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 crimes against humanity. He was found guilty on two counts of having helped organize the arrest and the deportation of Jewish men, women, and children from Bordeaux, where he was a young functionary of the Vichy regime between 1942 and 1944. He was acquitted, however, of a third count: complicity in their murder at Auschwitz.

Everything about this trial aroused intense attention: the age of the accused and his prominence,1 the fifty-five years elapsed since the incriminating acts, the gravity of the charges and their implications for the French national self-image, and the split verdict in which the jury rejected both the prosecution’s demand for a twenty-year sentence for guilt on all counts and the defense’s plea for acquittal.2 Even the trial’s duration was remarkable: at just under six months, it was the longest criminal trial in French history.

Its end was greeted with relief and the sentence with broad (though far from universal) acquiescence, ranging from the exultant Libération through the erudite Le Monde to the conservative Le Figaro. A “graduated sentence” seemed appropriate for a case that had turned out to be more ambiguous than anticipated. But had it been worthwhile to bring such grave charges against an ill old man for acts done so long ago? (Papon was hospitalized twice during the trial for pneumonia, and took leave near the end to bury his wife of sixty-six years, who died on March 25, 1998.) Of all the many French officials who had assisted in some way with the deportation of Jews, Papon alone was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. Even two attorneys for the victims’ families admitted to feeling “queasiness” (malaise).

Papon rebounded into the headlines on October 11, 1999, when he disappeared shortly before his appeal was to be heard by the highest French appeals court, the Cour de Cassation. He was discovered ten days later in a modest hotel in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, under a name borrowed from a friendly Resistance veteran, Robert de La Rochefoucault. The Swiss government expelled him the next day to France, and he was immediately taken to Fresnes.3

It was remarkable enough that Papon was tried at all. France and Germany are the only major World War II belligerents to have tried any of their own citizens for crimes against humanity for acts committed in that war. The often-expressed American view that the French won’t confront the dark side of their response to Nazi occupation has been false for thirty years. Ever since students began challenging their elders’ reticence in 1968, France has undergone binges of self-scrutiny, whose feverish and repetitive character led Henry Rousso to give his book on history and memory the title “The Vichy Syndrome.”4 Americans may be even less willing to take a hard look at their own past, to judge by the angry objections that greeted a cautiously balanced exhibition about the atomic bombing of Japan and anodyne presidential regrets about slavery.

Before Papon could be brought to trial on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity, deep social and cultural changes had to take place in France. One was simply the passage of the wartime generation. French President Chirac (eight years old in 1940) endorsed the trial publicly, in striking (and intentional) contrast to his predecessor François Mitterrand (twenty-four in 1940).5 Mitterrand, who, like many others his age, had served Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime enthusiastically before joining the Resistance in 1943, quietly obstructed any judicial probing of similarly sinuous pasts.6 The Papon trial clearly involved a battle of generations. All of the magistrates and eight of the nine jurors were born after 1940, while Jean-Marc Varaut, Papon’s principal defense attorney, was sixty-five. Polls showed lower approval among the elderly for the trial and its outcome.

A related change was the replacement of the postwar historiography which held that Vichy had been the government of a few traitors who passively accepted Nazi orders while the vast majority of the French people sided at once with the Resistance. More recent scholarship and school textbooks reflect a view more solidly based on both German and French archives: that the Vichy regime was broadly supported, especially among the French administrative and economic elite. It used its quasi independence to take ambitious initiatives both internally (the “national revolution,” designed to transform France into an authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous state) and externally (repeated efforts to reach a more permanent settlement with Germany in order to play a role in its “New Europe”).

A third necessary preparation was a new militancy on the part of Jewish victims’ families. In 1945, the survivors had not wanted to say much. Some of them feared revived anti-Semitism.7 Others felt survivors’ guilt. Many simply hoped to get on with their lives. While Vichy’s anti-Jewish actions had not been entirely ignored in the postwar purge trials, they had been understood there exclusively as Nazi-inspired. The survivors replaced their postwar reticence in the 1970s with an intense anxiety that their story would be forgotten. Michel Slitinsky, who had escaped at seventeen when the rest of his family was taken in the night of October 19-20, 1942, was among the first to press charges against Papon in 1981 and stuck with the case to the end.


