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How Guilty Were the French?

Vichy France and the Jews

by Michael R. Marrus, by Robert O. Paxton
Basic Books, 432 pp., $20.95

During the first week of October 1940, the Vichy government, without coercion by the Germans, enacted laws that excluded French Jews from various professions, including teaching, journalism, the officer corps, and high positions in the civil service. Algerian Jews were deprived of their citizenship. Prefects were authorized to detain foreign Jews in camps. In June 1941, Jews were required by Vichy to register with the police. Their property was frequently “aryanized.” Under German pressure, Vichy in November 1941 forced Jews to organize a French Judenrat, the Union Générale de Israëlites de France, which in effect acted as a conduit for German persecution.

Then, in July 1942, 9,000 French police rounded up 12,884 Jews in Paris and packed 7,000 of them into a sports arena for five days without food, water, or sanitary arrangements. Nearly all of them died in Auschwitz, as did also 7,000 Jews arrested and deported in August 1942 from the unoccupied zone at Pierre Laval’s orders. Many of Laval’s victims were children, though the Germans had specified that the deportees should be able-bodied adults. It would be cruel, said Laval, to break up even Jewish families: Travail, Famille, Patrie. Jewish property was pillaged. When German troops occupied all of France after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, Jewish internees in the southern zone were handed over to the Germans. The ration cards of Jews were marked Juif or Juive, making them easy prey. Jews were steadily deported to Auschwitz on one or two trains a month.

So heartless had Vichy’s policy become that ten to fifteen thousand foreign Jews fled from the unoccupied zone controlled by Vichy to the Italian-occupied parts of France, where they were afforded a measure of protection by Mussolini’s regime. In Savoy, Jews whom Vichy officials had rounded up for deportation were forcibly released by Italian soldiers. Italian sentries were posted to guard the synagogue at Nice.

Very few Frenchmen seemed to notice what was going on. A small number of people criticized Vichy’s policies in the spring of 1941, but the first public and unequivocal protests were made only in the summer of 1942. Prominent Catholic priests denounced Vichy’s Jewish policy from the pulpit, but gradually such pronouncements became more rare. No one resigned from the Vichy government as an expression of disagreement with the deportations. The trains to Auschwitz left on time, and the communist-led Resistance network of railway men did nothing to keep them from getting there.

Only in the summer of 1943 did Vichyites begin to lose heart: the French police became more and more unreliable about rounding up Jews for shipment to the east. Though violations of the Statut des Juifs were still being duly registered by the police as late as July 19, 1944, a month before the liberation of Paris, instances of dramatic collaboration had slackened off earlier. In 1943, 44,000 people were arrested in France—Jews and non-Jews—for political crimes, but only 9,000 of them were arrested by Vichy. Urged by the Germans to strip French Jews of their nationality so that the French police might be ordered to arrest them, Laval at first complied, but a few days later retracted his signature.

Between 1942 and 1944, 75,000 of the 300,000 Jews recorded as residing in France in 1939 were deported. One-third of them were French. Of those Jews born in France, most, perhaps as many as 90 percent, survived; of those foreign Jews who had sought the protection of French laws, most had died.

How could this come to pass? How could a regime that collaborated with the Germans in this way have been genuinely popular, as Vichy evidently was during its early years? How could the French nation have acquiesced in this murderous destruction? Paxton and Marrus’s superb and definitive description of Vichy’s policy, based as it is on many heretofore unpublished and unknown documents, has two conspicuous merits. It pulverizes the defense of those apologists of Vichy who claim that Pétain or Laval weren’t as bad as all that. It also allows the historical debate to shift from “what happened?” to “why did it happen?” Here, differences of opinion are bound to emerge.

Paxton and Marrus present three types of explanation. The first is historical and begins with a description of the origins of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism in France, which came to a climax with the Dreyfus case. The authors then trace the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and recall the hostility that centered on Léon Blum. This rather familiar ground is covered here in a sober and reasoned way, as it was by Zeev Sternhell in his La Droite révolutionnaire: les origines françaises du fascisme. The careful and quiet analysis of Paxton and Marrus is quite unlike the inaccurate and self-serving account of French anti-Semitism by Bernard-Henri Lévy in his L’Idéologie française.

