, the term 'revenge' - the word Parisot always used even while working under Vichy - was the more correct one at first; while resistance became a buzzword only later in the war, and after.
In 2008 Jean-Paul Cointet also published a nuanced book on the French epuration from 1943 to 1958, a grisly subject. Who could quarrel with severe punishment meted out after the liberation to sleazy collaborators like Deat, Darnand, Doriot, Drieu - just to stick with one part of the alphabet? But so many distinguished military men under Vichy, who had sedulously worked against the Nazis, also 'bought it' in monkey trials and lock-ups that began with de Gaulle and simply continued, in good bureaucratic, and myth-making, fashion well after his departure from politics in January 1946. Le grand Charles had himself started all this by making the armistice of 1940 a kind of original sin. Given that almost the entire French army and navy had been on side with that armistice, purgers at war's end had no lack of potential victims! Meanwhile, the utter treachery of Communists before June 22, 1941 was too often swept under the rug in this one-dimensional, post-liberation ambiance.
In such an atmosphere opportunism fairly thrived, and it was not useful to say anything about a Vichy past that sometimes included this brave opposition to Nazis (the maimed World War I hero Pierre Boisson, a tough, anti-Nazi French administrator in Vichy West Africa, before being imprisoned - and belatedly given a fair French biography in 2006 - comes quickly to mind). Better at the liberation to be a resistant of the 'last 15 minutes' or in a more recent phrase, of the 25th hour! Many such helped make epuration de Gaulle initially designated for only a small minority 'ample et severe', as Cointet puts it. More generally, a self-righteous puritanism had its post-liberation revenge on putative Vichy mores - the subject of another large book of 2008 (by Patrick Buisson).
And then of course comes the ultra-delicate subject of Vichy France and the Jews! Tragic? Of course it was, and is. Let me first say (before possibly putting a foot in my mouth) that no one loves those melancholy, hereditarily earned, Jewish liturgical tunes more than I, and no one (despite its evolution and evident faults) cares more about Israel's survival, though I haven't exactly put hide on the line in Gaza, or against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
But it's also fair to say that certain French Jews failed to realize in time that one had to choose a lesser evil as a source of necessary 'heat' - i.e., protection. By Nazi wartime it was simply too late, and of course Vichy has really been attacked for what it legislated against Jews, and did to facilitate the Holocaust in France, especially through its police operating zealous roundups. However, someone who was there - the Communist Jewish Resistant, Adam Rayski - nuances as well on all this. A terrible tragedy, yes, but France also had one of the highest survival rates of Jewish populations in Europe (almost 3/4 making it), and a higher percentage if one includes the 400,000 Jews of French North Africa. His main reasons (in a memoir translated by University of Notre Dame Press, 2005): Jewish evasion, hiding, resistance, including his own; and contributions from the 'true France', the real republican France. Would that include the many priests and nuns who hid Jewish children, using phony baptism certificates, or Archbishop Saliege speaking out forcefully against deportations after the drama of the Vel d'Hiver (July 1942)? But one cannot lecture Mr. Rayski: this man born and raised in Bialystok remains a true French hero.
One could perhaps leave it at that; but again, it's the era of shading on Vichy, and even on its wartime police! Not that one can forget them running after 'foreign' Jews, as in the case of Nemirovsky's children, who thankfully evaded their nets. One cannot ignore how assiduous they were clattering up stairs and rapping at apartment doors in the Marais, or the shrieks of the thirsty and hungry incarcerated at the Vel d'Hiv, before the inexorable clamp of cars en route to Auschwitz - all of that. Nor should one...
So as researched as Guy Bousquet's fat book of 2007 is on his father - once Vichy police chief and behind the Vel d'Hiv - one does not have to buy his conclusions, if buttressed by photocopied letters between his father and Nazi authorities, whom Bousquet senior apparently fought hard to maintain a grisly bargain: French Jews mainly kept off convoys; all 'foreign Jews', including defenceless, pathetic children, hunted pitilessly by French police to appease Eichmann et al., nonetheless angry with Bousquet (himself to be belatedly arrested in 1991 and assassinated two years later).
But then came Simon Epstein's book of 2008, whose title translates as: 'A French Paradox: Antiracists in the Collaboration, Antisemites in the Resistance'. And Epstein thoroughly blows the old simplification that all Vichy personnel were long-term, right-wing antisemites - neither had been true of a previously more philosemitic Bousquet, nor of his predecessor at the police, Henri Rollin, married to a Jewess, and escaping to Britain in 1943; nor of Marcel Peyrouton, an originator of the first, disgusting Jewish statute in wartime, but quondam defender of Tunisian Jews; nor of Jerome Carcopino, a Vichy Minister of Education enforcing 'laws of exception'; and on it went. Epstein considers it 'false to conceive of Vichy as the place of convergence for perpetual antisemites, who had supposedly finally located the opportunity to take long-stored revenge and put their sinister programme into operation'. He then reveals how many in the Resistance - some of them hallowed names in France - had themselves been antisemitic. It was the height of what a decade or two earlier would surely have constituted historical blasphemy! Even now, Epstein (perhaps with tongue in cheek) worries, he says, about being invited to certain scholarly colloquia.
But all this work has helped illuminate a period that was nothing if not complex; and after tossing out the unadulterated blackguards, distinguishing relative good from relative evil on all sides remains our current historical task. The French image of Vichy has changed palpably; but maybe there is still some plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose about as well: for many, Vichy will doubtless remain symbolic of nasty 'collaboration', with the 'Resistance' (of 1941, '42, '43, or is that '44?) as its opposite. More realistically, perhaps wartime France provides a foretaste of the many horrid choices we may soon have to make in this fast - declining Western world already full of its own rackets.
Dr Barnett Singer is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. His book, Maxime Weygand: A Biography of the French General in Two World Wars (ISBN 9780786435715) was published in 2008.
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|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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