Topic: Putting Petain on trial
Bio: Emeritus Professor of Modern French History at Queen Mary at the University of London
Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, political science, and history.
Today’s topic is Putting Petain on Trial.
Our speaker is Julian Jackson who is an Emeritus Professor of Modern French History at Queen Mary at the University of London. Julian is one of the preeminent scholars focused on Vichy France. He has written extensively about France and the second world war and has published an important biography of Charles de Gaulle.
I want to discuss Julian’s new book entitled France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Petain. This topic is of particular interest to me because my grandparents and my mom lived in Vichy France during the second world war and had to live in hiding for years because as Jews, they were fearful of being sent to the concentration camps.
My grandfather wrote his memoirs which he called The Maquis Connection which is available on Kindle. I am the voice of its audible book if you would like to listen to it. In addition, my Aunt Sharon made a documentary film about my family’s escape called A Song for You, which is wonderful to watch. Click the link in the transcript to watch.
Political trials of former heads of state happen frequently. President Trump is now fighting for his life in court. Marshal Petain collaborated with the Nazis and was arrested and tried immediately after the German’s surrendered.
I want to learn from Julian about what crimes was Petain indicted. Was it a political circus or did the trial get into the real bad actions by the Vichy Regime? I am personally disgusted with Vichy and its leadership for facilitating the roundup and the death of the entire Marseille Jewish community where my grandparents lived.
That said, we live in a world of ambiguity as it relates to right and wrong. France lost the war, and a new French leader had to deal with its occupiers. But often without any German interference, Vichy aggressively adopted anti-Semitic laws that put its Jewish community on a path to the death camps.
I want to dedicate this podcast to my Grandma Gisy who was clever and tenacious in getting my family out of France and to America in 1943.
Buckle up because this episode gets personal.
Julian, please begin with your six-minute remarks.
My book, A France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, is an account of the trial of the leader in France of the collaborating government that was in power between 1940 to 1944. There were trials all over Europe after the liberation. There were the Nuremberg trials, the Tokyo trials. But what makes the French one particularly interesting, and which is why I felt it was worth devoting a whole book, it's the French who have created the court that is going to try a French leader. It's not the Allies, it's not the victors, it's not the outsiders, it's the French trying the French.
In the French case, we have the trial of the greatest hero of the 20th century in France, the man who had won the famous Battle of Verdun in 1916, the man who is like a God in France. It's not an ordinary trial; it's the trial of a hero who had possibly become a traitor. To make this trial live, I want the readers to think that they're there in this hot, sweaty courtroom in the middle of Paris in the summer of 1945. The story is meant to be a window into the history of France in the 20th century, the terrible, unexpected, cataclysmic defeat of the French armies in 1940. And then the setting up of an authoritarian Vichy regime, the collaboration with the Germans, the deportation of Jews.
I want to use the trial as a way of watching the French debate this extraordinarily difficult and raw past. And one of the points of the book is to show that the crimes of Pétain today aren't necessarily what they thought the crime of Pétain in 1945.
Indeed, at the last presidential election in France, only two years ago, the extreme right candidate, Zemmour, one of the things he's famous for saying is that Pétain, the head of the Vichy regime, protected French Jews and that the Jews of France should be thankful to Pétain. Now, Zemmour only got about 7% of the vote, but that's not nothing. And the fact that these issues are still debated seems to me to make this trial not just a piece of dead history but something that is very much alive in France today.
The first few witnesses at Pétain’s trial were the French politicians who were in charge during the 1940 Battle of France. The first question at the trial was whether the war had been lost when Pétain had asked the Germans for the armistice. I find this puzzling because there seems little doubt that the French had lost the war and lost it badly.
When they put Pétain on trial, what was he guilty of? What was his crime? There were many different answers to what his crime might've been. And for General de Gaulle, the man who led the resistance from London during the war and then came back to be the leader of France after the war, the answer was Pétain's crime was to have signed an armistice with Germany. That was treason because de Gaulle believed that it was still possible that France could remain in the war. The armistice was the crime.
There are other people who took the view that the armistice was necessary. France had been beaten in 1940; it was impossible to go on fighting. Pétain's crime was not signing an armistice, which put an end to the continuing massacre of French civilians and troops. But to have used that armistice as a way of overthrowing the democratic government that existed in France before the war and setting up a new authoritarian regime. And for others, the crime of Pétain was to collaborate with the Germans beyond what the armistice insisted upon.
