Robert O. Paxton is Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Columbia and the author of, among other works, 
Vichy France and The Anatomy of Fascism.
 (February 2016)

The Truth About the Resistance

The French Resistance cuts a wide swath in the public imagination, and not only in France. Books and films have planted indelible images of derailed trains and makeshift airstrips at midnight. These images reveal only a tiny part of the fluctuating, diverse, squabbling world of the Resistance. Encompassing its whole range of activities is a challenge.

A Surprising Prime Minister

Léon Blum, circa 1894
When Léon Blum became president of the Council of Ministers of France—in effect, prime minister—on June 6, 1936, a world was turned on its head. He was the first socialist ever to occupy that position in France, and the first avowed Jew to head a major modern government anywhere (Benjamin …

The Bloodiest Urban Revolution

A barricade of the Communards at the corner of the Rue de Rivoli and the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, Paris, April 1871
The Great Terror of 1793–1794 is often considered the bloodiest episode in the history of Paris, thanks perhaps to Charles Dickens. By careful count, Robespierre’s Revolutionary Tribunal ordered 2,639 people executed in Paris between April 1793 and July 1794.1 But at least seven times that many were killed in …

It’s Time to Live with the Birds

A great horned owl, nearly two feet tall, whose presence in John Marzluff’s Seattle suburb ‘directly benefits our garden by keeping the nonnative eastern cottontail rabbits on edge’
In March 2013 John Marzluff, a veteran ecology professor, spent a few days in Yellowstone National Park. As he always does when out of doors, Marzluff counted the birds he found there: twenty-four species. Traveling to New York City afterward, he spent several hours over two days in Manhattan’s green …

When France Went Dreadfully Wrong

Charles Maurras, leader of the Action française movement, at a French Academy ceremony, June 1939
Frederick Brown, the accomplished biographer of Zola, Flaubert, and Cocteau, has given us a kind of collective intellectual biography of France from the outbreak of World War I to the calamitous defeat of 1940. Despite the loss of so many talented young men in World War I, France seethed with …

Jews: How Vichy Made It Worse

Jewish deportees at the Drancy transit camp outside Paris, 1942
It’s called “the French paradox.” On the one hand the Germans, with the assistance of the actively anti-Semitic Vichy government and of a certain number of actively anti-Semitic French citizens, deported a shocking number of the Jews living in France between 1940 and 1944 to their deaths. On the other …

The Founding Birdman

Clockwise from top left, the head of a turkey vulture, the head of a black vulture, a peregrine falcon, black vulture, turkey vulture, and common raven; painting by Alexander Wilson, early nineteenth century
Most people would say without hesitation that the founder of American ornithology was John James Audubon. Audubon himself knew better. “The Ornithology of the United States may be said to have been commenced by Alexander Wilson,” Audubon wrote in Ornithological Biography, the long and animated text he wrote to accompany …

Vichy Lives!—In a Way

A Vichy government propaganda poster by J.A. Mercier, 1941
Cécile Desprairies’s L’Héritage de Vichy advances a strong claim: that contemporary France still bears today many traces of the Vichy regime that governed under German occupation from 1940 to 1944.

Birds: The Inner Life

John James Audubon: Red-Tailed Hawk, from Audubon’s Birds of America, 1827–1838
Like astronomy, ornithology is a science to which amateurs have made authentic contributions. Today, however, the divide between amateurs and professionals in ornithology appears to be deepening, as the professionals revolutionize our understanding of the ornithological family tree and of bird behavior by employing cellular biology and the chemistry of …

Can You Really Become French?

A student in northern France, arriving at school in a Muslim headscarf, September 2, 2004. She removed the headscarf, in accordance with the French ban on wearing highly visible religious symbols in public elementary and secondary schools.
Do you want to become French? It may be easier than you think. Patrick Weil tells us that George Washington was made an honorary French citizen in 1792, and that Bill Clinton, born in Arkansas on what had once been French soil, as part of the Louisiana Territory, was until …

A Field Guide to the Birders

On August 12, 1970, FBI agents landed on Block Island, a speck of glacial deposit off Rhode Island, looking for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, one of the “Catonsville Nine” Vietnam War protesters who had burned draft records in Maryland. Hoping to pass unobserved, the G-men disguised themselves as bird-watchers. Block Island, …

Vichy vs. the Nazis

At first it sounds implausible. Did Marshal Pétain’s Vichy French government, notoriously ready to collaborate with Nazi Germany, actually arrest and execute Nazi spies? Simon Kitson, a young British scholar at the University of Birmingham, shows that it did. His exhaustive search of French military, police, and judicial archives found …

Inside the Panic

Strange exodus, with no Promised Land and no Moses. But in May 1940 in France, Belgium, and Holland, the word “exodus” came into use at once. It must have seemed appropriate to the biblical proportions of this human tide, which Hanna Diamond calls the largest population movement in history up …

The Jew Hater

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 …

The Trial of Maurice Papon

On October 22, 1999, Maurice Papon, an eighty-nine-year-old former high-ranking French civil servant, was locked up in the Paris suburban prison of Fresnes, of sinister memory to both sides in World War II. Papon had been condemned on April 2, 1998, to ten years of criminal detention for complicity in …

The Uses of Fascism

Is fascism back? The headlines might make one think so. Images of skinheads, ethnic cleansing, and nationalist demagogues assail us daily. Books about the general character of fascism, which had largely given way since the 1970s to an emphasis on what distinguished Italian Fascism from German Nazism,[^1] are appearing again.

Radicals

Fascism seems easy to grasp. It presents itself to us in crude primary images: the leader haranguing an electrified crowd, disciplined youths marching by, the exaltation of communal purity within and of aggressive expansion without. As soon as one attempts to define and analyze fascism as a generic concept, however, …

De Gaulle and His Myth

In the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), a syncretic religion has arisen around a cult of General Charles de Gaulle. Its altars are decorated with Crosses of Lorraine and large “V’s” for victory. Its followers sing and dance to invoke Ngolo, which is also the word for power in the …

Tricks of Memory

When Alain Resnais made his somber masterpiece on Nazi-occupied France, Night and Fog (1955), he was required before the film could be licensed for showing to delete certain scenes in which a French policeman’s kepi appears in deportation scenes at the refugee camp at Pithiviers (near Orleans). Thus the unpleasant …

The Company of Owls

No encounter with an owl is a trivial affair. Owls are full of mystery and portent; they are not to be taken casually. Owls have struck the human imagination forcefully from the earliest times. They are pictured in Sumerian tablets accompanying Lilith, the goddess of death. A learned ornithologist later …

The Friendly Fascist

Simon Sabiani was a Corsican neighborhood boss in Marseille from the 1920s until the end of the German occupation in 1944. Emerging from World War I having lost an eye but having gained many decorations along with a passionate hatred for war and the establishment, the young immigrant found his …