In August 1978, an enterprising French journalist, Philippe Ganier-Raymond, tracked down a nearly forgotten eighty-one-year-old French exile in Madrid named Louis Darquier de Pellepoix and cajoled him into conversation. Ganier-Raymond had brought along a tape recorder concealed in a fan.
The resulting interview was published in the French newsweekly L’Express on October 28, 1978, under a sensational title: “At Auschwitz They Gassed Only Lice.” Louis Darquier (the “de Pellepoix” was fake, like a great deal else in his life) had been the Vichy French government’s second commissioner for Jewish affairs between May 1942 and February 1944.
Darquier’s unrepentant diatribe was, in the words of historian Henry Rousso, a “trigger”1 that set off one of those periodic national shouting matches that have, since the early 1970s, driven forward an enduring French fascination with the Vichy regime. Darquier’s outrageous words had multiple effects. They helped place French anti-Semitism at the center of debates about Vichy, a position which that subject has never lost, at some cost to historiographical balance. They gave a decisive boost to the efforts of French lawyer and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld to bring some responsible Vichy French officials to justice, in formal recognition of Vichy’s complicity in the deportation of Jews from France.
In the aftermath of the Darquier scandal, France became the only major participant in World War II other than Germany to prosecute any of its own citizens for crimes against humanity. In 1979, Jean Leguay, the representative of the Vichy chief of police in the occupied zone, was the first of several senior French civil servants to be indicted on this charge. Leguay had helped organize the notorious arrest by French police and internment under dreadful conditions of 12,884 Jewish men, women, and children in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a Paris bicycle stadium, on July 16 and 17, 1942, whence they were deported to Auschwitz. Leguay died in 1989, before his case came to trial, but his boss René Bousquet, Vichy police chief, whose direct responsibility for the Vél d’Hiv arrests Darquier had underlined, was indicted in 1991.
Darquier’s interview finally gave several French polemicists, led by the University of Lyon literature professor Robert Faurisson, the opportunity to make their case, in major newspapers, that the Final Solution never happened. This intensified the debate over whether Darquier’s brand of anti-Semitism is something permanent and deep in French culture that persists today.
In London, the editor and writer Carmen Callil was already tracking Darquier, for she had been treated by the Jungian analyst Anne Darquier, who had died of alcohol and sleeping pills. Soon after Ann Darquier’s death, Carmen Callil was startled to see a monocled bully with the same name as her friend in Marcel Ophuls’s brilliant 1972 documentary film about Vichy, The Sorrow and the Pity. Could the monstrous Louis Darquier de Pellepoix be related to Anne? Carmen Callil set off on a quest that became a consuming passion, to find out everything about this talented young woman and about the parents who had deserted…
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