The new historiography served the victims’ cause. It showed that Vichy France was unique in occupied Western Europe for having enacted its own anti-Semitic laws independently of German wishes, and for offering up Jews to the Nazis from parts of France in which there were no German occupying forces. German policy at first, in 1940, was to expel its own Jews into the unoccupied zone of France; the Nazis had no desire to do defeated France the honor of making it Judenfrei. Vichy officials acted without German pressure to exclude Jews from the civil service and from cultural professions (Jewish statutes of October 3, 1940, and June 2, 1941), to make lists of their names and addresses, and to reduce Jewish influence in the economy (law of July 22, 1941), among a multitude of other measures.

Although Vichy’s own anti-Jewish measures envisioned discrimination rather than extermination, they were helpful to the Nazis’ more drastic project of extermination that began to be applied in France in 1942. In the 1970s surviving victims and their families, led by the indefatigable lawyer-activist Serge Klarsfeld, began legal proceedings in an effort to give some form of judicial recognition to Vichy’s responsibility.

The only charge on which Vichy officials could still be brought to justice so long after the fact was crimes against humanity. (Under French law, murder cannot be prosecuted after twenty years.) The charge of crimes against humanity, created retroactively by the Allied governments at the end of World War II for the purpose of trying the Axis leaders, was incorporated into the French criminal code in December 1964, without any time limit, because German war crimes proceedings were about to expire under a statute of limitations. Having entered French law to be used against Germans, the charge of crimes against humanity began to be brought against French citizens in the 1970s, as sensitivity to Vichy’s role as auxiliary to the Holocaust heightened.

In order to be guilty under French law of crimes against humanity, according to the Cour de Cassation, an accused person must have carried out acts of racial, religious, or political persecution “in the name of a State practicing a policy of ideological hegemony” (i.e., Nazi Germany). That definition was easy enough to apply to the first such case, that of SS officer Klaus Barbie, “the butcher of Lyon.” Barbie was condemned to a life sentence in July 1987. The law posed difficulties, however, when applied to French citizens who acted under Vichy authority. Paul Touvier, an officer of the para-police Milice who had ordered the execution of Jews and resisters in the summer of 1944, was the first French citizen to reach trial on charges of crimes against humanity. The Paris Chambre d’Accusation, the court that oversees prosecutions, quashed his indictment in 1992 on the grounds that Vichy was not “a State practicing a policy of ideological hegemony.” The Cour de Cassation put Touvier’s trial back on the rails in a different city (Versailles) by finding that Touvier had acted on behalf of the Gestapo. This ruling worked juridically—Touvier was condemned to a life sentence in April 1994—but did violence to historical scholarship, for Touvier had answered to Vichy and acted on his own.

Maurice Papon was charged only with complicity in crimes against humanity, in recognition that he had not been a prime instigator. The Cour de Cassation ruled in January 1997 that in order to find Papon guilty, the court must make two findings: that the accused lent “active assistance to the criminal action” of the Nazis and that he was aware that this action was part of a “concerted plan” of persecution. For crimes against humanity, unlike common law crimes, are not simply individual acts but are defined as part of a general “project” of persecution—in this case, persecution of Jews. Though Papon had to have been aware of the plan’s existence in order to be found guilty of complicity, he was not required to have adhered to it ideologically. These adjustments gave Papon’s defense and some commentators on the trial the opportunity to charge that jurisprudence was being shaped to fit the needs of the moment.


