France, the French & the Second World War

a historian blogs about research, teaching, motherhood and other stuff

Month: April, 2017

Vichy in the French Presidential Elections: a not-so-divided memory?

On Sunday 9 April, Marine Le Pen declared that she did not believe that the French were guilty for the roundup of 13,000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv in July 1942. That it was the people in power – she is implying that it was just the Germans – who were guilty of genocide. That France had not been in Vichy during the war years, but in London with de Gaulle. France was not responsible. These are her claims.

In many ways these are not new statements. In 1944 the regime in Vichy led by Pétain was discredited in the ordonnance of 9 August. According to de Gaulle, there had been no break in the Republic since the Republic itself had continued to exist in London. The government in Vichy had been illegitimate, and so were its actions. This tied into the dominant image at the time that France had been united and had resisted the Germans. Of course, one must understand the context of the post war period. After the war there was a denial of France’s role in the collaboration and, also, the Holocaust. This was due to a combination of factors which varied over the years – lack of knowledge and understanding ; refusal to accept the facts ; a need to present a united front. It was not a time for historic truth and accuracy, but rather a time for rebuilding a nation.

The myth of the French resistance would endure for several decades, but as the years wore on, more and more questions were raised. Shifts at international and national level began to occur. The 60s and 70s saw Eichmann trial, the Auschwitz trial, the release of films such as The Sorrow and the PityLacombe Lucien, the death of de Gaulle and the emergence of a rich body of works re-examining the history of the Second World War and also the Holocaust. (1) Works by Raul Hilberg, Serge Klarsfeld and many others made France’s crimes evident, but a generation of men and women still struggled to confront this head-on, not least François Mittérand. (2)

It was only in the 1990s that an official shift occurred, with Jacques Chirac’s speech at the Vel d’Hiv in 1995 acknowledging the extent of France’s culpability and crimes, and a series of very public trials revealing the involvement of French bureaucrats in the Holocaust. The film Sarah’s Key which came out in 2010 painted a picture of France reluctant to face its past and silent about Vichy and the Holocaust ; yet after 1995, that was no longer really the case. Exhibitions such as the one in Paris in 2014-15 on Collaboration revealed the darker aspects of the history of Vichy France.

What we see now is more of a consensus: that France contained resistors as well as collaborators, rescuers as well as perpetrators of genocide. There were the anti-Semitic laws, the roundups and the deportations, but there are also the Righteous, the rescuers and the resistors. And there were, of course, all those in the middle, the ones who live day by day, who survived. The need to look at this ‘full picture’ was in fact already present in Chirac’s speech in 1995 – far from lambasting the French, as some accused him of doing (3), he showed the different sides of its wartime history which contained collaboration and genocide, but also resistance and rescue. The new narrative of Vichy France was a combination of both its dark and its glorious past. Subsequent Presidents including Sarkozy and Hollande have continued to present this more balanced view of Vichy France. (4)

les milles

Le Camp des Milles, near Aix, where over 2000 Jews were interned before being deported.

What we know now, and have known for several decades, is that the Germans ordered the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942 and that this roundup was executed by the French administration and the French police. We also know that in the Southern Zone – where the French government in the Vichy had total control – the French ordered, organised and executed the roundup and arrests of Jews, as well as their internment in specific camps, in the summer and fall of 1942. Ultimately, we know that, in regards to the Jewish question, the French collaborated with the Germans on numerous levels, but also at times acted upon their own initiative.

To deny these historical realities is problematic on many levels. In many ways it reminds us immediately of the controversial and negationist comment that Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, had made about the gas chambers years ago. MLP’s comments are not the same as those of her father since they touch on slightly different – albeit still highly controversial – questions. Yet we see here again a complete dismissal of over 50 years of scientific, legal, cultural, political and social work from historians, scholars, researchers, communities, witnesses, organisations, institutions, statesmen, judges and tribunals who have all been working towards a better understanding of the Holocaust in Europe. Le Pen claims that her comments are rooted in the Gaullist tradition – yet de Gaulle’s own understanding of the war was framed in a unique postwar context. We are now far away from that.

What is evident now, in the twenty-first century, is that Vichy history cannot be – and does not need to be – black or white, guilty or innocent. It is all of those things, and more. We know that France was in Vichy, that it was in London, that it was in Africa, as Eric Jennings has most recently pointed out. We know that France and the French were divided, that the history of the Second World War was full of contradictions and complications. The history of Vichy France continues to be a sensitive one in many ways, but the fundamental complexity of those years – which embraces a history of the resistance and the rescuers as much as it does the history of collaborators and bystanders – is no longer really up for debate. Seeing the uproar in response to Le Pen’s unfounded and outdated comments is a testament to the incredible work that has been done in questioning, researching, understanding and accepting France’s experiences in the Second World War over the past 50 years.


