In December 1942, the Pétainist journal France: Revue de l’Etat Nouveau published an article by François Mitterrand, who was then twenty-six years old. He had escaped from a German prison camp and was working for the Vichy regime in the office that helped other returned prisoners of war adjust to life in occupied France. The article was entitled “Pilgrimage to Thuringia,” and it recounted a trip Mitterrand had made some two and a half years before in a “miserable convoy” of French soldiers who, having been captured during the Nazi attack on France, were being transported to Germany.
Mitterrand’s essay is a gloomy reflection on the tragedy of France, inspired by his observation of the German countryside. It contains no pronouncements that would strike one as very objectionable today. Still, in its contempt for France’s “corrupt regime” of the past and its “incompetent men,” the article strikes some notes characteristic of many Frenchmen at the time, who saw in Marshal Pétain a man who stood for the old-fashioned virtues and France’s best hope of eventual national salvation.
Few would suggest that Mitterrand be condemned for his mistakes of half a century ago, especially since he left Vichy early in 1943 and joined the Resistance. Indeed, his postwar career as a Radical-Socialist politician was made possible by his record in the underground. But the more one looks at the Vichy period of his life, the more questions arise. Mitterrand was willing to write for a Pétainist journal—and to do so two years after Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation had gone into effect. The journal in which Mitterrand’s article was published had been founded by a friend of his, Gabriel Jeantet, an ardent Pétainist who, in the pages of his publication, blamed France’s problems on
a gang of international financiers, Talmudist prophets, Communists in Stalin’s pay, and incompetent politicians.
As the journalist Catherine Ney pointed out in her biography of Mitterrand, The Red and the Black, the future president had two or three friends, Jeantet among them, in the Cagoule, the ultra-right-wing anti-Communist underground group that once carried out assassinations for Mussolini. “Pilgrimage to Thuringia” put Mitterrand’s essay, she writes, into “embarrassing proximity” with some of the blatant anti-Semitic writings published in the same issue. In one article, entitled “The Condition of the Jews in Rome Under the Papacy,” the Vichy ideologue Louis de Gérin-Ricard declares:
Few examples in history provide a more accurate idea of the Semite peril than the way Rome had to treat the Jews—who encouraged prostitution, gambling, the receiving of stolen goods, and homosexuality.
Mitterrand’s ambiguous past is mentioned from time to time in the recent intense controversy over a small group of prominent Vichy collaborators who have been indicted for crimes against humanity because they are alleged to have taken part in the anti-Semitic atrocities that took place in France during World War II, especially deportations of tens of thousands of Jews. Recently, in April, there was …