The second and most original line of argument connects Vichy’s anti-Semitism to the popular and widely felt xenophobia that prevailed in France during the late 1930s. The unprecedented wave of refugees in France (mainly Republican Spaniards, but also including Italians, Slavs, and Germans, relatively few of them Jewish) made for short tempers. In November 1938 an ominously worded decree made reference to épuration and provided for the internment of étrangers indésirables. This, conclude Paxton and Marrus, “was the basis for the establishment of concentration camps in France.”

The third and most convincing argument concerns, on the one hand, Vichy’s perception of the relative importance of the rights of Jews and, on the other, the need to uphold against the Germans Vichy’s claims to be a fully sovereign state. To some limited extent, the two concerns overlapped. To give Germans a completely free hand, about French Jews especially, would have been an unacceptable admission of powerlessness, since, as Paxton and Marrus point out, Vichy’s acquiescence in the deportation of even foreign Jews in 1942 was perceived by much of the public as not only inhuman, but as a national humiliation also. On similar nationalistic grounds Pétain and Laval steadfastly refused to strip French Jews of their citizenship or to make compulsory the wearing of a Star of David in southern France as had been ordered by the Germans in the north.

However, concern over Jews and concern over Vichy’s sovereignty were mostly separate. The fate of Jews was never for Vichy a central issue: it never occurred to Laval or to Pétain that the dishonor that their callousness toward Jews had brought upon themselves far outweighed whatever gains they might achieve elsewhere. For most of the Vichy leaders Jews seem to have been almost invisible; and by tacit agreement, from 1942 onward, Vichy’s ministers were much relieved to let Laval settle this question as best he could.

By contrast, Vichy’s concern for its sovereignty was obsessive. The results were devastating. Time and time again, in order to save face, Vichy anticipated the most extravagant Nazi Diktaten by agreeing to do most of the dirty work itself. If the Germans consented not to shoot hostages, for example, Vichy would agree to pass retroactive legislation and execute selected communists with much public ceremony.

The arrests and deportation of Jews by the French police in July and August 1942 were preceded by an understanding about the prerogatives of the German and French police between the Vichy police chief René Bousquet and the German SS-Brigadeführer and Police Major-General Carl Albrecht Oberg. The French would round up the Jews themselves on behalf of the Germans; in exchange, the Nazis agreed to recognize “the free hand” of the French police “in certain areas…which did not immediately affect the German interests.” The Bousquet-Oberg accord, when renewed in April 1943, was a decisive event, for without it, as Marrus and Paxton rightly conclude, “the Germans would never have been able to take such a heavy toll of the Jews in France.”

The first and second explanations of the motives for Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation appear to me to be less sound than the third. Much has been written about the roots of anti-Semitism in French as well as in German thought and social history. But it is not clear how the broad history of French anti-Semitism connects with the specific case of Vichy’s treatment of the Jews. For example, official reports on the public reaction to anti-Semitic legislation in the summer and fall of 1940 were, as Paxton and Marrus point out, as frequently negative as they were favorable.

Paxton and Marrus argue that such divisions of public opinion and the failure of Vichy’s leaders to defend the Jews made it possible for traditional anti-Semites to have their way. But an equally plausible and very different explanation can be suggested. Marshal Pétain himself had strong views about the place of Jews in France. He insisted, for example, that Jews be excluded from the judicial and educational systems. Raphaël Alibert, the author of Vichy’s first anti-Semitic law, was an insignificant failure who owed his place as minister of justice exclusively to Pétain’s friendship and who vanished without a trace from the political scene when Pétain decided to abandon him in early 1941. By making Alibert’s views his own, Pétain made them those of his government as well; it is by no means self-evident that other Vichy leaders shared these views, though they may have felt obliged to keep silent, or even to endorse them. René Belin, for example, a key figure of the regime, the only leftist in the government, and by all reports an honorable man (whose views are not discussed here), has written that he never approved of Vichy’s racist laws.

Pétain’s prestige was immense in 1940 and so was his personal responsibility for what happened to the Jews. Vichy’s anti-Semitism may owe something to polemicists like Alphonse Toussenel, Edouard Drumont, and Charles Maurras; but what is certain is that without Pétain, the Vichy government and its anti-Semitism were inconceivable. Simple justice demanded that the victor of Verdun be shot in 1945, notwithstanding his eighty-nine years of age.

