When moral responsibility collides with civic duty

October 07, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- This week trial begins in Bordeaux of Maurice Papon, minister in the French governments of Charles de Gaulle and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. It is the latest, and no doubt the last, of the trials resulting from the Vichy government's collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Mr. Papon, now 87, was deputy to the Vichy prefect in Bordeaux, and among other duties was put in charge of "Jewish questions." He organized the arrest and transfer to camps in France of thousands of French and foreign Jews. Most of themwere subsequently sent on to the Nazi death camps.

The case is significant because Mr. Papon was neither an anti-Semitic ideologue nor, at the time of Vichy, a political figure. He was a brilliant and ambitious young civil servant from a family background of center-left politics. When the war broke out he was 29. His education had been in literature, law, and political studies, and also -- unusual for the time -- in sociology and psychology.

Demobilized from the army after France surrendered, he was offered a government post in Vichy through family contacts. In Bordeaux, under the anti-Jewish legislation brought in by the Petain government in 1940, he was responsible for identifying who was Jewish (according to the government's criteria), organizing the seizure of their property, and later, arranging for their transfer to German control.

The Vichy ideology

Note that all this was begun by the Petain regime before the Germans asked for it. As Robert Paxton, the eminent American historian of Vichy, has written, the Germans initially thought of expelling Germany's Jews to France. When they annexed Alsace and Moselle, they forced the Jewish residents out, into the occupied part of France. The decision to exterminate the Jews was not made until the end of 1941.

The Vichy regime had its own ideology of "National Revolution" by which it wanted to remake France as a right-wing authoritarian state with a colonial and maritime role in German-dominated Europe. Its anti-Semitism was connected to the thought of certain pre-war French writers, such as Charles Maurras, and to internecine ideological and social conflicts going back to the 19th century.

Mr. Paxton argues that in dealing with the Germans, the trap Vichy officials fell into was doing more than the Germans asked of them, arguing to themselves that by doing so they kept the initiative and preserved a certain freedom of action.

As the end of the war approached, Mr. Papon took steps to distance himself from Vichy and establish contacts with the Resistance (just as his contemporary in the Vichy government, Francois Mitterrand, later president of France, had done a year earlier).

He slipped easily into the postwar civil service, pressed to find able men, and made a successful career. He entered politics in 1968 and became a minister in 1978, in President Giscard d'Estaing's second government. It was only in 1981, thanks to documents assembled over the years by the son of one of the Bordeaux Jews sent to the death camps, that Mr. Papon's wartime actions were fully revealed.

He was formally accused in 1983, but President Mitterrand was one of those responsible for prolonging the investigations which followed. The trial has arrived only now, when few survive from Vichy.

Just a civil servant

The case is not really like the others in France concerning crimes against humanity. The SS officer Klaus Barbie -- tried in France in 1987 -- and Paul Touvier, a collaborationist police official, believed in the Nazi cause. Mr. Papon was merely a civil servant carrying out his duties in difficult times. That will be his defense.

He has said that he intervened to spare many Jews, warned others before arrest, and tried to organize the transports in humane conditions. He says that as a local official of a government under military occupation (after 1942) he had little freedom to act on his own.

The trial will settle that. The principle at issue concerns the personal moral responsibility of an individual ordered to collaborate in injustices, and beyond that the collective responsibility of a government civil service. It has provided an occasion for the Catholic church to acknowledge its own collective responsibility in what happened to France's Jews, and last week church leaders offered a solemn apology to France's Jewish community.

The German army and civil service have been condemned for collaborating in Nazi policies that violated core values both of German civilization and of the Christian churches in Germany. The officers who swore a personal oath to Hitler in the 1930s shut their eyes to the atrocious events of the 1940s because they put fidelity to their oaths above common morality.

The ultimate duty

It is not an easily dismissed problem that only concerns Vichy, the Nazis and the past. In Washington, just a few months ago, an official who discreetly but illegally reported wrongdoing by the CIA to Congress had his career wrecked as the result. The president approved.

Obviously an individual has little chance against the weight of government, and during the war a dissident would have put his own life at risk. But duty cannot mean collaboration in manifest evil. What then is an individual's duty? Maurice Papon claims to have only done his duty.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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