The French role in the Holocaust

Nazis Outside Germany

March 28, 2004|By Barbara Probst Solomon | Barbara Probst Solomon,Los Angeles Times

Though the Nazis continue to have a disquieting allure to our imagination, the French have never quite recovered from the profound humiliation of the German occupation; it has taken the country decades to open the Pandora's box of the Vichy years. As an American student in Paris during the postwar period, I remember watching Italian films like Open City, thinking how odd that I saw no French films about the Resistance. Nor were there any depicting French soldiers during their short "phony war" against the Germans. Before Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959 (which had no male heroes and was about the meaning of war to civilians), there was only silence.

Twenty years ago, Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, in their Vichy France and the Jews, set the standard for works on this period, using the records of the Vichy and German governments to build a convincing case for the complicity of the Vichy government in facilitating the Final Solution. Paxton and Marrus chose not to include interviews with either victims or perpetrators, sticking entirely to a meticulous documentation of the process leading to the deportation of the Jews.

In Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime (Arcade, 449 pages, $28.95), one of two recent histories on the German occupation of France, Michael Curtis, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, builds on Marrus and Paxton's work. Curtis sifts through a multitude of primary sources and gives us a book that is as accurate a summary of almost every aspect of the Vichy years as it is possible to imagine.

Robert Gildea's Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation (Metropolitan Books, 492 pages, $32.50) is diametrically opposed to Curtis in concerns and methodology. Gildea, a professor at Oxford, argues that historians have been too intent on portraying France as victim, too pro-Resistance; according to Gildea, the current debate is so "Judeo-centric" that the German occupation and Vichy have been reduced to a detail of the Holocaust.

Gildea blends an informal oral history of people's memories with data from local archives, concentrating on provincial France, the Loire region -- Chinon, Angers, Nantes and Tours -- where there wasn't a heavy Jewish or foreign population. When Gildea focuses on what interests him, he has an impressive ability to ferret out the foibles of cohabitation in this sleepy, tradition-bound part of the country.

But the book is uneven. France wasn't England, where you can do a sort of Mrs. Miniver on the local population shouldering through hard times; there are huge problems with relying on people's personal recollections 50 years after the fact. Add the presence of the Third Reich in the occupied and unoccupied zones, the deportation of the Jews and Gypsies, the plethora of resistance groups, the brutal dreaded French Milice (the thugs who worked with the SS), the German-backed collaboration press and the complicated issue of what constituted collaboration. The crucial political and moral issues concerning those years can't be simply rinsed away by minutiae, as Gildea sometimes does.

By contrast, Curtis, whose forte is meticulous research, provides the accepted account of one massacre: how the SS Panzer Division of the Reich and a Milice leader, in retaliation for the Resistance's effort to impede their march to Normandy, picked at random Oradour; soldiers locked more than 600 men, women and children in a church, then burned it.

To understand why the French continue to hold certain convictions (and some of the anti-British, anti-American prejudices of the French date back to that time), one has to evaluate the Nazi propaganda machine, which was so extraordinarily skillful in establishing legitimacy for the Reich while characterizing its enemies -- Allies, Jews, the Resistance, Gaullists and Communists -- as terrorists, providing it with a legal justification for the deportation of Jews and random killing of hostages.

Curtis includes reasons for the collapse of the Third Republic, a history of anti-Semitism in France, a rather nuanced reappraisal of Petain and Laval (in which Laval comes out somewhat better, and Petain worse).

Curtis, despite his excellent research, at times loses a feeling for the period. He commends the Italians for their unwillingness to turn over Jews, as compared with France, noting, "The Italian Army didn't turn over one Jew." True -- but what French army does Curtis have in mind? Italy, which didn't have a history of anti-Semitism, lost 23 percent of a small Jewish population; France lost 25 percent of a much larger population. (France begged the United States to accept part of its burgeoning new immigrant arrivals, which the Roosevelt administration refused to do.)

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