In 1943 Paul Touvier joined the Milice, the newly formed paramilitary police force created by the Vichy authorities in order to combat the Resistance. He was quickly appointed one of the organization’s senior officers in the Lyon region. In 1994, after numerous legal twists and turns, and almost fifty years as a fugitive from justice, he became the first Frenchman to be convicted of crimes against humanity. More specifically, he was found guilty of ordering the execution of seven prisoners, all of them Jews, as a reprisal for the assassination of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of propaganda. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and died in a prison hospital this July at the age of eighty-one.
While the final proceedings against Touvier were being prepared, another former Vichy official was also awaiting trial for crimes against humanity—René Bousquet, who had served as secretary general for police in the Vichy regime from 1942 to 1944. In Bousquet’s case, however, justice was to be thwarted. In June 1993 he was gunned down by a mentally disturbed would-be writer whose principal motive seems to have been thirst for publicity.
Of the two men, Bousquet was unquestionably the more important. He had been close to the center of power, where Touvier had been a mere functionary, and the crimes for which he was indicted were far more extensive. In effect, since the police under his command had carried out repeated roundups and deportations on the Nazis’ behalf, he stood accused of wholesale complicity in the Final Solution.
He was a much more complicated figure than Touvier, too. Politically he was a man of the center-left, where Touvier—heavily influenced by his father, a member of the Action Française—had always been a reactionary and racist. In the 1930s his administrative career had got off to a brilliant start: he was chief of staff to the local prefect at the age of twenty, and the youngest prefect in France at the age of thirty-one. (Touvier, by contrast, had begun his working life as a railway clerk.) His collaboration with the Nazis was prompted by personal ambition and a belief in bureaucratic continuity; he didn’t have any particular interest in their ideology. In 1949 he was convicted of collaboration—his role in the deportation of Jews was treated as a side issue—and sentenced to five years’ “loss of civil rights,” but the sentence was immediately commuted for what he had persuaded the court were “acts of resistance.” He went on to have an outstandingly successful career as a banker and industrialist. He also enjoyed the friendship and protection of François Mitterrand.
The big story, then, ought to have been the Bousquet story. But as Richard J. Golsan points out, in the introduction to the excellent collection of articles and documents on the two affairs which he has edited, it is Touvier who has attracted more international attention.
One reason is obvious. Touvier’s case came to court, and Bousquet’s—as far as crimes against humanity were concerned—didn’t. But there were elements in Touvier’s story which were calculated to arouse unusual popular interest anyway—his years on the run, the role played by members of the Catholic clergy in protecting him, his skill in wrapping himself in a cloak of innocence. For however mediocre he may have been in other respects, he had a rare talent for telling potential benefactors what they wanted to hear. Richard Golsan describes him as a mythomaniac, and speaks of the self-exculpating memoir which he published in 1979, Mes Crimes contre l’humanité, as possessing “a certain perverse and histrionic persuasiveness.” To many people, Golsan adds, he seemed “a personnage de roman,” a character in a novel.
And now he really is a character in a novel, since there can be no mistaking the inspiration behind Brian Moore’s new story The Statement. The central character, Pierre Brossard, has had a career which in most of its major aspects bears as close a resemblance to Touvier’s as makes no difference. He held the same rank in the Milice, and was responsible for a very similar massacre to the one Touvier insti-gated in 1944. After the Liberation, he was sentenced to death in absentia; meanwhile he had made his way to Paris, where he supported himself on the proceeds of robbery and black-marketeering. Picked up by the police, he proved a cooperative prisoner, answering their questions about fellow-miliciens and Milice sympathizers; he was allowed to walk free, and went back into hiding. In 1971 he was granted a discreet presidential pardon by Georges Pompidou, largely thanks to the lobbying of a high-ranking cleric who had taken up his cause. There was an outcry when the news leaked out, however, and he was soon compelled to lie low again. From his earliest days as a fugitive, he had relied on well-disposed priests for assistance; now he was more dependent on them than ever.
The man being described is Brossard, but he might just as well be Touvier. The similarities between them aren’t just a matter of broad outline, either: their stories frequently correspond in points of detail. Brossard uses the same method as Touvier to sort out Jewish prisoners from non-Jews, prodding their penises with a gun to see whether they are circumcised. Touvier, when he was in hiding, received regular financial help from an organization called the Chevaliers de Notre Dame; Brossard receives regular payments from an organization called the Chevaliers de Sainte Marie. Brossard’s friend Monsignor Le Moyne is transparently based on Charles Duquaire, the monsignor who lobbied so effectively for Touvier with Pompidou. Cardinal Delavigne, who sets up a commission of inquiry to investigate the Church’s dealings with Brossard, is the real-life Cardinal Decourtray of Lyon under another name.
Yet The Statement is far from being a fictionalized biography of Touvier (and it would be hard to imagine a novelist as gifted as Brian Moore applying himself to anything so mechanical). The story is tightly constructed. The action takes place over a few days, in May 1989, and it opens up territory into which the real Touvier was never drawn.