Although Papon’s trial was officially the trial of one man, its proponents saw in it the last chance to bring into the dock an official who could be seen as representative of the Vichy administration itself. After the Liberation of 1944, France had purged its wartime leadership, energetically if unevenly.8 The defendants in this “first purge,” however, had been charged as individuals with personal acts of treason (“intelligence with the enemy”). The current “second purge,” based on crimes against humanity, prosecutes participation in a collective project of extermination. With Papon, for the first time, a French court of law had to judge whether the routine acts of a Vichy civil servant, in obedience to orders from French superiors, constitute crimes. For the accused was not a bloody-handed killer, like Barbie or Touvier, but an obedient official charged with what the prosecution called “office crimes,” signing documents that set in motion the mechanisms by which Jews were rounded up and deported. (One must underline, of course, that in 1942 in Vichy France harsh acts against Jews were routine.)

When Papon’s trial opened in the elegant eighteenth-century Assise Court in Bordeaux on October 8, 1997, the case against him seemed overwhelming; protesters dogged his steps and no local hotel would rent him a room. He had been secretary-general of the Prefecture of the Gironde at Bordeaux between 1942 and 1944—in effect, the prefect’s executive officer. He had been given direct responsibility for the prefecture’s Department of Jewish Affairs (Service des Questions Juives), a Vichy creation. During that period the prefecture rounded up, at Nazi request, 1,560 Jewish men, women, and children in the Bordeaux region, and transported them from Bordeaux to Drancy. (At first Papon supplied passenger cars; later the Nazis specified cattle cars with a bucket at each end.) At Drancy, a Paris suburb that one passes nowadays on the suburban train to Charles de Gaulle airport, the Vichy French administration lodged the deportees temporarily in an unfinished apartment block that served as a transit camp. When enough people had accumulated to fill a train, they were loaded and shipped “to the East.” Only at the German frontier did the French police transfer custody to Nazi authorities, who took the victims on to Auschwitz. In all, 75,721 Jews were deported from France in this fashion, between 1942 and 1944, and only 2,564 returned.9

The prosecution projected on three giant screens several documents that seemed to demonstrate Papon’s direct responsibility in Bordeaux’s share in this dreadful story. “As soon as you have reported to me the results of your diligent actions,” he wrote to the police commander, “I will give you complete instructions in view of their [impending] transfer to the camp at Drancy.”10 “The distinction between Jews and Aryans having been made and having proved satisfactory…,”11 he wrote to the head of the Department of Jewish Affairs. Such documents being relatively rare, the prosecution argued further that the nature of Papon’s responsibilities as an “executive of authority,” in constant “osmosis” with his superior, the prefect, involved him intimately in a collective chain of “administrative crime,” unlike a common law crime where the accused acts individually upon his victim. The prosecutor argued that a “concerted plan” was evident, at least insofar as arrests and deportations were concerned, in the instructions of René Bousquet, the Vichy chief of police, to the prefectures in the summer of 1942 to prepare for the arrest and transport of large numbers of Jews.

That Papon had given “active assistance” in deporting Jews was less difficult to show than whether he had had “knowledge” of the fate that awaited the Jews deported from Bordeaux. This question must not be reduced, as is so often done, to a simple choice: Did he know or didn’t he? “Knowing” depends as much on the observer’s willingness to know as on the availability of information. The fund of information about what was happening to Jews in Eastern Europe was large but uncertain. The killings incidental to the German invasions of Poland in 1939 and the USSR in 1941 gave way to industrial mass murder by 1942. Well-informed reports of mass killing reached the West as early as summer 1942. Their veracity was clouded by Nazi disinformation, by the profusion of conflicting rumors, and by an Allied reluctance to be duped again, as they had been in 1914, by atrocity stories. Many particulars were confirmed only when the murder factories were liberated, to almost universal shock, in 1945.

Different observers dealt in widely different ways with the reports available after the summer of 1942. Some Jews found them unbelievable. Other Jews showed what they “knew” by making desperate efforts to escape or by committing suicide at the prospect of deportation. On December 16, 1942, eleven Allied governments and the Free French issued a widely disseminated declaration noting “numerous reports…according to which the German authorities…are carrying out Hitler’s repeated threats to exterminate the Jews of Europe.” Subsequently, however, the Allies devoted little time to the fate of the Jews in broadcasts or propaganda leaflets. Vichy government leaders contented themselves with the story agreed upon by the Vichy leader Pierre Laval with SS General Carl Oberg, the German security chief in France, on September 2, 1942, to answer importunate questioners: the Jews were going to work in agricultural colonies on former Polish soil. Vichy made no effort to learn more.

