- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003


By Michael Curtis

Arcade, $28.95, 419 pages, illus.


In June of 1940 the French armies in the eastern provinces were outflanked by German divisions commanded by Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel; there was one exception to the rout, a tank counterattack on the Moselle led by an obscure brigadier named Charles de Gaulle. He noted that the Wehrmacht was applying tactics he had developed in the previous decade, failing to sell them to his superiors, including one of his mentors, Philippe Petain.

After serving briefly in the last cabinet of the Third Republic, de Gaulle fled to London and called on his countrymen to continue the war out of bases in the Empire. “We have lost a battle,” he said, “but this is a world war.” Soon, he continued (if I may paraphrase), the rear bases of the free world, including the United States, would be in it and would ineluctably bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany. Few heard him, fewer believed him.

A few stragglers made it to London, forming the first units of what would become Fighting France, which would, indeed, continue the war, first in Africa and later in Italy and points north.

Petain, meanwhile, heard the call of the parliamentarians to form a new government and negotiate an armistice. Which he did, and which he followed with the burial of the Third Republic in favor of a new regime, called the French state (Etat francais, as opposed to the traditional Republique francaise).

Since the Germans were in Paris and indeed most of France north of the Loire and along the entire Atlantic coast Petain and the parliamentarians who had voted for him (the minority either faded into the night or made their way to London) betook themselves to a little spa town, Vichy, which is pleasant and boring (the spring water is reputed to be good for the digestion) in the middle of the country. The idea of a “world war” in a place like this was — probably still is (I was there a few years ago) — incomprehensible, indeed the idea of a “world” outside France was probably incomprehensible (today, less so).

And this is the main point, temperamentally speaking, about the Vichy regime, which seems to completely escape Michael Curtis, a Rutgers historian, who in “Verdict on Vichy” cannot write a simple clear sentence when a wooden academic one, loaded down with participles and aimless subordinate clauses, is available. He does not grasp how isolated and indeed isolationist France’s political culture was in those awful decades of the 1930s and 1940s.

It renders him incapable of explaining the real, horrible truth about Vichy: which is that it was not a “right-wing” phenomenon or a “fascist” phenomenon or any other kind of ideological phenomenon, it was above all a French phenomenon. “I am giving myself to France,” Petain stated, and he really meant it, and people really understood what he meant, far better than they understood de Gaulle.

Right wingers and left wingers went to London, and what became the “interior Resistance” of Hollywood (and later French) legend was at first a mainly conservative movement, led by army officers like Henri Frenay and patriots whose first instinct, in many cases, had been to support Petain as the least awful alternative to being crushed like Poland.

By corollary, many on the left went with Petain, though it is certainly true that his ideologists, such as they were — Vichy was above all a shabby place, mentally, morally, intellectually, and every other way — came mainly from the right. But it is important to recall that they also came, in very important ways, from the left.

Actually, Petain himself was more liberal; in the ‘30s (when, still basking in his reputation as one of the winning World War I generals, he held important government jobs in the war department), than de Gaulle, who had been influenced in his youth by the royalist Action francaise movement (which supported Petain despite its Germanophobia).

The important thing, though, is that the regime was not so much right or left as it was the expression of all the accumulated fears and resentments and prejudices that the French had accumulated in the previous decades. Vichy was French pettiness and French meanness at its worst. And these qualities came out, more than anywhere else, in its persecution of Jews.

And here Mr. Curtis deserves to be thanked. For while he does not really add anything to our knowledge of the war by Vichy against the Jews, he puts all the information that has accumulated over the past five decades into useful, summary form.

Vichy had a confused, corrupt, cowardly agenda, and it would take a more subtle and thoughtful historian to bring out this complicated period in a single readable volume. But on one issue — and here Mr. Curtis is absolutely right — there was no confusion: The Vichy functionaries, their ideologues, their hangers-on, their bully-boys (recall the portrait of the infamous Milice paramilitaries in the film “Lacombe, Lucien”) were agreed: If it comes down to us or the Jews, let it be the Jews. And so it was the Jews.

The regime anticipated, repeatedly, German policy, by passing anti-Semitic legislation without being asked to. The regime used its own police, without prodding by the S.S. (who were scarcely present in France until 1944), to round up the Jews, first the foreign-born and then the citizens of France), and ship them “east.” The regime did not need to be told by the Wehrmacht to go after the “terrorists” of the interior resistance.

In Africa and the Middle East and Indochina, troops and functionaries loyal to the French state fought against American, British, and Fighting French (later Free French) troops as they closed in on the Axis. On this Mr. Curtis also has it right. Vichy served the German war effort and the war effort had the killing of Jews as one of it primary strategic objectives. And Vichy was France.

But there is a but. De Gaulle too was France. Jean Moulin, murdered by the Gestapo following (probably) betrayal by Frenchmen, was France. Pastor Andre Trocme and his refuge at Le Chambon and the people who hid the boy who would later grow up and marry my sister, and many others — these too were France. The Senegalese and the Algerians and the Vietnamese who signed on in Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc’s division and fought to save France — they were France, though France scarcely thanked them afterward.

These were not mere gestures. The strategic contribution of the Fighting French and of the interior Resistance was important, if not decisive. French opposition to the Vichy-Nazi Jewish policies was important too — somewhat over three quarters of the Jews of France (330,000 in 1940) survived. Mr. Curtis’ estimate of the number of victims is 77,000. This would not have happened had not France been deeply divided over how to respond to the disaster of 1940.

France remained divided for many years afterward. The Vichy regime lasted only the time of an American administration, but its traumatic consequences are still felt. President Jacques Chirac, who always boasts of his “Gaullism” is in fact a protege of the late president Georges Pompidou, who viewed the “reconciliation” between Vichy and Free France as one of the political goals of his career.

His prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, though, like his boss, obviously too young to be implicated in Vichy, demonstrated the degree to which its spirit lives on when he very nearly stated before a British audience that he desired the victory of Iraq (he refused to state flatly that he desired an Anglo-American victory): This was, to French ears, a very clear echo of Pierre Laval’s comment (Laval was Petain’s deputy) during the Battle of Britain that he desired a German victory.

There is nothing unusual with a great nation being traversed by contradictory currents, some quite awful and others admirable. At any rate, Michael Curtis has given us a useful catalogue of what the Vichy regime was all about, without really explaining anything about it. It’ll do as reference.

Roger Kaplan’s book on France, “Conservative Socialism,” was recently issued by Transaction Publishers.

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