the shame france tried to forget -- 7/10/18

Today's selection -- from A Brief History of France by Cecil Jenkins. During World War II, a huge number of the French cooperated with their German occupiers. In fact, the Germans allowed the French to operate their own government in a territory that primarily included the poorer, southern parts of the country. That government had its capital in Vichy, France, and was headed by World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval, both of whom assumed Germany would win and cooperated accordingly. That cooperation extended to assisting in the deportation of French Jews to German concentration camps. Beyond this, the Germans got cooperation and support from entertainers, writers, industrialists and more. Many ordinary French cooperated with the Germans in daily life, including the many women taken as lovers by German officers and soldiers. After the war, it was convenient to pretend that most French had been participants or supporters of the French Resistance of the German occupation:

"There followed a settling of accounts. Laval was condemned to death after a botched trial and was shot after a failed suicide attempt. Petain's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by [Charles] de Gaulle, who regarded the marshal as senile. Of collaborationist writers, Robert Brasillach was executed and Drieu la Rochelle com­mitted suicide. Stars of the stage such as Sacha Guitry and Arletty, or of the music hall such as Maurice Chevalier, saw their careers suffer, while Louis Renault had his car firm nationalized. Some went into hiding in France or in Spain. Around 100,000 people were condemned to penalties ranging from loss of civil rights to death, although less than 800 were executed. But of course there had already been an uncontrolled, unofficial purge of 'collabos' -- by Resistance fighters shooting members of the Milice [French who fought with Germany against the French Resistance], local groups lynching apparent trai­tors and shearing the heads of women who had slept with German soldiers, or simply individuals for personal reasons taking revenge on a neighbour. It was not pretty.

A woman being shaved by civilians to
publicly mark her as a collaborator, 1944.

"And then France forgot. This was for reasons of state in the case of de Gaulle, who wanted to speed up the recovery. He formally took the view -- as later did President Mitterrand -- that the Republic itself had no involvement in the deportations or other actions of an illegal Vichy regime. So there would be no official history of the Occupation, since that would have undercut the helpful myth that the French had all supported the Resistance, and that collaboration had involved only aberrant individuals who were in any event under pressure from the Germans.

"It took over twenty-five years for this comfortable state of denial to begin to be questioned both by foreign historians such as Robert Paxton and by films such as Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), the TV documentary by Marcel Ophuls of 1971. and Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien of 1974. Le Chagrin et la pitié was only per­mitted a limited showing in the cinema, while Louis Malle always felt that the French never forgave him for showing the comparative ordinariness of collaboration. And official tolerance of former Vichy figures meant that Rene Bousquet, the police chief responsible for the great round-up of 1942, Maurice Papon, also responsible for deport­ations, and Paul Touvier, the leader of the Milice responsible for civilian murders, did not have to face an adulterated and almost posthumous justice until the 1990s. Touvier had been hidden for years by a wing of the Church, while Bousquet was friendly with Mitterrand and Papon had since served as Prefect of Paris and a minister.

"President Chirac did make an apology in 1995 for the State's responsibility in the deportation of Jews -- and the Church apologized for its support of Vichy -- but the controversy was stirred up again at the time of Papon's death in 2007 and it was only in February 2009 that the direct responsibility of the State was finally recognized by the highest court in the land, the Conseil d'État. That the state of denial should have lasted for over half a century is indicative of the depth of the wound to the national psyche."



Cecil Jenkins


A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated


Little, Brown Group


Copyright Cecil Jenkins, 2017


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>