As for Papon, he testified that his assistant discovered in August 1942 that the Jews collected at Drancy were being taken off French soil. Beyond that, there was no evidence either that he enquired further about their fate or that he had been further informed about it. In finding Papon not guilty on the third count (complicity in the deported Jews’ deaths), the court recognized that he could not be said to have known of industrial killings such as those at Auschwitz. On the other hand, by finding him guilty on the other two counts, the jury recognized that the very conditions under which people were transported and the composition of the convoys (including many children and others not suitable for work) constituted sufficient evidence that they faced abominable treatment during the voyage and after.

Papon’s acts reflected the policies of the Vichy French state he served. While the police and administrations of every country occupied by or allied to Nazi Germany, except Denmark, assisted to some degree in the Nazis’ efforts to gather all the Jews of Europe in what we now know were extermination factories on former Polish soil, the Vichy French state was particularly helpful. This, it should also be said, did not prevent some Vichy officials and many French citizens from helping 75 percent of the country’s Jews to survive. Although Vichy’s own discriminatory legislation against Jews did not envision extermination, it was useful to the Nazis’ more radical project. When the Nazis began carrying out their plans for extermination in Western Europe in spring 1942, they found the Jews of France already singled out for blame and suspicion. Their names were in card indexes; they were uprooted from work and from their neighborhoods, and in some cases—as with foreign refugees—already locked up in camps.

But the matter is incomplete without two other, more pragmatic, historical considerations that brought Vichy French officials (even those not overtly anti-Semitic) to view actions against Jews as routine pursuit of national interest. One was the history of refugees in France. Having received more refugees from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, proportionally, than the United States, at a time of severe unemployment and national doubt, France suffered a severe anti-refugee backlash that was already visible before the Fall of France.12

After the defeat of June 1940, the officials of Vichy France (a country now hungry and bitter) devoted much of their time to trying to get rid of refugees of all sorts. The Spaniards fleeing Franco were supposed to go to Mexico; the Jews would return, Vichy hoped, to Germany or Eastern Europe. When the Vichy police chief René Bousquet learned that the Nazis had indeed accepted a trainload of Jewish refugees on March 27, 1942 (today we can perceive the dispatch of this train as Act One of the “Final Solution” in France), he eagerly proposed to deliver 10,000 more from the unoccupied South. Thus Vichy France became the only Western European country to deliver Jews to the Nazis from areas unoccupied by German forces; few such cases occurred anywhere else in Europe.13

The second pragmatic historical consideration concerns Vichy’s quasi independence. The Nazis never allowed Vichy France as much autonomy as the armistice agreement promised. Vichy’s room for maneuver shrank even further as the Germans, having failed to win another Blitzkrieg in the Soviet Union after June 1941, were forced to squeeze more resources from their conquered empire in order to support total war. The Vichy government tried repeatedly to extract Nazi agreements for greater independence in exchange for various services that the Nazis were demanding.

In the spring and summer of 1942, René Bousquet was struggling to negotiate greater autonomy in both zones for the French police. He achieved his goal in the Oberg-Bousquet agreement of July 1942, but at the price of French police cooperation against “enemies of the Reich.” The first installment that Bousquet had to pay for this agreement was the arrest by French police of 13,152 mostly foreign Jews in Paris on July 16, 1942,14 and the delivery in July-August 1942 of 9,872 more foreign Jews he had promised from the unoccupied zone.


At the outset of Papon’s trial, 70 percent of the French population approved of it as a necessary step in confronting this troubled past. As the hearings dragged on, however, ambiguities and uncertainties emerged. How, it was asked, could the prosecution seem, at least, to be loading all this guilt on the shoulders of one man, a middling official at Bordeaux?

