Erna Paris is the author of several books, including Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History and Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair
“The criminal madness of the [Nazi] occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state. Those black hours soiled our history forever. … France … committed the irreparable.”
These words were spoken by French president Jacques Chirac on July 16, 1995, and in the days since his death, he deserves credit for moral courage. The occasion was the anniversary of the infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver roundups of Parisian Jews on July 16 and 17, 1942, when French police incarcerated more than 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in a sports stadium on orders of the occupying Nazis. Before the war ended, 76,000 Jews had been deported to Nazi concentration camps with French collaboration. Only about 3,000 returned.
Everyone understood the significance of Mr. Chirac’s words. He said France was responsible. In speaking from the highest office, he exploded the postwar myth that the terrors committed on French soil were uniquely the work of the occupying Nazis and their collaborationist henchmen in Vichy and had nothing to do with the true France, which had resided in London with the government-in-exile of General Charles de Gaulle from 1940 until 1944 while aided at home by the French Resistance. In effect, Mr. Chirac had shattered the half-century-long taboo against an official acknowledgment of the truth.
The birth and demise of France’s long-standing fairy tale remains instructive, for all nations fashion a historical narrative of who they are and were, especially after times of crisis, and their stories ordinarily retain their power until overwhelmed by undeniable evidence. In the latter category, the following was fact: From May, 1940, France was occupied by the Nazis and governed at Vichy by General Philippe Pétain, a hero of the First World War. Pétain was adored by a majority of the French, and the collaboration of his government with the Nazis, including police actions against Jews, was broadly accepted as national protection. Yes, there was resistance. As historians later verified, about 1 per cent of the population participated in military-style resistance networks, just as about 1 per cent willingly participated in the collaboration by marching around in real or virtual jack boots helping the Nazis carry out atrocities. As for the rest of the population, they made small gestures in either direction or sat on the proverbial fence waiting to see which way the wind would blow.
Gen. de Gaulle created the myth of an all-encompassing resistance to the Nazis because he believed a shared narrative of winning the war would promote peace among his divided countrymen. On June 14, 1944, the day he landed at Bayeux, he identified himself and his resistance with “France” and with the “final victory of the Allies.” Only a tiny handful of traitors had sold out to the enemy. These would be duly tried and excised from the collective.
The die was cast, but still the story sat uneasily, for untold numbers of known upper- and lower-level collaborators had moved into positions of prominence in the postwar era. On the other hand, everyone won, including the collaborators who now said they had been playing a “double game” and had in reality been resisting.
Unsurprisingly, the first accurate history of the Vichy era did not appear until 1972 and was written by a foreigner, U.S. historian Robert Paxton. A second groundbreaking book, Vichy France and the Jews, followed in 1981, also written by Mr. Paxton, with a colleague, Canadian historian Michael Marrus. Notably, both works caused scandal and recriminations that eventually set in motion a train of trials, starting with the Nazi Klaus Barbie, in 1987, culminating with the Vichy-era French bureaucrat, Maurice Papon, in 1998, and underscored in 1995 with the first official statement by a French president on the subject of France’s complicity in the Holocaust.
Because timing and perceived sincerity matter, Mr. Chirac’s formal acknowledgment of his country’s mythologized history was a standout moment in the life of postwar France. Fifty years later, his sorrowful, truthful evocation would help his countrymen recalibrate long-time historical distortions and face their nation’s history, however painful.
Trapped inside a contemporary world of lesser moral clarity, we may admire Mr. Chirac's principled act.
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