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Vichy Lives!—In a Way

Roger-Viollet/Getty Images
Marshal Pétain (left) and Adolf Hitler, with Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, between them, Montoire-sur-le-Loir, France, October 24, 1940

The first perspective is German pressure, and in fact Desprairies is fully alert to it. The German occupying authorities were interested in getting a maximum of yield out of the French economy. So they intervened in working conditions. They were also interested in bringing the glories of German culture to the benighted French. I was surprised myself to learn that Mozart had been little played in France before 1940, and that his prominence since 1945 in the French operatic and symphonic repertoire is one of the legacies of the occupation.

A second perspective, French politics, is less visible in Desprairies’s approach. Most of what was done by Vichy was poisoned from the beginning by the French right’s zeal to exact revenge for the “Judeo-Masonic” Popular Front of 1936. Many of the projects undertaken by Vichy were given a peculiar meaning by the regime’s authoritarian structure and reactionary priorities, and by Vichy’s own decision—independent at first of Nazi pressure—to reduce the role of Jews in French economic and cultural life. So we are not dealing here with simple continuities in which a program passes unaltered from Vichy to the Fourth Republic.

Desprairies deals well with the different meanings of sport before and after 1940. Sport was encouraged both by the Popular Front and by Vichy but for different purposes: for hygiene and public welfare in 1936, and after 1940 for national revival. Her discussion of the creation of a national police force is illustrated by an appropriate photo of French gendarmes kicking in the door of a supposed Resistance hideout. Desprairies might have illuminated even more often the dark underside of Vichy’s reforms.

The third essential perspective is time. Vichy’s early modernizing aspirations were a false dawn. They became distorted when after June 1941 the Nazi grip intensified into full-scale economic spoliation to support Hitler’s gigantic war in the East. Then came the extension to France of the Final Solution of the “Jewish problem” that implicated Vichy in crimes against humanity, and the rise of the Resistance that Vichy dealt with by transforming itself into a police state.

Vichy purchased its survival as a quasi-sovereign state by assisting Hitler’s war in the East and by preparing to participate in his New Europe that would be, among other things, Judenrein. Most of the Vichy programs that were continued after the war dated from the first eighteen months following France’s defeat, the period of the “new start.” These (if we don’t mention Vichy’s own measures against Jews and the left) could sometimes look like rational solutions to French problems. But by the end of 1942 the intensification of the war meant that Vichy’s “new start” was barely a memory.

Another disadvantage of Desprairies’s approach is that some major legacies of the occupation years are not easily reducible to items on a list. The French economy emerged from the war more centralized, more organized, and with larger firms—due in part to German orders, in part to Vichy’s drive to rationalize, and in part to the demands of postwar reconstruction. The position of the Catholic Church within French society changed profoundly during World War II, but the church never appears in this book. Vichy’s aid to Catholic schools was continued by the Fourth Republic, in which a new Catholic party with advanced social ideas—the Mouvement républicain populaire—shared power, and where the Third Republic’s old anticlericalism seemed outmoded after some Catholics and Communists had made common cause in the Resistance. General de Gaulle himself exemplifies the strength of social Catholicism in postwar France. Despite his utter refusal ever to accept the Vichy regime’s legality, he judged at the end of his life that some of its social doctrines such as corporatist cooperation between labor and management and support for large families were “not without appeal.”6

Vichy’s “worker priests” (sent initially to minister to French factory workers conscripted to German factories) were adopted by the Catholic left after the war until the Vatican closed the experiment down in the 1950s. Desprairies also omits the remarkable turn upward during the war of the French birthrate, which still sets France apart from much of the rest of Europe, although she mentions the policy of state aid to large families, begun by the Third Republic, accentuated by Vichy, and continued to this day. Such complex matters, where Vichy’s actions combined with multiple lines of causation to shape the heritage of the war and occupation period, are largely invisible in this book.

Desprairies does not seem to have set out overtly to whitewash the Vichy regime. When Vichy’s exclusionary measures come into view, she stoutly condemns them, as in her essay on the new organization of the medical profession (l’Order des médecins, which still exists), in which she shows that it helped the government eliminate foreign Jews and limit the number of French Jews in the medical profession. But they don’t come into view as often as they might because the continuities of welfare and other measures following the war mostly concern matters of ordinary existence. Focusing on the continuities has the effect, intended or not, of making Vichy look more benign.

Students of Nazism made this discovery when they experimented in the 1980s with Alltagsgeschichte, the history of everyday life. In this perspective, the Nazi anti-Jewish pogrom faded into the background, while a different set of victims—housewives confronted by rationing and scarcities, families who lost their homes to Allied bombing—came to center stage. Similarly, Desprairies’s perspective of heritage omits ugly matters like Vichy’s purge of socialists and Freemasons altogether; and the exclusion and persecution of Jews, while not ignored, tends to remain offstage. Unless we supplement this work with a more rounded treatment we risk getting a falsely benevolent impression of the Vichy regime.


Vichy’s Ocean Liner May 9, 2013

  1. 6

    General De Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre, Vol. III. Le Salut, 1944–46 (Paris: Plon, 1959), pp. 94–95. 

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