Taking the view that the Germans are going to win the war, why don't we start to deal with them? And symbolic of that policy of collaboration was Pétain's famous meeting with Hitler in October 1940. He was photographed which was on the front pages all over the world showing Pétain, the French war hero, shaking the hand of Hitler. There are many possible answers to what Pétain's crime was, and part of the problem of the trial was precisely to tease out which one should be prioritized.
By way of background for our audience, WW1 had been a long slugfest that lasted 5 years in the French trenches. But this time when the Germans invaded France in June 1940, the battle was over in a couple of weeks. The Harvard historian Ernest May titled his book Strange Victory. The French military loss was totally unexpected both in its severity and speed.
What I found weird was that immediately after the war, with the memory so raw, that anyone would have opposed the decision to get an armistice. There seems little question that the French lost.
My grandparents and my 3-year-old mom were living in France when the Germans invaded. My grandfather was enlisted with the French Foreign Legion, and my grandma Gisy was with my mom in Paris.
When the Germans approached Paris, the city was told to evacuate. My grandma went to the Paris train station which was in a state of complete pandemonium. There were no trains; tens of thousands of people were waiting on the platform for hours. That scene in the film Casablanca with Bogie and Sam waiting patiently for Ilsa on the platform was fictitious. The reality was total chaos.
When the first train entered the station, the place became a madhouse, and miraculously my grandmother and mom got on the train. When the train left the station, the conductor announced he was heading South with no set destination.
There was a consensus that an armistice was necessary to prevent further slaughter of soldiers and civilians. Continuing the fight in France seemed pointless.
The experience of your grandparents and your mother is an experience shared by literally millions of people. 6 million people left their homes. Sometimes, they weren't lucky enough to get a train, instead they would literally be just pushing a wheelbarrow. Sometimes they were bombed by German planes as they fled South. Fear and panic and the collapse of a whole society. That's why when Pétain made a famous speech on the 16th of June saying that it's with a heavy heart that I believe it's now time to end the fighting. A lot of people did feel, there's no question about it, a relief.
Pétain's initial popularity was that he was offering an end to this seemingly useless massacre.
Pétain made the argument that the military disaster resulted from the corruption of French society.
The French historian Marc Bloch wrote a book called Strange Defeat describing the complete French collapse of everything. Bloch said this is something deep that's happened.
It isn't just a defeat on the battlefield. It's symptomatic of much wider failure of French institutions, French intellectuals, French leaders, French politicians, everything.
I've taken in my own book on the Fall of France, is that it was a military defeat caused by some bad strategic miscalculations taken by the French Commander in Chief Gamlen. He made a bad call about where the Germans would invade. He got it wrong. And by the time he realized what was happening, that the Germans were sending their tanks through a part of France that he had believed to be impregnable the Ardennes Forest, it was too late.
The battle was lost. And then there was panic. There is panic when battles are lost. It's understandable. But this doesn't mean that France was rotten that it was all inevitable, which is what Pétain's Vichy regime wanted to say. We lost because we sinned, because we were decadent. That word decadent was used a lot.
What we're going to do is end the fighting and we're going to remake a new authoritarian France, which the church will play a role. The family will be restored with a package of conservative values.
Immediately after the Armistice was announced, Charles de Gaulle arrived in London where he made a very famous speech. He tells the French that the war is not over and that the fight must continue from the French Empire. What did de Gaulle say?
This was a military defeat. That's exactly what he said in his first speech in London. This was a military defeat explained not by the decadence of the French, not by the French character, explained by the German superiority in the air. We made some big miscalculations, but that is only the first battle in what is going to be a world war. Look to the future, the Germans are going to lose.
He was aware that on the soil of France, the battle was over. He didn't want the French to go on being massacred indefinitely. But for him, what mattered was to let the French know that this wasn't something about them being a rotten society, that they were a great nation, and they had a great future. What de Gaulle famously called the idea of France, allied with the Americans, allied with the British. The experience of your grandmother and your mother is a tragic experience shared by many, but de Gaulle said let us look beyond the horror of the present to the possibilities of the future.
When the Battle of France is raging and things look catastrophic, Churchill rushes to France to meet with the French leadership to encourage them to continue the fight. Churchill makes an unbelievable offer to merge the UK and France into a single country that way French troops can join the British in the evacuation from Dunkirk to fight another day. What happened?
