LM Archives
  11:05 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Vichy or not Vichy?

Richard Christiansen reports from Paris on a war crimes trial that raises controversial questions about France's past and future

'This decision ends up rehabilitating the Vichy regime in brushing aside the fact that the French Milice was the twin brother of the German Gestapo.' That was how one lawyer greeted a French court's April decision not to prosecute Paul Touvier, the former head of the Lyons Milice brigade, for 'crimes against humanity' committed during the Second World War. The case has fuelled the current French controversy over the role of the puppet Vichy regime, which governed wartime France under German military occupation. It is a controversy with serious implications for deciding what modern France stands for and against.

Touvier was first officially reprieved by the French authorities in 1971, as a gesture to the Germans who did not want the embarrassment of another war crimes trial. He was arrested again in 1989, barely 18 months after the trial of Klaus Barbie, on similar charges, had become the focus for renewed anti-German hysteria in France. It seemed that dragging Touvier out of the history books once more for his collaboration with the 'Bosch' was another attempt by the French authorities to alert public opinion to the dangers of resurgent German power in Europe today.

Hidden history

From the start, however, Touvier was bound to be a problem. Unlike the Gestapo-chief Barbie, Touvier was a Frenchman. His Gestapo-style organisation was set up by French police chiefs and judges, many of whom are still alive, and some of whom are still serving. And he had been hidden for 45 years by the Catholic church. Putting Touvier on trial seemed sure to highlight the hidden story of how various arms of the French establishment had collaborated with the Nazis.

The Touvier controversy has come to symbolise the contradictory pressures on the French establishment as it seeks to define its national identity today.

The French right needs to rehabilitate the Vichy regime somehow. The discredit which it acquired through its wartime collaboration with the Nazis has been largely responsible for the weak and divided state of the right in France over much of the postwar period. Settling scores over Vichy is vital if the French right is to rise to power again.

At the same time, however, the right and the wider French establishment are also under pressure to keep their anti-German credentials intact. Hostility to Germany has been a major component of French nationalism for well over a century, and remains a powerful banner behind which the authorities can rally support. From this perspective, the traditional view of the Vichy collaborators as traitors to France remains important.

The Touvier case was to be a calculated gamble to establish how far the authorities can afford to go in rewriting wartime history. A recent report commissioned by the Church, and widely welcomed by the media as a sign of a 'new openness', indicated how far the boundaries could be pushed back.

One passage, quoted in the final judicial report, stated that 'certain members of the Milice, in the name of the Milice and the secretary of state for law and order, colonised...the Vichy state apparatus'. In this schema, the Vichy regime itself was not pro-Nazi, but was manipulated by a kind of pro-Nazi 'lobby' in the form of 'certain members of the Milice'. This has long been a key proposition of the revisionist right in France. They argue that the vast majority of Vichy officials were not French Nazis, but were 'pragmatic' collaborators who saved Jews from a worse fate and were at heart anti-German.

Charges dropped

The revisionist interpretation was effectively endorsed by the judges who finally decided not to prosecute Touvier. Six charges were originally brought against Touvier, including one for the execution of seven men as 'revenge' for the killing of Philippe Henriot, a Vichy. All seven were Jewish. Five of the six charges were thrown out because the witnesses' testimonies were 'foggy'. The lawyer who unsuccessfully defended Klaus Barbie against similar charges declared that 'France has become France again. We cannot believe witnesses 50 years on. This decision appears to signal an end to the trials of this period'.

The sixth charge, that of the execution of seven Jews, stirred up the hornet's nest. One man testified that he had been spared from the firing squad explicitly because he was not Jewish. Yet the court ruled that the decision to execute was not part of a 'systematic project of extermination', since the victims were chosen at random 'in the heat of the moment'.

Besides, the court decided, Vichy could not do such things 'systematically' because, unlike in Nazi Germany, the Jew was never declared an enemy of the state. The judges ruled that the law which barred Jews from all positions of authority, and the decision to put them all under house arrest (both passed in October 1940) were examples of an 'improvised policy' to win concessions from Germany, not of anti-semitism. Any excesses on the part of Vichy could be put down to an excess of zeal among those for whom 'the struggle against Communist ideology' was 'primary'.

The court's decision was a victory for the revisionist right, but was condemned by many conservative commentators and politicians because it was not seen to be anti-German enough.

Normalising Vichy

'The truth is', announced two judges critical of the outcome, 'that the decision on Touvier undermines the social cohesion at the centre of which is the judiciary' (Liberation, 24 April). Since the forties, the often fragile 'social cohesion' of France and the slim authority of the state has been partly based upon the accepted history of the war: that Vichy was just an unfortunate 'parenthesis' (to quote De Gaulle) in a long, glorious Republican tradition, and that France's ills were all down to the 'shame' of its collaboration with the Nazis. That history is now in danger of coming apart under the pressures of post-Cold war change.

No doubt the right would like to accelerate the revision of history, so that its past of anti-semitism and fascism will no longer be so embarrassing. At present, the official French history remains a source of stability as a focus for anti-German sentiment. But as racism and chauvinism become increasingly mainstream in modern French politics, so Vichy can be made to look more and more 'normal'. Perhaps the judiciary's mistake in the Touvier case was simply that it jumped too far, too fast.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk