In 1943 Paul Touvier joined the Milice, the newly formed paramilitary police force created by the Vichy authorities in order to combat the Resistance. He was quickly appointed one of the organization’s senior officers in the Lyon region. In 1994, after numerous legal twists and turns, and almost fifty years as a fugitive from justice, he became the first Frenchman to be convicted of crimes against humanity. More specifically, he was found guilty of ordering the execution of seven prisoners, all of them Jews, as a reprisal for the assassination of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of propaganda. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and died in a prison hospital this July at the age of eighty-one.
While the final proceedings against Touvier were being prepared, another former Vichy official was also awaiting trial for crimes against humanity—René Bousquet, who had served as secretary general for police in the Vichy regime from 1942 to 1944. In Bousquet’s case, however, justice was to be thwarted. In June 1993 he was gunned down by a mentally disturbed would-be writer whose principal motive seems to have been thirst for publicity.
Of the two men, Bousquet was unquestionably the more important. He had been close to the center of power, where Touvier had been a mere functionary, and the crimes for which he was indicted were far more extensive. In effect, since the police under his command had carried out repeated roundups and deportations on the Nazis’ behalf, he stood accused of wholesale complicity in the Final Solution.
He was a much more complicated figure than Touvier, too. Politically he was a man of the center-left, where Touvier—heavily influenced by his father, a member of the Action Française—had always been a reactionary and racist. In the 1930s his administrative career had got off to a brilliant start: he was chief of staff to the local prefect at the age of twenty, and the youngest prefect in France at the age of thirty-one. (Touvier, by contrast, had begun his working life as a railway clerk.) His collaboration with the Nazis was prompted by personal ambition and a belief in bureaucratic continuity; he didn’t have any particular interest in their ideology. In 1949 he was convicted of collaboration—his role in the deportation of Jews was treated as a side issue—and sentenced to five years’ “loss of civil rights,” but the sentence was immediately commuted for what he had persuaded the court were “acts of resistance.” He went on to have an outstandingly successful career as a banker and industrialist. He also enjoyed the friendship and protection of François Mitterrand.
The big story, then, ought to have been the Bousquet story. But as Richard J. Golsan points out, in the introduction to the excellent collection of articles and documents on the two affairs which he has edited, it is Touvier who has attracted more international attention.
One reason is obvious. Touvier’s case came to court, and Bousquet’s—as far as crimes against humanity were concerned—didn’t. But there…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.