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Book Review: Verdict on Vichy
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Book Review
France guilty of nazi collaboration—
with some extenuating circumstances
,  March 8, 2005

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Verdict on Vichy by Michael Curtis; Arcade Publishing; 419 pages; $28.95.

Reviewed by Norman Manson

To quickly end the suspense, the verdict is guilty— with some extenuating circumstances. The Vichy regime which controlled at least a part of France under nazi auspices from 1940 to 1944 persecuted French Jewry on its own, under relatively little pressure from the Germans, in some cases even going beyond nazi dictates.
Still, the picture is not entirely black — probably a dark shade of gray would be a most accurate description. A precious few French people resisted and defied the collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval to hide and shelter Jews, especially Jewish children, and hopefully prevent their capture and deportation to certain death in Auschwitz and other death camps.
For the most part, however, Michael Curtis depicts a time of acquiescence and accommodation to the wishes of the country's rulers. And, throughout, he stresses the depth of anti-Semitic attitudes among the French. Despite what was then a 150-year-old tradition of liberty, equality and fraternity, there existed a deep-rooted feeling that Jews were not really French, that they were forever outside the pale of French society and were to be ostracized to varying degrees. He traces that feeling back to well before the inglorious French defeat of 1940, and concludes that there was a definite strain of xenophobia throughout French history.
Curtis examines in meticulous detail the actions of French officialdom under under nazi control, from Petain and Laval to relatively low-level functionaries - prefects, police, mayors and others in local government. And he concludes that "Collaboration was a French invention, not a German demand." Going a bit further, he states that the argument that "collaboration was a necessity of life.... is equally untenable in light of the consequences." He points out that hundreds of thousands of French men and women were killed or sent to work in Germany, the country's fleet was destroyed - and 75,000 French Jews were deported and murdered.
He downplays the influence of the French resistance, the deeds of which were heavily publicized during and shortly after the war. Only in 1943 and 1944, when an Allied victory became more and more assured, did the resisters have much impact.
And the public figures who later claimed major roles in the resistance for the most part went along with Vichy during the first years of occupation, only switching sides as the tides of war turned.
Probably the most significant figure in that category was future President Francois Mitterrand, who early on extolled Petain and - if not an actual collaborationist - certainly acquiesced in Vichy's policies until he saw the handwriting on the wall and associated himself with the resistance. Other future high officials behaved in similar fashion, as did literary and cultural leaders such as Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.
The fate of former collaborationists who were finally brought to some measure of justice in the 1980s and 90s is explored  at length. Men such as Paul Touvier, Maurice Papon and Rene Bousquet had loyally served the Vichy regime and then had rehabilitated their reputations and remained in major offices in the postwar period, until their pasts caught up with them.
However, the conduct of their trials shows that the French still have not fully come to terms with their unsavory past, Curtis writes.
And, in one of his final chapters, Curtis details the role of the Catholic Church in Frenc anti-Semitism. As in other segments, the church was quite anti-Semitic, with just a few bright lights standing out amid the darkness.
This is a thoroughly researched, meticulously crafted book, and is probably the definitive study of wartime France, given the current state of knowledge. There are a few editing glitches and - for those of us not fluent in French - a few passages that are beyond our comprehension. But overall, this is a very perceptive work, certainly well worth reading for those interested in the World War II era.