Marshal Petain Stamps Red Square

France’s inconvenient truths about fascism and genocide


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SPRING THIS YEAR brought several anniversaries to France. Macron chose to commemorate the death of Napoleon two hundred years ago even though today the former Emperor is a highly divisive figure in France on account of the butchery associated with his campaigns and conquests. Even his ‘reforms’ are now seen as flawed, not to mention his reintroduction of slavery and his treatment of Haiti.

Yet other anniversaries must have given the French even greater cause for introspection, if they remembered them at all.  For example, the round-ups of Jews for Auschwitz by the French police (under no Nazi pressure) in the spring and summer of 1942; the massacres of 40,000 Algerians starting on VE Day 1945; and the massacre of almost one million Tutsis in Rwanda starting in April 1994 in which the French according to two huge recent reports were complicit and for which they bear significant responsibility.

Are we simply to brush all this aside as part of a tragic past? Or should we view it as part of a continuous fascist streak in French history?

Mitterrand for example, who had a strong personal bond with the Hutu dictator of Rwanda under whom the genocide of the Tutsis was planned, had until 1942 been a supporter of Vichy and had received its highest medal from Petain himself. He had also regularly sent wreathes to the grave of Petain and sheltered leading French fascists. Certainly, there was a twisted French nationalism involved in events in Rwanda which is still at work in Macron’s regime (which I shall explain next week). In the meantime we must always respect the positive side of French history, as seen for example in my former student, Julius Fein’s, excellent, recent study of ‘Hitler’s Refugees and the French Response, 1933-1938’. And we cannot overlook the fact (explained below) that three-quarters of French Jews survived the war thanks mainly to the compassion of their fellow French citizens. But still… The ‘revers de la medaille’ needs to be explained.

Fascism today is usually just a term of political abuse. The real thing is very different. Hence the incinerated bodies of thousands of Jews consigned to Auschwitz by the French and the 40,000 Algerians murdered and incinerated by French authorities and pieds noirs militias in Algeria in 1945 cannot merely be brushed aside. Nor can French complicity in the genocide of almost a million Tutsis in Rwanda. French political history and culture has a dark side going back, French right-wingers would assert, to the French Revolution and the Terror. Yet French right-wingers have since surely made up for the crimes committed by the Jacobins.

As an Oxford D.Phil. student carrying out research in Vienna, I met real Nazis. Austria was full of them. Students, who were born after the war, defended their parents, asking innocently if ironically, ‘who else could they have voted for?’ They knew nothing of the Third Reich and presumed it ran free elections. If only. But Hitler would probably still have won.

My landlady was a countess from the court of Franz Joseph. She was a wonderful woman in many ways but a bitter anti-Semite who had worshipped Goebbels. She introduced me to her son, a tall, blonde Nietzschean creature, who had joined the party before the Anschluss and had volunteered to fight on the Eastern Front. We quarrelled over the history of anti-Semitism in Austria and at one point he shouted at me: ‘The trouble with you young people (I was then twenty-two) is that you have no ideals any longer!’ To which I instinctively responded: ‘You mean we don’t burn Jews!’ I was thrown out of his villa, driven back to Vienna, and told never to darken his Nazi doorstep again.

Yet today many if not most young people on the Left, influenced by the likes of Corbyn, support terrorist groups like Hamas, who fire missiles indiscriminately into Israel and, Nazi-style, call for the physical eradication of the Jews. Indeed, on the Left, such anti-Semitism is now politically commonplace. Jews are only popular as victims.

The Austrians had a dreadful record regarding the Holocaust, which was largely run by them, including most concentration camps. Proportionately more Austrians joined the Nazi Party than did Germans. And the Nazi tradition is still strong in Austria today.

