Rewriting Vichy after Fifty Years

Article excerpt

INTERPRETING the past is a task often reserved for professional historians. Major national anniversaries, however, allow the past to reappear in the present, unbalance accepted interpretations of the past, and put public opinion towards these interpretations on ice, often to the dismay of officialdom. Such is the case in 1992, as France attempts to come to terms with crimes committed under the Vichy government, and in particular with the wave of xenophobia, ensuing in round-ups and deportations of Jews fifty years ago in 1942.

The grounds for the present controversy were laid in April this year when the case of Paul Touvier, head of the Vichy militia in Lyon, was dismissed for apparent lack of evidence, much to the stupefaction of the French intellectual community. Other important Vichy officials, notably Rene Bousquet (Minister of Police) and Jean Leguay (co-organiser of the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up in 1942) have benefited from similar judicial laxity.

The latest event to trigger an explosion of opinions, regarding the present-day official moral stance to be taken towards the Vichy regime, occurred on 14th July, when President Mitterrand gave his ritual televised interview to the nation. Mitterrand denied as invalid the duty of the present French government to recognise officially the antisemitic persecutions carried out under Pitain, despite the fact that no Jews in France have yet been compensated for the events of 1942. |The Republic has always offered a helping hand to avoid segregations, especially racial segregations. Therefore, let us not ask the Republic for an explanation! In 1940, however, there was a French State, the regime of Vichy, which was not the Republic. So, naturally, I admit that we must ask for an explanation from the French State, and how could I not admit this?.. . This matter is still present in people's memories, but as far as the law is concerned, I can say that the Republic has done what it had to do'.

One cannot underestimate the importance of republican continuity for France's political stability, as the President's evocation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens of 1789 confirms, but the uncompromising dissociation of the |Republic' from the |French State' of Vichy, as if the latter were a mere interlude without relation to preceding and successive governments, is, according to French historians, an act of expedient rhetoric overlooking historical truth. Mitterrand's declaration not only repudiates the fact that the republican government autonomously elected the new Vichy government in 1940, but also that legislation concerning business administration and economic planning established under Petain continued unchecked after 1944 in the IVth Republic, and is still effective today. The Vichy government also |collaborated' zealously with racial and political exclusion laws well before receiving instructions from Germany. Arthur Koestler's autobiographical novel, Scum of the Earth (1941), for example, gives an eyewitness account of the first round-ups of political |indesirables' in France, as early as October 1940. Extensive documentation of autonomous action in France, prior to collaboration with the National Socialists, can be seen at an exhibition currently open at the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation (CDJC) in Paris.

The desire to remove unpalatable periods of history, suggested in Mitterrand's speech, also serves to undervalue the memory of surviving victims and their families. It is for this reason that a number of these people and historians recently made an appeal to the French government for the official recognition of, and possible compensation for, Vichy crimes. As a consequence, the |Vel' d'Hiv' Committee '42' was set up to pursue this cause. They name themselves after the famous cycle velodrome, the Velodrome d'Hiver (destroyed in 1959) in Paris where, on 16th and 17th July 1942, 12,884 Jews, including 4,051 children, were rounded up and subsequently deported to internment camps at Drancy, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, then to Auschwitz. …