There was this extraordinary offer that Churchill made for Franco-British Union. This was on the 16th of June 1940, the very last day of the Battle of France. And the point of this offer was purely symbolic. It was just to say to the French government, if you fight on, we will not only be with you, our two nations will become one. Now, nobody believed that two nations would become one. It was a way of trying to buck up the morale of the French government.
The proposal, which was farfetched, was intended to be throwing a life raft to Reynaud saying the British will be with you. But what’s the point of shackling yourself to the British because the British are about to lose? And French General Weygand, who was in very much in the camp of Pétain, said famously that England will have a neck rung like a chicken in the next few weeks. Another member of the government said, why should we attach ourselves to a corpse?
Former Prime Minister Reynaud is the first witness at Pétain’s trial. He uses his time on the witness stand to defend his policies and the decisions that he made when he was the French leader during the Battle of France. Reynaud explains why he resigned his office and why he did not evacuate the French government to the French colonies in North Africa. What confuses me is that this is a criminal trial, but this court resembles a war commission trying to ascertain lessons for the next war.
The first week was these prosecution witnesses, former politicians of the Third Republic, the regime that collapsed in 1940 was here to blame Pétain, to justify themselves.
These ghosts of the past are coming back to defend themselves. That gave a slightly bad taste to the trial in the first week because Pétain wasn't particularly popular with the population by 1945, nor were these old Third Republic politicians. Why should they put all the blame for their own inadequacies on this 90-year-old man who's sitting there in the chair barely able to understand what's going on?
One indictment against Pétain was that he took power illegally and subverted the French Constitution. Here we are in the middle of the Battle of France. 100,000 French soldiers were killed in battle over the previous two weeks, 100,000 more are wounded, as well as untold suffering by the civilian population. Prime Minister Reynaud had just resigned, and the President of France turned to Pétain to become the Head of State. And now after the war, they want to charge Pétain with taking power unconstitutionally. I mean you can’t be serious!
There were a lot of arguments about whether the new regime was legal or constitutional. Members of parliament are given the chance to vote full powers to Pétain to draft a new constitution. It's got an envelope of legality about it. But then what does Pétain do when he has been granted the power to draft a new constitution? He simply uses the full powers to pass a series of laws which make him a dictator.
Here in the US, we have had a single constitution since 1787 with continuity and tradition. This is not the case in France. There were frequent revolutions and new constitutions. During the Algerian crisis of 1958, de Gaulle took over as the Head of State in an unconstitutional way and then promptly wrote a new constitution in a manner not too different from Pétain. Was Pétain’s Vichy Government legal.
He'd been legally voted, but you could reply, well these are details. The country had gone through a dramatic crisis. It's not surprising that people said we need a change of regime. The same had happened in 1870 when the French had been beaten by the Prussians. The same happened as you pointed out in 1958 when there was uprising in Algeria and the regime fell and a new constitution came out. But the more important thing is what Pétain chose to do with the power that he had been granted.
You could replace one regime by another, but then if you start to use that power to criminalize sections of the population, to persecute Jews, Freemasons, communists, anybody you don't like, to arrest a whole series of politicians. Many of the people who were testifying in court in 1945 had been arrested the moment Pétain came to power. What had they been arrested for? They certainly weren't traitors. Paul Reynaud, the man who wanted to go on fighting, wasn't a traitor.
Even if there was semblance of legality, what then happened was a regime that set about censoring the press, abolishing democracy, and starting to persecute minorities. That's what, in the second and third weeks, the trial started to become about. That's to say collaboration, persecution, repression, authoritarianism.
In the first few weeks of Pétain’s trial, one critical question was whether as a policy matter, Prime Minister Reynaud should have evacuated the French Government to Algeria and continued the war against the Germans.
I want to bring in my family’s story during that critical second week of June 1940. As I mentioned previously, my grandmother and mom took a train from Paris to Biarritz which is located near the French/Spanish border on the Atlantic coast. My grandfather was in the French Foreign Legion and there were no cell phones or internet, so families were split up and unable to communicate. My grandmother suspected that my grandfather was probably in Algeria which is where the French Legion was primarily based. So, she rushed to the port where a boat was chartered to go to Algiers. The ship captain made an announcement over the loudspeaker that there was no food or water aboard and that because of the raging battle in the Mediterranean, he did not know how long the voyage would take. He encouraged everyone to load up on supplies. My grandma hurried to town to stock up, but when she returned to the port, the boat was already pulling out of the harbor. She sat down on a bench and cried. A couple of days later, she read in the newspaper that the ship had been attacked, sank, and that there were no survivors.