No one had expected the relatively junior Maurice Papon to be the only one accused. In the 1980s René Bousquet was the principal target. The Vichy chief of police had helped make the decisions to associate the French administration actively with the Nazi deportations that were just beginning as he assumed office in spring 1942. Bousquet had been sentenced in 1949 to five years of “National Indignity,” a sentence immediately lifted in recognition of acts of his that helped the Resistance. Beginning in the early 1980s, Serge Klarsfeld, assisted by sympathetic magistrates, tried to prosecute Bousquet again for his role in the Jewish deportations, a matter which had figured only incidentally in his earlier trial. Influential friends, chief among them President Mitterrand, stalled his indictment for years. Finally, in June 1993, as Bousquet’s trial for crimes against humanity was approaching, he was shot to death at his apartment door.15

Other officials senior to Papon were under investigation. Bousquet’s assistant Jean Leguay was the first French citizen indicted for crimes against humanity, in 1979, but he died of cancer in 1989 before coming to trial.16 Papon’s immediate superior, the regional prefect of the Bordeaux area, Maurice Sabatier, also faced prosecution in the 1980s but died before an indictment could be completed. If we consider only Vichy functionaries at the same level as Papon, many other officials in the ninety prefectures and twenty-two regional prefectures of France had some administrative responsibility for the deportation of Jews. The historian Michael Marrus has said that in France “thousands and thousands of ordinary civil servants and public officials carried out orders, arrested Jews, and turned them over to the Germans, and they were not brought to justice [jugé]. They should have been.” Papon had the bad luck to outlive the others, however, and survive into a new era when the fate of the Jews moved to center stage. He insisted with some plausibility, and a caustic eloquence remarkable in a man of eighty-seven, that he was a scapegoat. But even a scapegoat can be guilty, observed Jean Daniel in Le Nouvel Observateur.17

Papon further defended himself by claiming that he had been only a minor figure in the prefecture, a mere porte-plume, and that the prefecture had to bow to overwhelming German pressure. Under the jurisprudence that had been established since Nuremberg, however, obedience to orders is no defense.

Papon also claimed that he resisted German pressures as best he could. It was better, he asserted, to remain in place and try to mitigate evil than to take the “cowardly” path of resignation. Like many Vichy officials, he gave discreet help to the Resistance when the tide turned. Papon testified that his own record in the Resistance was a “very modest” one. He had been trying for years to establish his Resistance credentials, with mixed success. In 1958 the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs officially recognized him as someone who had, after late 1942, been a “correspondent” of Jade-Amicol, an information-gathering network linked to British intelligence. By then, however, he was already prefect of police of Paris and two earlier applications for recognition as a resister had been denied. In 1981, when charges were first raised against him, Papon asked a “jury of honor” composed of senior Resistance leaders to review his case. It concluded that Papon had indeed aided the Resistance, but that he bore some responsibility for what the prefecture of Bordeaux did and that he should have resigned in July 1942. All of the witnesses before the “jury of honor,” however, except Serge Klarsfeld, thought a trial of senior Bordeaux officials for crimes against humanity would be “perfectly unjustified.”

Plausible witnesses testified at Papon’s trial that he issued clothing to escaping Allied personnel and supplied blank identity cards. It is certain that he was in touch with a Jewish member of the Resistance, Roger-Samuel Bloch, who said in a deposition that Papon supplied him information about German troops and several times gave him shelter in 1943 and 1944. For these risky acts he might have been arrested and deported. It was Bloch who vouched for Papon when De Gaulle’s new prefect, Gaston Cusin, arrived to take over. Thus Papon was one of the rare senior prefectoral officials of Vichy to make the transition to a postwar career without having been officially designated a double agent by the Free French authorities before the Liberation.