Pierre Brossard knows from the outset that he is a marked man, but within a few pages he learns that he is in much more danger than he had supposed. He has been staying at a monastery in Provence; he goes down to the nearby town to collect his mail, and realizes that he is being followed. Through an adroit turning of the tables, he discovers that the man who has been stalking him is working for a previously unknown organization, a vigilante “committee for justice” dedicated to avenging his victims. It is apparently Jewish, and apparently intent on killing him.
There is fresh danger on another front, too. The official investigation of his case has been transferred from the police to the army: an energetic officer, Colonel Roux, arrives in Provence, determined to track him down. Since Roux has also learned of the existence of the committee for justice, his aim is not merely to catch Brossard but to get to him before they do. And he knows that they are formidable opponents. They seem to have a contact among Brossard’s associates, giving them advance notice of his movements.
If all this isn’t enough, Brossard’s most important source of support has begun to melt away. The commission set up by Cardinal Delavigne to investigate the Church’s past dealings with him is having its effect. Priests whom he has always been able to rely on are finding it prudent to distance themselves, and the killings he resorts to in order to fend off the “committee for justice” make them more uneasy still. How much longer will even the “safest” monastery give him shelter? Moving across country, from one former haven to the next, he feels increasingly cornered.
The book has many of the classic ingredients of a thriller. There are feints, stratagems, unforeseen traps, reversals of fortune, narrow escapes. The pursuit never lets up. And it is all expertly handled, with a precise sense—indispensable for this kind of story—of topography and terrain.
In principle, by concentrating on Brossard in the role of fugitive, and emphasizing how much his luck has turned, Moore runs the risk of arousing unintended sympathy for him. Many of us have a certain predisposition to favor the fox against the hounds. But in this case, we are never allowed to lose sight of the main issues. For one thing, the deliberate manner in which he kills the men who are following him demonstrates quite how coldblooded he can still be. For another, the old hatreds are still bubbling inside him (as they were inside Touvier, whose protestations during his trial that he wasn’t anti-Semitic were blown away as soon as prosecution lawyers produced a venomous private notebook he had kept in the 1980s).
It is above all Moore’s tone, however, which ensures that we are in no danger of sentimentalizing Brossard. The most striking feature of the narrative is its dry objectivity. We learn a great deal in the course of the story about Brossard’s personal habits and preferences, about the effect that ageing has had on him, about his finely tuned instinct for survival. In a sense, we get very close to him. But it is as though he were an animal being studied by an ethologist. The question of human solidarity doesn’t arise.
Which is not to say, of course, that we don’t judge him as a human being; and when we do, one of the first things that is likely to strike us is that in most respects he is thoroughly commonplace. The phrase which inevitably comes to mind is “the banality of evil.” It is a misleading phrase, a positive contradiction in terms, if we take it to refer to evil deeds; but it applies well enough to many of those who commit such deeds, and Brossard is one more example. He is a limited man who is capable of causing limitless pain.
Moore doesn’t need to labor the point that Brossard/Touvier would never have been able to evade justice for as long as he did without the help of elements—some elements—inside the Church. The record speaks for itself. But he has shaped his narrative in a manner which enables us to meet several of Brossard’s most prominent clerical allies, or former allies (including an aged and half-remorseful Monsignor Le Moyne). His portraits of these men are plausible and sharp-edged as far as they go. One only wishes that he had taken us deeper into their mental world. But that would have called for a book with a different focus—a book about Cardinal Delavigne’s commission of inquiry, say, rather than a book about Brossard himself.
Nor does the Brossard affair (or the Touvier affair) offer an ideal opening for exploring the long-term significance of Vichy as a whole. The Bousquet affair, if it had run its course, would have provided just such an occasion. Bousquet’s trial would undoubtedly have raised some far-ranging questions about postwar French society and underlined the reasons why Vichy remains, in the words of the historians Eric Conan and Henry Rousso, “un passé qui ne passe pas.” By comparison, the Brossard/Touvier story, however horrible, seems small-scale. Touvier was a local operative; the crime for which he was convicted (there were others for which he should have been) was a local massacre. Yet Brian Moore also looks well beyond the immediate facts. The Statement eventually brings home the extent to which Brossard is only a pawn in the game; and while there is no character in it corresponding to Bousquet, we do get a few glimpses of a comparable figure, a wealthy former collaborator who flourished after the war and who still exerts a sinister influence behind the scenes. (He is based on Maurice Papon—police prefect of Paris from 1958 to 1966, a Gaullist deputy from 1968 to 1981, indicted for wartime crimes against humanity in 1983.)
Many of Moore’s readers will, I think, be left impatient to learn more about Touvier and his world than they can deduce from the novel. For that, they will have to turn to the Golsan volume. But a novelist is under no obligation to double as a historian, and The Statement stands secure in its own right. It is a gripping book, a thriller in substance as well as in form; but it also has a sobriety and a seriousness of purpose which lift it well above the customary limits of the genre.
October 3, 1996