My point for telling this story was that transporting the French army to North Africa by sea at that moment was dangerous, logistically complicated, and limited by the number of available vessels.
I've talked about this book with a lot of people. I've done a lot of podcasts and different interviews, and curiously, no one really wants to talk about what you want to talk about, which I'm very pleased because you are talking about the heart of the issue. Few people are interested in as much detail as you are and perhaps that's partly because of your experience of your own family and the fact that if your grandparents had gone onto that boat, you probably wouldn't be here.
We've got to sort out two things if we're going to really explore the North African option. One is what number of soldiers could have got to North Africa to be a plausible fighting force later in the war? And then how many politicians, key figures in the French government could have gone there? Transporting hundreds of thousands of soldiers is a very different matter from say a hundred politicians. And indeed, a boat did leave Bordeaux for North Africa with about 50 politicians on it.
Pétain says, let’s negotiate the armistice on 16 June, and then it's signed on the 22nd. There's that window when the armistice hasn't happened, and various French politicians want to be secure in North Africa in case the conditions of the armistice turn out to be impossible and it must be necessary to go on fighting. A boat sets off with many of the people who ended up testifying in the trial. By the time they arrive in Casablanca, the armistice has been signed. So now these people who had left France to go on fighting seem like deserters who have left the country.
My book ends with a long counterfactual argument because the defense of Pétain in the trial is there was no alternative.
If Reynaud said to the French armies in the field, “you'll go on fighting” many of them would go on being killed. Let's just go back to the state of the French army. There was an initial collapse, panic because of the mistakes of the high command in May, but by June, the French were fighting very well again, and they were holding the Germans off.
Bottom line the French had lost in France, but they could have won another month. And a lot of people would've been killed. This would've been the window of opportunity to send members of the government to North Africa to send troops to North Africa. So, it was not an impossible situation.
Pétain agreed to the armistice, and the next critical question for the allies is what will happen to the French Navy? The British demand that either the French scuttle their battleships or take them to the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe to keep these warships out of Hitler’s hands. When the French refuse, Churchill orders an attack on the French Navy in Algeria at Mers-el-Kebir resulting in the deaths of 1500 French soldiers. What happened?
The French Navy was for the British the most worrying possible consequence of the French leaving the war and signing an armistice with Hitler. What was going to happen to the Navy? The armistice said that the Navy was simply would remain in French ports. It would simply be out of the war. The British, of course, couldn't be sure that the Germans would respect that. And that's why Churchill took the very difficult decision in the beginning of July 1940 to give those French ships which were docked in North Africa, the chance to go into the West Indies or to face a British attack. And he did it because he just felt he couldn't trust the Germans or even necessarily trust the French after the signing of the armistice.
And so, he ordered the bombing of the French fleet. And that was a very fatal decision that stoked Anglophobia. It made it much more difficult for de Gaulle in London to recruit French supporters because who's going to want to join someone who has bombed your fleet and killed 1500 French sailors? So that was a really scarring moment. So yes, for the British, the fleet was a key issue. It was a great waste for the allies, a fleet that could have been important to the Allied war effort, but it was never used by the Germans. Although the fleet was something that terribly worried people in 1940, in the end, it turns out to be less of an issue than people had thought it was going to be. Churchill's pragmatic and probably necessary attack on the French fleet of Mers-el-Kebir stoked Vichy Anglophobia and undermined de Gaulle’s credibility in London.
After the armistice, the Germans took 1.5 million French Prisoners of War to Germany. Pétain was very worried about these men who were working in German factories, and Pétain suggested that their safety drove his collaboration with the Germans. What did you think of Pétain’s argument?
Well, the prisoners of war were a big issue for Vichy, but we mustn't exaggerate. Obviously, there were people were deported from France once the occupation was underway, both Jews and resistors who were sent to concentration camps and suffered a terrible fate. But the prisoners of war were treated according to the international conventions. When they signed the armistice, I don’t think Vichy thought that the war would go on much longer.
