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
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. …