Papon was less successful in his efforts to prove that he had saved individual Jews from deportation. His claim to have struck 130 Jews from the deportation lists turned out to involve non-Jewish spouses who were actually taken off the lists by Vichy’s Jewish services or by the Nazis themselves. Documentary evidence emerged for one case: Papon tried to free a representative of the official Jewish Council who was arrested by the Nazis in 1943.

Among French political parties, only the far-right National Front openly opposed the trial, which it attributed ominously to an “international conspiracy” against France of unspecified (but unmistakable) origin. But many French citizens remote from the National Front’s usual supporters expressed their doubts. The most surprising of these came from senior Resistance leaders who testified in Papon’s favor, saying that they had heard other resisters vouch for him. Some of them were apparently upset by the challenge to the judgment of General de Gaulle, who had repeatedly named Papon to important posts. The trial, some Gaullist elders felt, besmirched all of France in a fit of “national masochism.”18 Men of Papon’s own generation, they seemed to reflect an earlier era when it was believed that most French people had resisted, and when the Jews had no special place among the victims.

This steely, acerbic former minister in his pinstriped suit was indeed not the sort one expected to see on criminal trial. More subtly, he did not fit the public’s image of the collaborator. The French public has shown little interest in the historians’ distinction between collaboration d’état—the pragmatic choice of collaboration with Nazism in pursuit of national interest, without ideological sympathy—and collaborationisme—collaboration out of belief in the Nazis. It has been easy for many French citizens, particularly younger ones, to lump all collaborators together as ideological sympathizers and pathological sadists. Most leaders and administrators of Vichy France, however, fell into the first category. These were on the whole veterans of the Third Republic with little or no sympathy for Nazi goals. They believed in 1940 that Germany had won the war, that France must undergo profound modification in order to revive itself, and that such a revival was more likely through adaptation to a German-dominated Europe than through another long war against Germany that would result in the dominance of Russia allied with an enlarged British Empire (no doubt at the expense of overseas France). Or they followed orders both to hold their jobs and to uphold the sacrosanct state, as seems to have been the case with Papon. The dilemma they faced in Vichy France in 1942 was how to square their pride in efficient administration with compassion as human beings.

Papon, as everyone recognized, came from a moderate left background with no trace of anti-Semitism or of fascist sympathies. His trial forced the public to abandon its Manichaean images of evil collaborators against good resisters, and to settle for the intermediate gray image of an efficient and ambitious bureaucrat obeying evil orders. It was not about how evil men do evil but about a subtler and more searching question: how conventionally praiseworthy men can do evil.

As the hearings proceeded, the case against Papon looked less watertight than a first reading of the acte d’accusation suggested. Papon’s own signature appeared on the arrest orders of very few people. It was the police who carried out the actual rounding-up of Jews and their deportation, and he was rarely directly responsible for police actions. The evidence against him was often circumstantial. It was established in the trial that as secretary-general, he exercised extensive executive authority, and he had been given explicit responsibility for overseeing Jewish affairs in the prefecture, including the all-important card file of Jewish addresses. The prosecution apparently failed to examine all possible archives, such as those of the French police and of the German Kommandantur in Bordeaux. The deportation in August 1942 of 81 children left behind when their parents were taken away in July is believed to have weighed very heavily against Papon. But in the absence of any documents about who had ordered them rounded up from scattered foster homes, the strongest evidence against Papon was the bills sent to the prefecture for the taxis that transported them.

In the French “inquisitorial” system (unlike the Anglo-American “adversarial” system, in which the judge is supposed to referee between prosecution and defense), the president of the court directs the questioning of the accused. Judge Jean-Louis Castagnède ran Papon’s trial firmly and even-handedly enough to antagonize both sides at moments. But the trial was nearly derailed near its midpoint by the revelation that he had long-lost Jewish cousins who had been deported by the prefecture of Bordeaux, and thus might be legally recused. The repetitious and divisive grandstanding of twenty-seven lawyers for the victims’ families, associated with the prosecution as “civil parties” to the case, muddled the proceedings further. At moments the trial threatened to drift into uncertainty.