They thought probably Britain would give up by the autumn of 1940. The war would be over, peace would be made, and then the prisoners of war would come back. They would be part of a wider peace settlement. But what happened was the armistice became permanent because the British went on fighting, and then the Germans invaded the Eastern front, and then the Americans joined. The war went on for five years. And so suddenly these prisoners of war, as you quite rightly say, work in German factories and fields. But for Vichy, it isn’t that they’re going to be terribly maltreated, it’s that they are become a cause of massive unpopularity for the regime because Pétain has signed an armistice to make things better for the French. And what do the French see? One and a half million French men who are still prisoners of war.
Another big issue is the line of demarcation between the two parts of France, because when the armistice was signed, one of its key terms was that half of France would be occupied by the Germans, and the other half would be semi-independent run by Vichy.
Just to clarify for the audience. Northern France including Paris was occupied by the Germans and Southern France was ruled by Pétain’s French government located in Vichy that collaborated with the Germans but were not directly ruled by them.
Paris is occupied by Germans. When Vichy signed the armistice, they thought, it’ll be over in six weeks, and then we’ll be back to something normal. When that doesn’t happen, Vichy’s also trying to get the demarcation line alleviated because it’s crippling the French economy.
But as the war goes on the Germans are now asking for able-bodied French young men to go and work in German factories. They’re starting to conscript French labor. So, collaboration seems to be making things worse.
The ‘what if’ question. If there had been no Vichy and if France had been fully occupied by the Germans, would things have been worse? Well, the argument was France would suffer the fate of Poland, wiped off the face of the earth, starvation. That's almost certainly nonsensical. No Western European country: Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Holland, suffered the same fate as Poland. Poland was completely different for Hitler. The Poles were Slavs who were barely superior in his racial hierarchy to the Jews. That was not how Hitler viewed Western Europe.
Let's talk about the Jews next. One of Pétain's government's first actions was to define a Jew. Vichy defined a Jew as a person who has one Jewish grandparent while the German law defines a Jew as having two Jewish grandparents. Jewish employment by industry is limited to be pro rata for the population of the country. Jewish college professors, lawyers and doctors were overrepresented at like 20% of France as compared to the Jewish population in France was only 1 percent. So many of the Jews in these occupations were forced out of work. My grandfather was a doctor and psychoanalyst. He had been a faculty member at the Freud Institute at the University of Vienna. In Vichy, he gave up being a doctor and instead worked clandestinely as a psychoanalyst. Vichy also demanded that Jews sell their business interests. Why was Vichy so anti-Semitic?
Well, they call my chapter on the Jewish question: The Absent Jews. The point I'm making is, it's very surprising how little the issue of the persecution of the Jews, of antisemitism, was discussed at the trial. In 1945, nobody anywhere in Europe had comprehended the Holocaust. When people who've been deported to camps in Germany came back in 1945, there was no distinction made by French public opinion between people who had been deported as Jews and those people who had been deported as resistors.
But there clearly is a difference because the Jews were deported for one reason, which was to kill them. Whereas the resistors were deported and in terrible conditions. But it wasn't the case that the only outcome was extermination. And you've got to remember that in 1945, there was quite a lot of antisemitism. The Holocaust was subsidiary. It wasn't the big issue of the Nuremberg trials. The big issue of the Nuremberg trials was the culpability of Hitler in causing the war.
It's not really until the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 after his extradition by the Israelis that the issue of what happened to the Jews becomes central to memory.
Jews weren't very popular at this time in France. Because Jews who were coming back in 1945, quite reasonably wanted to take back the apartments that they had lived in before they were arrested and deported. These apartments had since been on the open market and have been bought by French people who didn't want to give up the apartments to the Jews. And so, these people formed associations to defend their rights. They said, we are the rightful owners. They said, if we hadn't bought the flats, they Germans would've taken them over. There were even anti-Jewish demonstrations by these new property owners in Paris. It's almost inconceivable to us today to think that there could be anti-Semitic demonstrations on the streets in 1945 by people who wanted to hold on to their property, which was the property of the Jews who had lost it because they had been expelled. So that's the atmosphere.
Now, when we look at what is said about the Jews in the trial, we must sort out two forms of persecution. The initial laws passed by Vichy against the Jews were French inspired and nothing to do with the Germans. The law, for example, to exclude Jews from a whole series of professions, the medical profession, legal profession, journalism, so on, that was nothing to do with the Germans. It was a Vichy sponsored law, the Statute of Jews.
