Thursday, 18 February 2010
A Tale of Collaboration
This year will mark the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of France in May 1940. It’s time, I think, to reflect on what followed; time to reflect on how the French conducted themselves during the ‘dark years.’ It’s not a comfortable picture.
France, of all the countries attacked and invaded by the Nazis, is almost in a unique position in that it retained its own government, a distinction shared only with the Danes. It’s salutary to compare the two examples. There was collaboration in Denmark, yes, though only to a limited degree. The spirit of national independence and self-respect was kept alive and symbolised in the person of King Christian X. Throughout the occupation the Danes consistently resisted German pressure to introduce discriminatory laws against the country’s Jewish minority. Danish Jews never had to wear the yellow star. When discussing the possibility that they might, Christian remarked to his chief minister “perhaps then we should all wear it.”
Now look at France. It’s still wrongly assumed by some that the government of Philippe Pétain was imposed by the Germans, that it was a puppet administration. It was not. Pétain’s government was legally constituted after the Chamber of Deputies granted him plenipotentiary powers, effectively voting the Third Republic out of existence.
It’s also wrongly assumed that his authority only applied in the unoccupied zone whereas in fact he had control over government agencies in the whole country, including the civil service and the police. In 1941 the Germans had a mere 30,000 troops in the occupied zone, most concentrated in the costal areas opposite England. At this stage control would have been all but impossible without active and widespread collaboration.
Ah, but there is collaboration and there is collaboration; the Danes at a minimum, the French at a maximum. Nowhere is the contrast greater than in French treatment of the Jews. There was, of course, a strong pre-war tradition of anti-Semitism in France, a tradition that found full expression in the policy of the Pétain government.
The French police were active in rounding up the Jews on the authority of Vichy, even exceeding German expectations. Drancy Concentration Camp in the suburbs of Paris was set up by the French and run by them until 1943. In the notorious Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of July 1942 some 13,000 people, including children, were taken, eventually being sent to Auschwitz. In the south Jews took refuge in those areas occupied by Italy, where in the acutest of ironies the fascists offered them greater protection than their own government.
It seems to me that France of these years is not best depicted in the face of the semi-senile Pétain or even in that of Pierre Laval, his sleazy-looking premier, but in the likes of Joseph Darnand, the head of the notorious Milice, and most particularly in that of the altogether loathsome Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy’s Commissioner for Jewish Affairs.
Yes, there were resisters and there is eternal and honourable example of Jean Moulin. But the resisters were a tiny minority in a nation of active and passive collaborators. Many of those who did resist were killed not by the Germans but by other French people. A nation of resisters was a post-war myth created by a country anxious to bury so many aspects of its recent past.
The truth is that French conduct under the occupation if not cowardly was supine in the extreme. Not a good example by any standards; not a good example when contrasted with other nations who had not the same historical reputation to defend. It’s a sorry and wretched tale.