Banality? Of Course -- but It's Still Evil

April 27, 1994|By JEANE KIRKPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- France has been called a country in which lost causes never die. And, in fact, the bitter public response of France's anti-Semitic, anti-democratic extreme right to the conviction of Paul Touvier for ''crimes against humanity'' demonstrates that there are still apologists for Hitlerism and the Nazi occupation policies. Not many, but enough to keep alive the poisonous untruths that constituted the official ideology of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

''Violence has been done to France by a foreign clan,'' wrote the editor of the extreme right journal Action Francaise in the wake of Touvier's conviction. The ''foreign clan'' is, of course, French Jews, and the proto-fascist Action Francaise is playing again the role it has played since the Dreyfus affair: spreading the poisons of anti-Semitism and suggesting that all its opponents are Jews who subvert ''true'' French values.

By their words and deeds, these anti-democratic rightists demonstrated that bringing the 79-year-old Paul Touvier to trial for the execution of seven Jews during the Vichy period was not just a matter of exorcising ghosts. The anti-democratic extreme right has not yet passed into history. It lives on in the folds of the Front Nationale and half a dozen extremist splinter groups.

As sullen apologists of the Hitlerite Vichy regime imposed on France by the Nazi occupation, they keep alive its crucial myths and support its remaining fugitives. They are numerous enough and well-connected enough to have hidden Touvier for more than four decades, resourceful enough to provide him a first-class legal defense team for the long trial, and influential enough to have won him a pardon for war crimes from President Georges Pompidou in 1971.

Of course, Touvier was not on trial for his beliefs or his record of anti-Semitism. He was on trial for the murder of Jews when he served as a militia chief for Vichy. He was on trial for carrying out the Nazis' genocidal policies. Like the Nazis, Touvier killed Jews as Jews, deported Jews as Jews. Like the Nazis, Touvier practiced genocide.

The seven men he executed are among the estimated 75,000 Jews then living in France who were rounded up and deported to their deaths at Auschwitz. Touvier is a perpetrator and an appropriate symbol of wartime collaboration of some French with Nazis and Nazism.

The defense lawyer insisted Touvier is ''not a symbol, not of history, not of Vichy, not of France.'' Touvier is ''only a tired, sick, old man.'' And of course Touvier is a tired, sick, old man who willingly did the Nazis dirtiest work because his own commitments were so similar to theirs. He is a sick, tired, old man who committed crimes long ago.

''One cannot live forever on the bitterness and memories,'' said France's president Francois Mitterrand of the trial, noting that, ''It was I who authorized the law establishing the category of crimes against humanity'' on which the statute of limitations never expires. But, Mr. Mitterrand added, ''this charge should be reserved for a few eminent persons for their crimes.''

Touvier, the president seems to be saying, is small fry, as genocide goes. Crimes against humanity require more impressive perpetrators. Mr. Mitterrand is saying of Touvier as political theorist Hannah Arendt once said of Adolf Eichmann: He is too banal to be guilty of great crimes.

Of course we know now that genocide is often the work of just such apparently commonplace, unexceptional men, men utterly devoid of distinction.

Commonplace men like the ethnic cleansers of Bosnia, who rape, murder, target civilians -- commonplace men like the German neo-Nazis who burn out Turks for a little weekend fun.

Paul Touvier's only notable achievement was to evade apprehension for so long. It is useful that the network which sheltered him should now be revealed. It is useful to know that the followers of the Msgr. Marcel Lefebvre (the fundamentalist cleric excommunicated by the Vatican in 1988) showed no more respect for the laws of the Republic than for the rules of the Vatican. It is useful to know that this section of the French Catholic hierarchy is as extremist in its politics as in its theology.

It is a good opportunity to demonstrate that even 50 years later genocide remains a crime for which its perpetrators are still liable -- no matter how undistinguished they may be.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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