Commentary Magazine

Collaboration Par Excellence

The conventional image of France during World War II is similar to that of Belgium in World War I: a nation trampled upon by the Hun, but in its soul unvanquished. In this picture, a small clique of unrepresentative reactionaries took over the country under the protection of the German army and proceeded, in the abject setting of Vichy, to help the Nazis do their work while the heroic Resistance did what it could to salvage French honor, help the Allies in the war effort, and rescue the victims of fascist persecution.

Like all myths, this one has elements of truth in it. First of all, it is certainly true that France, after the debacle of May-June 1940, was trampled upon by the Germans, who, while they did not behave as viciously as they did in the East, were not exactly magnanimous in victory. Two million Frenchmen were put into POW camps in Germany. Astronomical sums in reparations were levied upon the defeated country. Industrial and agricultural sectors were requisitioned for the German war effort. Alsace and Lorraine were annexed to Germany.

It is also correct that the Vichy government of Marshal Pétain, a regime legally constituted by the last assembly of the Third Republic, was drawn from a small clique of disaffected men who had known little success in the Republic, though they and the elements they represented had had a substantial influence on French culture since the 1890’s. With few exceptions—notably Pierre Laval—the men who ran the Pétain government had been unable to win the voters’ support either for themselves or for their policies. Drawn largely from the circles around Charles Maurras’s Action Française, they claimed to speak for some sort of French authenticity that Frenchmen in their majority, by the evidence of two generations of democratic opportunity, did not recognize.

As for those Frenchmen who made up the Paris-based collaborationist parties, they were, if anything, even less representative of the nation. In some cases more Nazi than the Nazis, in others fanatic Germanophiles, twilight characters, or morbid opportunists, the Paris collaborationists spent a good deal of time denouncing Pétain’s government for being insufficiently fierce in its repression of Jews and Gaullists. In late 1942, when the zone libre was occupied in response to the Allied landing in North Africa, they in fact displaced a number of Pétainists in the government. Thus in particular the fanatic anti-Semite, Darquier de Pellepoix, took over the Jewish Affairs section from the “moderate” Xavier Vallat, and the brutal Joseph Darnand was given the go-ahead to organize the para-police that became the notorious Milice.

Finally, it is certainly true that there was a Resistance. A small number of soldiers and public figures rallied to de Gaulle in the summer of 1940, and it is possible to claim, as he does in his memoirs, that a legitimate French authority, which had had no part in the armistice with Germany, was a continuous reality, and that by keeping its engagements to England and Poland it earned its place in the final victory. (De Gaulle, a member of the last government of the Third Republic, disputed Vichy’s legality throughout the war.) On the other hand it would be wrong to assert that there was an internal Resistance from the start, outside of isolated acts of sabotage and self-sacrifice; but one did develop gradually and was unified in 1943, at least formally, under de Gaulle’s leadership.

Beyond this, however, the popular image of France in the war is indeed a myth. That many Frenchmen fought heroically against Nazism is an ineradicable and noble chapter in French history, but it cannot negate the fact that a great many more, whether they liked it or not, accepted the German Occupation and made the best they could of it. The truth is that France was the collaborationist country par excellence.

Thoughtful and honest observers have never disputed this. Indeed, after the war the French themselves acknowledged it, at least implicitly, by carrying out a purge that killed more Frenchmen, by some reckonings, than had been killed by the Germans. In his memoirs, de Gaulle does not try to dissimulate the smallness of his movement; on the contrary. But the myth took hold because it was convenient, especially in a France distracted by the problems of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The synthesis, as it were, that was achieved between the myth and the reality was the idea that French behavior may have been pretty awful, but it was all due to the presence of a brutal occupying power; for all their sins, the Vichy collaborators had at least shielded the French, including the Jews, from the worst.

This, version of events has not survived serious historical scrutiny. With the recent partial opening of French archives for the period, it is being demolished completely. The term “collaboration” is strictly correct: the French participated, they aided and abetted, they were hand-in-glove with the Nazis in their most wicked enterprises. France took part, voluntarily, in the Holocaust.