Timothy Garton Ash recently suggested in these pages that there are four ways to deal with morally freighted pasts: by purges, by forgetting, by trials, or by pedagogy (“history lessons”).19 France has tried all four. The purges after 1945 struck hard, though they punished policemen and intellectuals more frequently than business-men and civil servants whose everyday cooperation with the Germans blurred into routine and whose services were needed at the Liberation—as in Papon’s case. Forgetting has served Spain well, and a consensus about forgetting was apparently acceptable in France until 1970. It ceased to be an option there, however, when the historical record of Vichy’s active participation in the deportation of Jews was finally brought to public attention. As for trials, there is nobody left to charge.

There remains only pedagogy. The trial itself was supposed to teach the French, and it gave a role unusual in criminal trials to historians. Because crimes against humanity as defined at Nuremberg implicate the nation and its history, Papon’s trial required an interpretation of how the Vichy regime fits into French history. Four historians had already been subpoenaed in the Touvier trial by the lawyers for the victims’ families, who wanted the trial to instruct the general public. In the Papon trial, all the parties including Papon’s defense called historians to the bar.20 The prosecution believed that the young jurors needed to understand the context of the evidence presented to them, and it favored the new historiography, which emphasized the degree to which Vichy officials chose to collaborate with the Nazis and took initiatives to do so. The defense advanced the more traditional historical interpretation according to which Vichy civil servants were obliged to bend to brute Nazi force, and that clinging to office had shielded the French from something worse.21

In the end, Papon’s trial could not teach the clear, simple, and unanimously agreed-upon history lesson that many advocates of prosecution had hoped for. No major revelations emerged from it, and differing historical interpretations of Vichy were aired without sustained critical examination of the evidence for each one. Some historians doubted that historical scholarship was compatible with the procedures of a trial for crimes against humanity.22

All the pious clichés about wartime France were shredded in the gritty specificities revealed in the Bordeaux courtroom. The Bordeaux Resistance, for example, had been so weakened in 1944 by rivalries and betrayals that while Gaston Cusin, De Gaulle’s new prefect for the Gironde, could consult with Roger-Samuel Bloch, he found no local Liberation Committee in place with which to discuss his choice of Papon as his deputy. Instead of the morality play of good versus evil that Papon’s trial was expected to produce, intermediate shadings appeared. The “Vichyite resister,” a type made notorious by the revelations about François Mitterrand, reappeared in the person of Maurice Papon.

The “first purge” of the postwar years, we were reminded, paid very little attention to the fate of the Jews. General de Gaulle, while denouncing Vichy as illegitimate, accepted those Vichy officials in 1944 who seemed indispensable to keeping the Communists and the Americans out. The Allies (including Free France and the Resistance) showed little concern themselves with trying to obstruct the Final Solution, as Papon’s attorneys emphasized. All were seen in their imperfect humanity. Whether or not an ailing man of nearly ninety should be imprisoned for orders issued in 1942 will go on being debated as will the interpretation at the trial of the law concerning crimes against humanity.23

But despite its shortcomings the Papon trial accomplished important things. In the face of intense emotion, media excitement, and political pressure on both sides, it was fairly run. Both victims and accused had ample opportunity to present their case, and Papon and his attorneys did so effectively enough to make acquittal seem a possible outcome. The calamity of the Jews of France was unforgettably evoked for a broad French public by survivors. How genocide could be abetted by the routine obedience of functionaries was unmistakably revealed. The role of Vichy France in assisting the Nazis in the deportation of Jews was established beyond possible denial, not least by Papon’s own claims that he was a scapegoat for many others. A French court demonstrated willingness to pass judgment for that assistance on one of its own nation’s elite as well as on foreigners such as Klaus Barbie or obscure French vigilantes such as Touvier. The principle of civil servants’ personal responsibility in cases where the state gives orders contrary to conscience was affirmed in French jurisprudence—noteworthy in France where, as the editor of Le Monde put it, “the State is still the object of a cult.”24

This Issue

December 16, 1999