Nor does it seem to me to be entirely clear that Vichy’s policy toward Jews was wholly “French” in origin, as the authors repeatedly claim. The policy may arguably have been more Pétainist than French—neither in this book nor elsewhere, so far as I know, is there any evidence that Pétain’s leading ministers, Laval included, made anti-Semitic statements before the war. It is also true, as the authors scrupulously point out, that Vichy had already received in September 1940 detailed reports of planned German legislation against Jews. It thus seems possible, as I have suggested, that a main purpose of Vichy’s leaders was to preserve Vichy’s sovereignty, and that they thought they could accomplish this by enacting such legislation on their own. The motivations of Vichy’s policy are to my mind more opaque than Paxton and Marrus allow.

The most questionable aspect of the book is that dealing with the public’s reaction to Vichy’s anti-Semitic policy. The authors’ argument here reaches back, as I have said, to the wave of xenophobia that swept France in the 1930s. The internment camps for foreigners created by the Third Republic, which later became staging centers for the deportation of Jews, were not unpopular with the French public when they were set up. Indeed, Paxton and Marrus claim that there was a “powerful surge of popular antisemitism in the Unoccupied Zone during 1941-42.”

How do they know this “surge” took place? Their sources are of two sorts. First, they cite frequent reports by the ministry of war based on extensive samplings of telephone calls, censored letters, and telegrams (did French peasants and workers in those days frequently send telegrams?). In December 1943 alone, more than two million letters were inspected—an amazing number, so large in fact that there could hardly have been anyone in France who did not realize that his mail might well be censored.

The second source consists of reports from prefects to the government in Vichy. The authors believe that the prefects “made a conscientious effort to record opinions accurately, for the reports can hardly have always been pleasing to Vichy.” But I would incline to Paxton’s previous judgment in Vichy France (1972), where he wrote that French prefects’ reports are “subject to caution: official samplers of opinion often hear what they want to hear and tell their superiors what they want to know.” Of all the French administrative services, the corps of prefects was the one most subject to political influence, and it had been purged in 1940 by the neofascist Adrien Marquet. These officials were hardly unbiased men. In April 1943 when the prefect of the Tarn told Pétain with tears in his eyes that all the workers of his department followed his lead unquestioningly, Pétain’s lifetime friend General Serrigny cut him short, saying that 95 percent of those workers were hostile to the regime. When strong protests about the forced deportation of Jews were made by French priests and public figures in 1942, Vichy’s prefects were taken completely by surprise.

Censored mails and prefectoral reports, in short, are not necessarily reliable sources, though their contents appear to support the dark and severe views of French attitudes toward Jews and Vichy that have characterized the work of these two authors.

Their point of view, it should be said, has at times been severely criticized. Some of Paxton’s earlier statements, for example, have been vigorously attacked by the leading historian of Vichy, Yves Durand, for the emphasis they placed on the sympathy of French opinion for Vichy’s sycophantic foreign policy toward Germany. Michael Marrus has also been taken to task by France’s best-known writer of Jewish history, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, for his claims that Jews were integrated only superficially into French life. In this book as well we find a skeptical view of the place of Jews in France. Frenchmen who happened to be Jews, explain the authors, thought that they had been accepted as citizens of the Grande Nation, but “the crises of the 1930s were to strip away the veneer.” Jews were, however, more integrated into French politics than in any other European country, as the careers of Léon Blum, Jean Zay, Georges Mandel, and many less well-known Jews suggest. The same could be said of the officer corps (Georges Boris was a Jewish inspector general of artillery). The word “veneer” hardly seems appropriate to Marc Bloch’s words in L’Etrange défaite: “J’y suis né,” he wrote of France, “j’ai bu aux sources de sa culture, j’ai fait mien son passé…et je me suis efforcé, à mon tour, de la défendre de mon mieux.”1

Was Vichy a lesser evil, compared to what would have happened under Nazi occupation? As the authors rightly point out, this question, which immediately comes to mind, is very difficult to resolve. By and large, however, Paxton and Marrus think that Vichy was a poor shield for France. They are surely right with regard to those Frenchmen whom Vichy most wanted to defend, such as prisoners of war, and they may be right about Jews as well. French Jews suffered less than did the Jews of most occupied countries, but there is no doubt that Laval could have saved many lives had he decided to drag his feet in rounding up and deporting Jews, instead of using Vichy’s cooperation in Jewish persecution as a bargaining counter in his dealings with the Germans. The tiny police forces that the Germans had posted in France could hardly by themselves have arrested as many Jews as they did if they had not been helped by the French police and by the lists drawn up by the French Jewish organization set up on Vichy’s orders.