And it applied to French Jews to people who've been French for four generations, applied to any French Jew. At the trial, nobody raised that issue. But then there's a second kind of persecution, which is murdering Jews.
25% of French Jewish citizens numbering 75,000 were sent by cattle cars to the extermination camps where they were gassed. Foreign Jews in France like my grandparents and my mom were much more likely to be sent to the concentration camps. There were many roundups of Jews in Paris, and then later in Marseille where my grandparents had been hiding for years. Tell us about that.
Arresting Jews in 1942 in Paris and later as you mentioned in Marseille, it's January 1943 to deport them to be exterminated. That was discussed at the Petain trial because it was known that the French police had played a role in arresting these Jews for the Germans. And what we now know thanks to the work of the two historians: Serge Klarsfeld and Robert Paxton about the culpability of Vichy. At the trial, the line of the defense was, Jews were arrested, but Vichy argued that it did its best to halt the process.
No Jew was called upon to testify in the entire trial except Leon Blum, but he was there because he was a French socialist. No Jew was called to testify as a Jew for the specific experience of the Jews.
I have another story from my grandparents which I think helps us explore the culpability of the Vichy regime.
After the various roundups and deportations of Jews to the death camps, there were many Jewish orphans. The Quakers from Philadelphia raised a substantial sum of money and chartered the Serpa Pinto a Portuguese ship to bring 50 Jewish orphans from France to the US.
To leave France required an Exit Visa. You may recall this critical document as central to the plot of the film Casablanca. No Jew could get one. The US ambassador to Vichy, Admiral Leahy requested to Vichy’s Prime Minister Laval that he provide the orphans the exit visas, but Laval would not budge.
My grandfather was in Marseille in November 1942 when the Americans invaded Casablanca in Operation Torch and the French did not put up much of a fight. Hitler panicked and had German troops invade Vichy France. My grandparents witnessed German soldiers goose step into Marseille. My grandfather was aware that his ongoing efforts for a French exit visa were pointless and that he would have to race for the French/Spanish border.
My grandfather was introduced to the Quaker representative in Marseille, and he offered my grandparents the opportunity to join the voyage on the Serpa Pinto ship out of Lisbon if my grandfather agreed to be the medical doctor on the trip for the orphans. He agreed to do it. He then began his escape from France.
With a combination of luck and assistance from the French resistance the Maquis, my grandparents and mom successfully got to Lisbon where they waited for two months for the orphans before the Quakers gave up and traveled to Philadelphia without them.
Prime Minister Laval never provided the orphans the exit visas, and these children were later murdered in the German concentration camps.
Pétain appointed Laval as his number two in the Vichy government. How should we judge Vichy leaders for the round up and the murder of the French Jews?
Your story is very powerful because it's so concrete. Laval cared not one iota about the Jews. When the arrests of Jews were starting in July 1942, Laval said “the Germans were initially only asking for the arrests of adults, we should give them the children as well.” The Germans were surprised, and Laval said, “it's a humanitarian measure. I would like the families to be together.” It was, of course, pure cruelty.
Laval was totally culpable for exactly the reasons you've said. But I don't think we should let Pétain off the hook. Pétain was the Head of State, and we know that at a meeting which took place the 2nd of July 1942, about the deal that the French struck with the Germans; the French police playing a role in the roundups of Jews. And what is the deal? The French said, we will cooperate in the arrest of Jews providing its non-French Jews who are arrested, but we are willing to instruct the police in the unoccupied zone, which the Germans have no control over to participate. And the Germans are surprised that the French are volunteering their police to arrest Jews in their zone. And that's an extraordinary moment. And at the meeting that ratified that, Laval said about the foreign Jews that, “these are just the garbage of Europe. Why do we want them?”
And Pétain said something like, “I think public opinion will fully understand this decision.” I would want to insist that Pétain was as much behind it, even if he was not taking the decisions as Laval.
On November 11, 1942, the German army invaded Vichy France.
The following day, the head of the Vichy police announced that no Jew could leave Marseille or travel anywhere in Southern France by train. My grandparents violated that rule and took a train from Marseille to Perpignan near the Spanish border as they headed to climb the Pyrenees mountains into neutral Spain.
