• Email
  • Print

‘How Vichy Made It Worse’

In response to:

Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse from the March 6, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of a book by French historian Jacques Semelin [“Jews : How Vichy Made It Worse,” NYR, March 6] Robert O. Paxton writes:

Even some present-day authors try to use the ‘’French paradox’’ to make a positive case for Vichy. The latest example is Alain Michel’s Vichy et la Shoah: enquête sur le paradoxe français, a work Semelin denounces as an effort to “rehabilitate” Vichy.

This passage concerning my book calls for a response, which I propose to do in two distinct ways. First, I would like to state formally that Semelin’s appraisal, which Paxton adopts as his own, is defamatory. “Rehabilitating” a regime implies not only a desire to sweep under the carpet its sins, but also adherence, however minimal, to its ideology, as well as an intention to promote its ideas.

I am a historian and a rabbi of French origin living in Israel. I have worked for almost thirty years at Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, where I created French-language seminars on teaching the Holocaust in 1987. Nothing in my “pedigree” fits the description of a Vichy rehabilitator. My biography, which I have kept intentionally brief (but which I could supplement with further elements), demonstrates the baselessness of the accusation leveled at me by Semelin, and by Paxton.

The reader of The New York Review also deserves knowing that my book opens on the explicit affirmation that my research is in no way founded on nostalgia for Pétain and his regime, and that it concludes with a specific reminder of Vichy’s anti-Semitism and complicity in mass murder. Therefore one has to be particularly malevolent to dare accuse me of any intention of rehabilitating Vichy.

If the accusation targeting me is nevertheless formulated the way it is, two questions arise: Why does Semelin feel a need to slur my research? And why does Paxton bother referring to that particular phrase in Semelin’s book dealing with my work, in what is, after all, a very small passage in a nine-hundred-page tome?

The answer to this can be found in the title of Paxton’s article. This article justly criticizes the downsides of Semelin’s book, in particular the author’s method of drawing general conclusions from a limited number of case studies, the representativeness of which is not convincingly established. Beyond this critique, however, Paxton’s and Semelin’s approaches rely on a common conception, that of a Vichy government as the “ultimate culprit,” whose every single action expedited the implementation of the Final Solution in France and aggravated the situation of the Jews.

My approach, which, by the way, builds directly on the work of two widely respected Holocaust historians, Raul Hilberg and Léon Poliakov, adopts the exactly opposite stance. I argue that Vichy, although anti-Semitic and an accomplice in crime, sought to limit the impact of the Final Solution in France, and succeeded in doing so. I also argue that the first and foremost beneficiaries of these efforts were Jews of French nationality.

Both Semelin and Paxton have no interest in my hypothesis being presented, debated, and discussed. This is the reason why, rather than allowing for genuine historical debate among proponents of opposite views, they prefer eliminating their opponent, through calumny.

Is it because they have run out of arguments? The day Paxton, and his followers, accept a genuine debate on the role and attitude of the Vichy government with regard to the Final Solution, we will see what remains of their conception of a Vichy that is still seen, by many, as an embodiment of absolute evil.

Alain Michel
Jerusalem, Israel

Robert O. Paxton replies:

Alain Michel is far from the first to note that when the deportations “to the east” began in the summer of 1942, the Vichy authorities tried to spare French Jewish citizens by sending foreign Jews first. Vichy also refused in June 1942 to permit the extension to the Unoccupied Zone of the new Nazi requirement that Jews wear a yellow star on their clothing, and declined a Nazi request that Vichy strip the recently naturalized of French citizenship. These facts appear in any serious history of Vichy France, including my own.

Alain Michel’s novelty is his effort to project these defensive gestures back anachronistically to the first years of the regime. His thesis founders on the fact that all of Vichy’s many discriminatory laws in 1940–1941 affected French Jewish citizens as fully as foreign Jews, and were rigorously applied to them, with minimal exceptions for a few highly decorated war veterans (as in Nazi Germany, at first) and a few eminent scholars and scientists.

Vichy’s belated attempt to assert its responsibility for its Jewish citizens (undertaken more to avoid another humiliation to its claims to sovereignty than for humanitarian concerns) had only limited effect. Its earlier measures regarding the “exclusion” of all Jews from many occupations and professions, as well as its confiscations of property, obligatory registration of Jewish names and addresses with the police, and, finally, the red stamp JUIF on food ration cards and identity cards (as fatal as the yellow star), had made it easier to deport them all, French and foreign alike. A third of the 76,000 Jews deported from France were French citizens.

Neither Jacques Semelin nor I has ever called Vichy France the “ultimate culprit.” Nazi Germany was the ultimate culprit. Vichy simply made things worse.

  • Email
  • Print