It is, moreover, possible to suppose that Hitler would not have reacted if Laval and Pétain had been adamant in opposing deportations. By 1944 France had become Germany’s foremost supplier of raw materials, foodstuffs, and manufactured goods. Hitler had a stake in leaving France as it was, quiescent and productive. To have treated France like Poland would have been to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. An imposed French fascist regime would have provoked resistance and disrupted the German war effort.

But it is conceivable also that a blanket refusal by the French authorities to collaborate on Jews might have infuriated the Germans, who would then have made a greater effort to act alone, as they easily could have done. A determined and principled refusal to cooperate on the one issue that most provoked Hitler’s maniacal rage might have prompted him to “Polonize” France after all, or to replace both Pétain and Laval by raving fascist anti-Semites. The fate of Jews in France might then have resembled that of Hungarian Jews. Until 1944, when the Nazis arrested Miklós Horthy and replaced him with the fascist Ferenc Szálasi, Hungarian Jews, though persecuted, were not deported. One year later, by April 1945, 333,000 of Hungary’s 450,000 Jews had been killed. Ironically, the Vichy regime, by fending off the installation of a ruthless fascist government, may have helped to protect those Frenchmen about whom it cared least.

Either interpretation can be argued. A more honorable policy would certainly have saved more lives. A truly honorable policy might have provoked an even greater slaughter. We cannot tell.

Paxton and Marrus could in any case have drawn a clearer distinction between Vichy’s vicious policies and the admittedly deplorable but ordinary and largely irrelevant attitudes of the French population toward Jews. Our sensibility has been so altered by the Holocaust that it is difficult for us to remember that the latent anti-Semitism which Paxton and Marrus connect to Vichy’s murderous policy in fact existed everywhere. De Gaulle’s conduct, it is true, was an exception. In those days, Jews did not seem to him to be a “peuple dominateur and sûr de soi,” as he called them in 1967. But grave reservations were often made by those around him; and Simone Weil, in London, thought that something was to be said for a statut de minorités: “La minorité juive…a pour lien une certaine mentalité répondant à l’absence d’hérédité chrétienne.”2

Similar feelings were widely shared in the Allied countries. Bernard Wasserstein’s Britain and the Jews3 has shown that indifference to the fate of Jews was not a French monopoly. Auschwitz was never bombed. A mere handful of refugees was allowed to find refuge in America or Canada. Jewish refugees were deported by Britain to Australia. Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation was applied in French North Africa for some months after the Allied landings there, and in January 1943 Roosevelt himself did not reject it out of hand: “The number of Jews in the practice of the professions,” he thought, “…should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population.” The anti-Semitism of the French population does not explain the deportation of Jews from France. Laval, Pétain, and Vichy are the culprits.

Marrus and Paxton hesitate in their conclusions. In the introduction to the French version of their book, they write of the role played by “l’Etat français et par une fraction de la population” (my emphasis). But they also write in their conclusion that “it is striking with what alacrity the Vichy regime, enjoying more popular support at the beginning than had most preceding French governments, deliberately adopted an anti-Jewish policy after the defeat of 1940.” The juxtaposition of two statements, one on Vichy’s anti-Semitism and the other on the popularity of the regime, is painfully ambiguous. The publisher states that this book “definitively establishes French cooperation with the Final Solution—cooperation…that was virtually unparalleled in all of Europe.” I do not think that so bald a statement expresses the authors’ deep and nuanced understanding of their subject, but many readers will think, and not unjustifiably, that it does.

Vichy France and the Jews is a scrupulously researched and important book that will be justly and widely admired, but there is something of Cato in its tone. No one should condone the passivity of the French in 1940-1944, but their respect for administrative authority, their hostility to cultural pluralism, and their peculiar definition of the private and public spheres in social life made it difficult for them to react to Vichy’s murderous intent. A choice was forced upon them, but they could not choose.

  1. 1

    I was born there, drank from the sources of its culture, made its past my own…and when my turn came, tried my best to defend it.”

  2. 2

    The Jewish minority…has as a bond a certain mentality, corresponding to the absence of Christian heredity.”

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1979.

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