10 weeks later, René Bousquet, the head of the Vichy Police organized a massive roundup of the Jews in Marseille. All the police in the entire Southern part of France participated in the roundup done in the middle of the night. This was a massive logistical enterprise that required locksmiths, railroad operators, and others to make this operation successful. The Jews in the roundup were all murdered at Auschwitz a few weeks later. The French hired a professional photographer who took pictures of the roundup that is available online, it is shocking. There is an unbelievable photograph of a smiling René Bousquet at a meeting with the SS Officer planning the roundup.
How is it possible that René Bousquet would not be indicted for war crimes until the 1990s and would be for decades one of French Prime Minister Mitterrand’s closest confidants?
The more you talk about this situation with your grandparents, the more that I could see is that they were very canny and very intelligent and sensibly non-trusting. Tragedy for many Jews is that they believed in Vichy. Your grandparents, it seems to me from what you've been saying, survived with some luck, there's always luck.
Oh, for sure.
Luck and a lot of lucidity and a lot of intelligence. But for many, there was no luck. The roundup in Marseille in January 1943. It isn't as present in the memory as it should be. Vichy wasn't in origin about killing Jews; it was about discriminating. The Germans were about killing Jews. But we mustn't make it too watertight because if you start persecuting Jews, it becomes easier to accept these other things. There's in your mind already the Jews are enemies, so it's not a big moral dilemma. And then lots of these little restrictions on movement, having Jew stamped on your identity card, further tighten the net around the Jews. I would want to make a distinction, but let's also be clear that there's a porousness between the two kinds of antisemitism that the one facilitates the other. That example you gave about not being allowed to move is a very good example of that.
The man in charge of these operations was the head of the police, a man called Bousquet. He was put on trial after the war, and he was either acquitted or got a very small sentence. Why? Because he was able to show that he had helped resistors. And in the mind of 1945, helping the resistance is a bigger thing than whatever you might've done in relation to the Jews. We've got to remember the Jews are not central in 1945.
In the 1980s, people start to think that what happened to the Jews is the issue, partly as a result of the Eichmann trial, partly as a result of an interview that was carried out by two journalists who found an extraordinary vile, antisemitic Vichy official who'd taken refuge in Franco’s Spain.
He was called Touvier. He gave this interview in Spain to some journalists, and he said, “only lice were gassed in Auschwitz, only fleas.” This caused a shock in France that this man should still actually be alive, the man who had been a Vichy official. One of the things he said in his interview was the man who was truly responsible for the persecution was Bousquet.
So Bousquet is finally indicted.
But Bousquet does not go to trial because he is assassinated by a mad publicity seeker before the trial begins in 1993.
They do eventually put on trial in 1995 a rather minor Vichy official, but it's all they can find. He's the substitute for the real big fish who were no longer there, a man called Maurice Papon who had been an official in Bordeaux, who definitely played a role in rounding up Jews. He's put on trial for crimes against humanity, and he's found guilty. So that was the first time a French court had found a French Vichy official responsible for crimes against humanity.
The first president to accept responsibility on behalf of France was Jaques Chirac in 1995. Chirac was just a completely useless president in every way. But he did something which is very important. He made a speech a few weeks after becoming president on the anniversary of the Roundup of Jews in Paris, the Vel’ d’Hiv. The Jews who were arrested, women, children particularly were parked in a big sports stadium before being deported and in atrocious conditions with no sanitation, no food, no water, intense heat. Chirac, on the anniversary of that event, made a very solemn speech where he said on that day, France committed the irreparable. And the key thing is France, not the so-called Vichy government. And since that moment, no French president has ridden back from that. That was followed by a whole series of organizations, churches, medical professions, railways, architects, professional organizations all did a mea culpa for what they'd done in the war.
The line today is France committed an irreparable act, but in Chirac’s speech, there was another France with people who saved Jews individually in all kinds of ways. There were good policemen, there were good concierges, there were good shopkeepers, et cetera.
In other words, the pendulum swung from, there's no question about the crimes of Vichy, but there's a danger of a new myth which is coming, which is that almost every French person in their own way did a little bit to help the Jews. And I'm suspicious of that pendulum swinging too far in that direction.
