By Gilbert R. Davis. Gilbert R. Davis is professor emeritus of English , Mich.
The Christian Science Monitor
FRANCE'S recent conviction of Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity marks the first time a Frenchman has been tried for participation in the "war against the Jews."
This small victory for human decency was not an easy one: It took 45 years to run Mr. Touvier to ground and five more to deliver him to trial. The country's reluctance to bring Touvier to justice illustrates its unwillingness to face the ugly reality of its Vichy government's cooperation with the Nazis.
Future prospects of bringing Vichy officials to trial for their participation in heinous war crimes are not great. Among those still alive, all are elderly, and many have enjoyed political and financial success that could prove embarrassing for post-war France. But the main reason is France's determination to bury its dishonorable past in the Gaullist fiction that she was a nation betrayed by Vichy collaborators.
It is heartening that a reexamination of France's role in racial murder should come in the centennial year of the infamous Dreyfus affair, an event that formed a foundation for Vichy-Nazi cooperation and the Touvier affair.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of spying for Germany and sentenced to life on Devil's Island. The French Army's case against him was a combination of lies, forgeries, and unabashed anti-Semitism - Captain Dreyfus was a Jew who aspired to a place in the French Army's high command. The trial's injustice was so transparent it cried out for reversal, and for the next 12 years, "The Affair" (as it quickly became known) was a matter of national and international controversy.
The most famous assault on the Dreyfus court martial travesty was Emile Zola's newspaper charge, "J'accuse," in which he examined the Army's case, showing it to be a series of forgeries and fabrications. For his efforts, the French court convicted Mr. Zola of defaming the Army. But after the Zola article, the Army couldn't escape the cry for justice, though it took eight more years before Dreyfus was freed from jail.
The affair dominated French life. Just when it seemed as though the Army had silenced its last critic, it would flare up in the face of such events as Dreyfus's court-martial in 1894, his exoneration by the Court of Appeals, and the restoration of his Army commission in 1906.
It was a turbulent time, not least for Dreyfus, who spent five years imprisoned. For France, the trial pitted the Third Republic, representing democracy, progress, and enlightenment, against its enemies - the church, nationalists, royalists, and Bonapartists. With faith in the French Army and unaltered opposition to the modern, industrial world, Dreyfus' opponents were further united in their virulent anti-Semitism, which galvanized such disparate groups of French society as business executives, journalists, and parish priests.
Their anti-Dreyfus, anti-Semitic rallying cry, heard throughout France during the years of the affair, was "Death to the Jews." The poet Charles Peguy painfully described the picture of "grade school children, at four o'clock, walking home in small groups crying, `Death to the Jews.' " One wonders what Mr. Peguy, who died on a World War I battlefield where Dreyfus and his son also fought side by side for France, would have thought of the Vichy government's shameful role in aiding the Nazis' murder of the Jews. …