The two classic statements justifying the collaborationist policy of Vichy were Laval’s “I desire a German victory, which alone can save Europe from Bolshevism” and Pétain’s “I am following the road of collaboration” with the occupier. For those who have wished to save the reputation of Vichy, at least by contrast to the out-and-out collaborationist party, these statements have been judged to be qualitatively different from the ones emanating from such sources as the novelist Céline, who remarked, “There is only one anti-Jewish and pacifist force in the world: the German army.” They are also taken to signify a willingness to cooperate only in order to safeguard France’s international position, and thus to reflect an essentially neutralist thrust. “La France seule,” Maurras had put it, and he was known to be Anglophobic and Germanophobic as well as anti-Semitic.

But this was not so. Pétain collaborated and Laval favored the triumph of German arms for reasons of domestic policy as well. To put it simply: they required a German shield, while expecting a German victory, to carry out their own national revolution. That revolution, falsely summarized in the slogan “Travail, Famille, Patrie,” which replaced the “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” of 1789, required a solution to the Jewish question no less than did the National Socialist revolution next door.

The slogan of the revolution nationale echoed the reactionary agenda of the enemies of the liberal republicanism embodied in the Third Republic. This agenda was nativist, illiberal, and chauvinist. While the reactionaries themselves traced their roots all the way back to the monarchist ideology of Joseph de Maistre, the real kernel of their thought was to be found in the anti-Semitic, anti-democratic agitation of the 1890’s, the focal point of which was the drawn-out Dreyfus affair. The importance of anti-Semitism in the political and literary milieus that came out of this period cannot be overestimated. The far Right saw France as corrupted by debilitating and alien forces—notably, democratic ideas and Jews. The institution that had welcomed these forces was the Republic. Hence, it was permissible to destroy the Republic by any means necessary, bullets as well as ballots. And, for all practical purposes, Maurras prescribed both. (When an attempt was made on Léon Blum’s life, Maurras was arrested for incitement to murder.) New institutions—ideally, the monarchy—would be needed to return to France a homogeneity and a sense of order that the extreme Right imagined to have characterized the pre-1789 past.

Hence, it was altogether logical in October 1940 for Vichy to pass a series of laws which were a Gallic version of the Nuremberg decrees and which, so to speak, paved the way to Auschwitz with legal cobblestones. These and subsequent laws, one by one, permitted the confiscation of Jewish property, forbade Jews from practicing certain professions (teaching, the media, etc.), restricted their residences and their access to public places, and finally denaturalized Jewish immigrants. These laws were not passed at the request of the Germans.

As Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton write in their somber and excellent new book, Vichy France and the Jews1 “Years of scrutiny of the records left by German services in Paris and Berlin have turned up no trace of German orders to Vichy in 1940 . . . to adopt anti-Semitic legislation.” This devastating study has made full use of the documentary records of the period. By doing so, it sweeps away the vestiges of the excuses that have been made, even by unquestioned anti-fascists, for official French behavior. “Once German policy as it was in 1940 is clearly understood,” the authors write, “it becomes apparent that Vichy policy was no simple copy of it. Vichy mounted a competitive or rival anti-Semitism rather than a tandem one.”



Marrus and Paxton divide the story into two main periods. During the first (1940-42), from the defeat to the occupation of the zone libre in response to the Allied invasion of North Africa, the prevailing doctrine seems to have been that of “anti-sémitisme d’état.” Rooted in the thought of Maurras and directed by his friend, Xavier Vallat, this was an essentially nativist policy, based on the idea that France had to be cleansed of all alien presences. The aim, by degrading as many Jews as possible to second-class citizenship while denaturalizing the rest, was to make France “French.” Here some conflicts developed with the Germans because they, too, were pursuing a policy of expelling Jews, though in the East the more direct solution of killing them had already gotten under way. The French were trying to force recent immigrants back to where they came from (Germany and Poland), where it was known what fate awaited them, only to find the Germans refusing to take them.