(1) For works on the memory of Vichy France see: Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, History and memory in France since 1944 (1991) ; Eric Conan & Henry Rousso, Vichy, un passé qui ne passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994) ; Florent Bayard, Le Génocide des Juifs entre Procès et Histoire (1943-2000) (2000) ; Tony Judt, ‘Epilogue’, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (London: Heinemann, 2005) ; Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory: France and Germany since 1989 (2005) ; Ludivine Broch, Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War (2016).

(2) For works on the Holocaust, and in particular France and the Jews, see: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) ; Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (1981) ; Anne Grynberg, Les Camps de la Honte (1991) ; Serge Klarsfeld, Vichy-Auschwitz: La ‘solution finale’ de la question juive en France  (1993) ; Renée Poznanski, Etre Juif en France pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Paris: Hachette, 1994) ; Denis Peschanski, La France des Camps: L’internement, 1938-1946 (2002) ; Tal Bruttmann, Au bureau des affaires juives. L’administration française et l’application de la législation antisémite (1940-1944) (2006) ; Nicolas Moriot, Claire Zalc, Face à la persécution, 991 juifs dans la guerre (2010) ; Jean-Marc Dreyfus & Sarah Gensburger, Nazi Labour Camps in Paris: Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano, July 1943-August 1944 (New York: Berghan Books, 2011).

(3) Philippe Séguin was particularly critical of this type of what he called self-flagellation, see Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory: France and Germany since 1989 (2005) p64.

(4) The history of Vichy France cannot be reduced to either a dark history or a radiant one, however – collaboration for resistance. It was history of shadows and shades of grey, where the extremes of resistance and collaboration, of the oppressor and the oppressed, could overlap and interconnect. But that is a conversation for another day.

Front Page News

I was in the British Library on Friday, trying to remember the exact day that the Merci Train had pulled into New York City harbour. Scanning over my notes I quickly found that it was on 3 February 1949 ; but rather than return to the application I was working on, I thought I’d slip up to the Newsroom and see if The New York Times had had anything to say about it at the time. The Merci Train is not mentioned in any historiography I have so far encountered, but I did know that it had received attention in the press. Perhaps a small article in the paper would help me elucidate some details?

Imagine my surprise when, scrolling down the microfilm looking for the 3 February issue, I realised my Merci Train had made front page news. The only image on that page, it showed the Magellan ship covered in painted letters reading ‘MERCI AMERICA’. You can spot small flags – bunting – adorning the ship, too. In fact, the whole article – which was, to my delight, continued on page 7 – emphasised the extent of the celebrations welcoming this gift from France. ‘A flotilla of small boats descended on the gayly beflagged Magellan at her anchorage off Quarantine in the wintry, early morning sunlight and made the Narrows resound with blasting sirens and whistles.‘ wrote Joseph J. Ryan, the journalist covering the story. An ‘aerial salute‘ of ‘bombers and fighter jets‘ accompanied the celebrations, as well as ‘four city fire boats‘ which, surrounding the Statue of Liberty, ‘turned their powerful nozzles skyward and sent towering streams of spray into the morning sunlight.’

Waiting on the harbour to welcome the Merci Train was Grover Whalen, who expressed ‘the official greeting of the city … on behalf of Mayor O’Dwyer.’ Who was this ‘Whalen’, and why had the mayor not bothered to come down himself? Was this ceremony not deemed important enough? Whalen, it turns out, was also ‘Mr New York’ (literally the title of his autobiography ), a key political, business and social figure known to everyone. And if O’Dwyer was not their to greet the ship at the harbour, it’s because he was waiting at the Town Hall, where the New York Merci Train Car, once off-loaded from the ship, would make its way in a parade from Battery to 43rd Street.

I can almost hear the harbour vibrating with the sounds of planes, water guns and cheers. They seem loud, celebratory, eager to welcome ‘(t)hese gifts, made at great sacrifice’  which, according to Whalen, were ‘a further assurance of the friendship of the French people for the people of the United States.’ Aside from a friendly gesture, though, this gift – with its 49 boxcars, 52,000 objects and countless notes and letters – was also a strong reminder of America’s own generosity. ‘New York remembers with great pleasure the opportunity of participating in the Friendship Train’, Ryan commented, referring to the humanitarian donation of food made in 1948 from ordinary Americans to the French people. Likewise, America’s participation in the world wars had apparently inspired French railwaymen to scour the country in search of ’40 x 8 rail cars so familiar to American veterans of World War I’. By welcoming this gift in such a grandiose way, were the Americans really celebrating a narrative of war, generosity and sacrifice? Did these gifts serve as mirrors reflecting their own heroism? After all, the French president’s name was misspelled in the article – Vincent Auriel instead of Vincent Auriol – suggesting, in my view, a certain disinterest in the French origins of the gift. No, this gift originated in American generosity dating back to the First World War. How the Merci Train and its 52,000 objects served as a tool to build a narrative of the world wars is, indeed, one of the most fascinating things about it ; it is perhaps for this reason that the story made the front page of The New York Times.