In the aftermath of the Allied liberation of France, the poet Louis Aragon, mimicking his medieval forebear François Villon while channeling a despondent collaborator in the 1945 ballad “The Snows of Sigmaringen,” famously asked not “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” but “Where are my henchmen of yesteryear [Où sont mes sbires d’autrefois]?” It appears that Aragon’s question will finally be answered in full, albeit 70 years after the restoration of the French Republic, as it has recently been announced that in 2015 the classified police archives on French collaboration with the Nazi authorities will be exposed to the light of day. No longer to be confined to cardboard boxes ensconced in the basement of the Parisian Musée des Collections Historiques de la Préfecture de Police, these documents, including thousands of names, police logs, and interviews relating to this parlous era in French history, are to be scanned and made available on the Internet as soon as the 75-year post-war classification order (which on passage was made retroactive to 1940) has run its course.
Though few of the Nazi abettors and Vichystes named in the files will be among the living by the time the archives appear online in their unexpurgated form, the publication of these Second World War-era annals nevertheless will represent a significant event in a country that has long been engaged in a Gallic counterpart to Germany’s so-called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “struggle to come to terms with the past.” It was a struggle that began with the bloody post-war épurations (judicial and extrajudicial purges), continued over the subsequent decades, and figures to extend to 2015 and beyond, intermittently capturing the attention of the nation, the continent, and the world.
The French body politic has long come in for criticism for its handling of the legacies of the period between 1940 and 1944, and with good reason. It is genuinely astounding that François Mitterrand, the 21st president of the French Republic, could ever have insisted that France “was never involved” in the discrimination against and deportation of its Jewish population. One need only have considered the events surrounding the infamous mid-July 1942 Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver (the Vel’ d’Hiv Police Roundup), in which French gendarmes and civil servants were complicit in the detention and deportation of some 13,152 men, women, and children bound for Auschwitz, or the administrative actions of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, the odious Vichy Commissioner of Jewish Affairs, to know better than to maintain such a position.
Such outrageous historical myopia was (and is) only a few steps removed from outright negationism, and constituted a profound disservice to the French nation. As Tony Judt put it, “the tortured, long-denied and serially incomplete memory of France’s war – of the Vichy regime and its complicitous, pro-active role in Nazi projects, above all the Final Solution…back-shadowed all of Europe’s post-war efforts to come to terms with World War Two and the Holocaust.” Measures like the release of the Préfecture de Police archives are meant to dispel the “shadow of a lie” cast by statements like that of Mitterrand, or the government suppression of the broadcast of Marcel Ophuls’ 1969 revelatory documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Anger). Much work has had to be done. Even as late as 1976, the French Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs was requesting changes to a memorial for French victims at Auschwitz on the grounds that the listed names “lacked a properly French resonance,” while in 2005 the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was reported to have queried, during an official visit to Yad Vashem, whether English Jews were also deported to death camps. Events like these gave the distinct impression that the realities of the Holocaust had yet to fully penetrate the French psyche.
Previous efforts, to be fair, had been made to address the legacy of French collaborationism, including the extrajudicial justice meted out to between 8,000 and 9,000 individuals in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the 300,000 official investigations and 124,613 sentences passed down (including 6,763 death sentences, 767 of which were carried out, and the stripping of civil rights of 5,000 more). Yet the “Jewish dimension” was all to often ignored, and it was only decades later, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, that the most notorious of the anti-Semitic collaborators — Klaus Barbie, Paul Touvier, René Bousquet, and Jean Leguay — would be investigated and tried. By 1990 the tide was turning, as evidenced by the Gayssot Act, which (controversially from a free-speech standpoint) made Holocaust denial a criminal offense, and by 1995 President Jacques Chirac had publicly admitted that those “black hours will stain our history forever and are an injury to our past and our traditions.” France, “home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man,” had committed “the irreparable,” but the reckoning had begun in earnest.
By 1999 a Commission pour l’indemnisation des victimes de spoliations (Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation) had been founded, which over the following decade would award €453,428,986 to claimants, with an average of €28,700 per application. Claims for reparations would lead to the seminal Conseil d’État (Counsel of State) decision on February 16, 2009 (N° 315499) concerning the damages of “Mme Madeleine A” and “M. Joseph B,” in which the executive branch officially acknowledged its “state responsibility” for the “absolute break with the values and principles [rupture absolue avec les valeurs et principes]” of the republic that occurred during the years of the Occupation. Moreover, the Council of State called for monetary awards to be supplemented by a “solemn remembrance of the collective harm suffered by those victims [reconnaissance solennelle du préjudice collectivement subi par ces personnes]” on the part of the French government and its people. It is hoped that the release of the police archives will enable policymakers, researchers, and ordinary citizens to accomplish precisely that.
One notes with interest the noticeable up-tick of interest in this era of French history during what is now the 70th anniversary of the German invasion. The historian and member of the Académie française Pierre Nora has gone so far as to denounce the ongoing “obsession commemorative” that has led to bookstore display shelves groaning under stacks of freshly-published studies of the la défaite française, including Claude Quétel’s L’Impardonnable défaite (The Unpardonable Defeat) and Jacques Sapir, Frank Stora and Loïc Mahé’s Et si la France avait continué la guerre… (And if France had continued the war…). In a country whose reading public has in recent years voraciously devoured Suite française and other rediscovered masterpieces of the French novelist and Holocaust victim Irène Némirovsky, and whose populace (excepting Jean-Marie Le Pen and his Holocaust-denying ilk) have exhibited a newfound readiness to grapple with the legacy of the Final Solution in France, it would seem that a corner has been turned.
While anti-Semitism remains a serious concern in modern France, with the Jewish Community Protection Service reporting 832 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2009, as compared with 474 such incidents in 2008, and while Franco-Israeli relations are prone to diplomatic friction and irritation, one imagines that a complete reckoning of the crimes committed during the Occupation, a reckoning enabled by the release of the police archives, will help ensure that those “henchmen of yesteryear” are named and shamed (however belatedly). They can then, as Aragon hoped, posthumously “head away to shame.” The present-day French body politic can only benefit from such an accounting. As former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin admitted in a 2005 speech at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, France “is bound forever by the debt she has incurred,” but any action that serves in some small way to discharge that debt is to be welcomed.