There was probably a degree of sincerity in the Vichyites’ claim at this time that they were protecting French Jews, that is, French-born Jews. It is certainly true that as the second period in the story began, the Nazis having set up the machinery for the Final Solution, the French did make an effort to deport foreign Jews first (the mechanics of deportation remained in their hands even in the occupied zone), and in fact three-quarters or more of French-born Jews survived. There is, of course, reason to worry about authorities who take pride in their capacity to make discriminations of this sort; at any rate, the Germans were not especially concerned about the order in which they killed the Jews.

When Darquier replaced Vallat, what remained of the fiction of Vichy autonomy disappeared. Darquier stood for the out-and-out racism of the Paris pro-Nazis, and with him came such hardliners as Darnand. The symbol of the second period of deportation was the huge roundup of Jews in Paris on July 16-17, 1942. It became known as the rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’, because it was to this indoor sports arena that the French police brought 12,884 Jews for transferral to the concentration camp at Drancy (from where, in all, some 70,000 were deported). Conditions at Drancy were abominable, and the breaking up of families that took place there was heartrending.

The brutalities of this period undoubtedly pushed many Frenchmen into the Resistance, although there is no record that the Resistance tried to rescue Jews in a systematic way. Far more important in swelling the ranks of the Resistance was the STO, Service du Travail Obligatoire, the conscript labor for Germany. By the end of the war, France was supplying most of Germany’s civilian manpower, and this provoked deep resentment.2



By maintaining administrative control over the deportations—Germany fielded very few policemen, whether military or SS, in France throughout the war—the Vichyites evidently persuaded themselves that they were guarding their compatriots from a worse fate, such as that which had befallen Poland. What Marrus and Paxton point out, however, after having studied this arrangement in great detail, is that the Germans could not have asked for anything better. They may have had their complaints, and the extremists among them, like Danneker, Best, or the Paris-based SS chief Oberg, may really have believed that Vichy was soft on the Jews, but in view of the war requirements and the size of the country, they would have had to conclude they were well-served:

In the summer and autumn of 1942, when the French police and administration put their hands to the task, some 42,500 Jews were deported from France to their deaths—perhaps one-third of them at Vichy’s initiative from the unoccupied zone. When Vichy began to drag its feet in 1943, the number declined to 22,000 sent east in the year 1943. After the last use of French police in 1944, and despite feverish last-minute German efforts, the number deported up to August 1944 was 12,500. One can only speculate on how many fewer would have perished if the Nazis had been obligated to identify, arrest, and transport without any French assistance every Jew in France whom they wanted to slaughter.



Indeed, one can only speculate. The nearly complete collapse into moral ambiguity of the French elites in 1940 is a theme that has been bothering them since then. An infinitely sad and elegantly produced book, David Pryce-Jones’s Paris and the Third Reich,3 now takes its place in the fairly substantial collection of writing on this subject, while much of Herbert R. Lottman’s The Left Bank,4 a history of the Paris intelligentsia from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, covers the same ground with a focus mainly on the literary world.

The Germans’ Occupation strategy consisted of setting one trap after another to reinforce the fact of French complicity in their crimes. The dilemma posed was: if you do not cooperate we will do it ourselves and it will be worse for you. The tactic was more subtle than is suggested by the usual image of the brutal Nazis, which is accurate enough for the East but less so for France. In the intellectual world, as both Pryce-Jones and Lottman show, the Germans behaved astutely. Censorship was by no means heavy-handed.

Choices could be made. The blackout of information was not very effective. Everyone knew what was going on, and in particular that the Allied war effort continued. Nevertheless, a goodly number of intellectuals collaborated overtly, writing in praise of the German side. Others, while not going so far, permitted their work to be published or their plays to be produced in German-approved forums. This lent an undeniable legitimacy to the collaborationist system. Sartre’s plays Les Mouches (“The Flies”) and Huis Clos (“No Exit”) were produced to rave reviews in the German press (the French collaborationist press was less enthusiastic). The Nouvelle Revue Française—the most influential intellectual periodical in France—was turned over to the fascist writer Drieu la Rochelle (it never recovered), and while this provoked a break between him and Gide and Malraux, who refused to publish under German auspices, many prestigious writers continued doing business as usual.