In 1942 in Marseille, it became too dangerous for Jews to be walking around town. My grandparents and my mom went into hiding on a farm just outside of town. My mother attended kindergarten with her blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a cross and tried to blend in. When my grandparents made the decision in that second week of November 1942 to make a run for the border, the farmer graciously offered to raise my mother as his child until after the war. My grandfather thought it made good rational sense, but my grandmother overruled him and decided that they would live and die as a family. She would not leave her daughter behind even given the low risk of success. These were incredibly difficult choices for a parent to make.
Very difficult choices. I don’t know if you've ever read a book by an extraordinary historian who has a very similar story. Saul Friedlander wrote an extraordinary memoir about his parents.
In their case, after March 1939, they found themselves in France. The net is increasingly tightening on them. And the parents in this case take a different decision. They put their little boy in a Catholic family to save him. The parents die. They don't manage to escape like your grandparents. He survives. And what's extraordinary about the story he tells, and this really one of the most remarkable memoirs I've ever read, is how his only way of surviving mentally was simply to forget his parents. I mean, he was a little boy like 9 years old, and he just cut it out, and he thought he was a good little Catholic, and he admired Pétain, and he wanted to become a Catholic priest. And there's a very moving moment when he goes to see his Catholic priest, and he tells him, “I want to join the church. I want to become a priest.” And this priest, to his credit, says, “before you need to know who you are, where you come from.” And he tells him his story.
The boy goes through a terrible crisis. He realizes he's not going to become a priest, and he becomes instead an active Zionist. And the book ends with him getting smuggled on a ship which arrives in Israel in 1948. These are terrible choices. His parents made their choice and their child survived.
Your book on the Trial of Petain is really about the memory of Vichy. In 1969 the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity was released which forces the French to reconsider their memory of what happened during the German occupation during the war. Very few French were members of the resistance. Most collaborated. Many behaved badly. Tell us about the living memory of Vichy.
The trial ends in August 1945; Pétain's sentenced to death. The death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment because it would be grotesque to shoot a semi-senile 90-year-old man. And nobody wants that. But he's sentenced to death. That's the key thing. It's symbolic. He dies in 1951, and then there's a period when the French want to put this behind them. And it's perfectly understandable. Most countries that go through upheaval and trauma need to go through a period of forgetting. It's the only way you get through it. You could say Spain after the death of Franco did it. And it's only now that they're starting to talk much more about Franco.
And so yes, for a period, the French just get on with their lives. There's a new young generation, a protest generation, which is responsible for the famous student upheavals of May 68, all over Europe and in America. And in France, they question the myths they'd been brought up with about the Vichy past.
The film called The Sorrow and the Pity made by a Jewish filmmaker Marcel Orphuls; It was a necessary smashing of myths because until you smash myths, you can piece everything back together again and try and get it right. So that film was fantastically important. And so, for the seventies, eighties, nineties, right up to today, the war is more present than it had been in some ways in the 1950s and early 1960s.
I end each of my podcasts with a note of optimism. What are you optimistic about as it relates to remembering Vichy France, particularly as it relates to the ongoing strength of right-wing parties in France?
Most people can agree that Vichy was a bad thing. Marine Le Pen now distances herself from Vichy because she realizes there's no mileage in invoking Vichy. The case is closed in that sense.
But the policies Marine Le Pen is advocating are extremely right wing. They're about the persecution of minorities, not Jewish minorities. Now, it's Muslim minorities in France, inward-looking nationalism, a hostility to Europe, to internationalism, which was very Vichy, an obsession with decadence and a need for national renewal. I'm not optimistic for France though I'm not totally pessimistic either.
Thanks to Julian for joining us today.
My family escaped from Vichy France in November 1942 and this historical topic is personal for me. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to read my grandfather George Karp’s memoir entitled The Maquis Connection which is available on the Kindle or alternatively, you can listen to me read his memoir aloud on audible books.
My mother’s sister, my Aunt Sharon Karp produced a documentary film entitled A Song for You about my grandparents’ escape from Europe. You can find this 80-minute film at this link in the transcript.
If you missed last week’s show, check it out. The podcast’s subject was Inflation Isn’t Going Away! Our speaker was Boris Vladimirov who is a market strategist at Goldman Sachs.
Boris discussed the causes of the recent surge in long-term interest rates, and whether this will cause a recession. Boris also outlined why inflationary expectations are unlikely to fall anytime soon and that there is a risk that the Fed may abandon their 2% inflation target for something higher.
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