Still, as Lottman says, “It is difficult to name a single really important French writer who was a traitor.” It was one thing to have the Germans approve a play, something else deliberately to write pro-German dramas or articles. Aside from Drieu, the literary collaborationists, such as Robert Brasillach, were simply not in the same class as Malraux, Gide, Sartre, and Camus. Giraudoux was a reactionary and, like Cocteau, he did not object to being invited to German receptions, but neither of them wrote Nazi propaganda. The only writers of talent who were enthusiastic pro-Nazis were Céline and Lucien Rebate!. Meanwhile, the clandestine publishing house Editions de Minuit and the magazine Lettres françaises were in operation, and resisting writers organized the Comité National des Ecrivains. Many of these died in battle, in prison, or in the camps.



The situation, in short, was complex. But before one remarks that so is life, which is the last defense of apologists for this period, one must ask oneself why so many people took refuge behind this argument. And in particular the intellectuals: Lottman’s book is in large part the history of an anti-fascist movement among intellectuals, in a country where intellectuals had enormous influence upon the wider society. How is it that in a moment of real crisis, when the hardest of choices had to be made, complexity and nuance and all the other arts of self-justification suddenly came into their own?

One explanation is self-interest. People had to live—eating itself became a real problem in these years. (Gross as it sounds, one of the serious attractions of German embassy receptions was the banquet table.) Compromise became a matter of survival, or so it seemed: it is difficult to judge retroactively the relative advantages of total resistance and compromise in a desperate time. Was a young actor supposed to miss his chance—as it happens, to act in Sartre’s plays—because the theater was no longer called the Sarah Bernhardt?



But to pose the question this way is to miss the real point about France. One reason self-interest loomed so large had to do with the exhausted condition in which the country found itself. France had still not recovered from its victory in 1918. The 1930’s had been spent defending the Republic against the extreme Right but also, because it simplified things, tolerating or excusing a rival totalitarianism, that of the Left and of the Soviet Union. After this, the French had to relearn the values that totalitarianism trampled upon, and in the meantime they were poorly equipped to recognize where duty lay.

Should the French nation as a whole be blamed for the consequences of collaboration? The tortured fascination that the French show for this period, as they try to come to terms with it, suggests that the answer is yes.

It is true that collective guilt is a concept of limited usefulness, not least because it smothers “complexity and nuance,” the exceptions, the edges. Yet generalizations about nations’ public policies, and about responsibility for them, not only are possible but have to be made if individual citizens are to have any self-respect. The Germans of the 30’s and 40’s are indeed responsible for unleashing upon Europe the worst catastrophe of its history. And among the villains of our devil-bound century we definitely ought to count, by all that is right, those whom Henri Amouroux, the chronicler of France in the Occupation, called Quarante Millions de Pétainistes.

Of course there were exceptions. Thousands if not tens of thousands of Germans were the first victims of the “socialist” totalitarianism that called itself “national.” If there were between one and two million French soldiers who spent most of the war in POW camps, these can hardly be numbered among Amouroux’s forty million. But just as the remnants of the Thaelmann battalion, handed over by the Vichy authorities to the SS and to their doom, did not represent Germany, so a few thousand Gaullistes in London did not represent France, even if they were the best France had.

The key to French history in the early 1940’s is not, as some seem to think, that there were a few wicked opportunists and a growing number of brave patriots, but rather that, despite a few courageous souls, many were passive and more than enough were evil for evil to prevail.


1 Basic Books, 432 pp., $20.95.

2 Not all French workers in Germany were conscripts, however. Among the volunteers, according to evidence published last year in L'Express, was Georges Marchais, the French Communist party leader, who worked in a factory building war planes.

3 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 304 pp., $25.00.

4 Subtitled “Writers, Artists, and Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War,” this book has already appeared in a French translation (Seuil) and will be published here by Houghton-Mifflin in March (352 pp., $15.95).

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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