Another country with a long tradition of anti-Semitism is France. Even Voltaire was anti-Semitic. By 1886 Edouard Drumont had produced his 1,200 page denunciation of the Jews, ‘La France juive’ (‘Jewish France’) in two volumes. But they were reprinted 140 times over the next two years. They accused the Jews of being a distinct race which controlled international capital and which had murdered Christ. Then between 1894 and 1906, France was torn apart religiously, socially, culturally and politically by the Dreyfus Affair which saw a Jewish general-staff officer wrongly accused of treason. This left the anti-Semitic, nationalist body, the Action Francaise, as the bulwark of conservative thought in the country till the Second World War when its programme was more or less adopted by Petain as the National Revolution of Vichy France, under which the notorious ‘round-ups’ of French and foreign Jews took place in the spring and summer of 1942 before they were despatched in cattle trucks to Auschwitz.

Had the French then become fascists under Petain? For a generation after the war this was universally denied and the Gaullist-Communist myth of a resisting France prevailed. At Sciences Po in Paris, the distinguished. political scientist Rene Remond led a school of thought which laid down that even in the ‘dark years’ of the 1920s and 1930s, all the great political crises of the time – 1926, 1934 and 1938 – had been peacefully resolved and politics remained dominated by the main camps of Republicans, Legitimists and Bonapartists. Fascism remained only on the margins and young fascist enthusiasts had to visit Belgium, Germany or Italy for inspiration. Moreover, as a victor in the First World War, France was a satiated power with no programme of expansion or conquest. Over Abyssinia, Munich and Poland, even French fascists, like all French leaders, opted for peace.

Yet this patriotic consensus was challenged, particularly by the school of the Israeli historian, Zeev Sternhell, which argued that France in fact between the wars had been ‘the cradle of fascism’ where the ideas of left-wing syndicalism and extreme right-wing nationalism had combined to produce fascism (The same argument was being made about pre-1914 Italy.) And most of French society, Sternhell argued, had been converted. His intellectual challenge started in the late 1970s and remained academic at first. But only at first.

Meanwhile, the 1971 film ‘Le Chagrin et la Pitie’ (‘The Sorrow and the Pity’) broke the Gaullist-Communist myth of a France united in resistance. Later on, Pierre Pean’s devastating biography of the young Mitterrand (1994) and the trial of the top civil servant, Maurice Papon (1997) destroyed many myths and raised many questions. For example, had Papon obeyed or issued orders to deport Jews? (If only my former student Stephanie Hare to whom Papon left his diaries and papers would write her once-promised biography of him! She also has hours of interview tapes.)

So was France, and were the French, fascist under Petain?

Clearly Vichy was a brutal, nasty dictatorship which deprived Jews and those with foreign fathers of their civil rights and, as already seen, later arranged the transport to death camps of thousands of Jews. Political parties were outlawed, 5,000 Communists arrested, and even the Republican Georges Mandel was murdered, freemasonry was forbidden, trade unions were banned along with the right to strike and workers were placed under a corporate state that directed industry. The press was censored. Parliament voted Petain full powers on 10 July 1940 before it itself was suspended and the new leader could soon jail whoever he pleased. He personally appointed local mayors and administrators and from January 1941, higher civil servants took an oath to him personally. A youth movement placed 400,000 young men in the countryside. Hitler, who only seemed to care about states he had absorbed into the Reich, didn’t actually interfere very much with Petain save for demanding raw materials and forced labour. In any case, Petain rejected any proposition that France should be a ‘mere imitation’ and actually executed Nazi spies. So far, therefore so fascistic.

Yet political scientists would protest against the label. For a start, unlike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Vichy did not look to the future or seek to create a ‘new man’. Its National Revolution was extremely reactionary and aimed at recreating an ideal past based on Church, family and nation. The family, according to Petain, was to be “the essential cell, the very foundation of the social edifice” and received all sorts of grants and supports. From 1941, divorce was outlawed during the first three years of marriage. Abortion was made a ‘crime against the state’ and even led to death sentences. The Church received the right to open schools. If Mussolini and Hitler welcomed cars, aeroplanes and the speed of modernity, Petain’s ‘new man’ was a simple peasant farmer devoted to his family, the Catholic Church and his ‘patrie’.

Secondly, Vichy never attempted to launch a political party (often seen as a core element of a fascist state) and the ‘Milice’ never became a mass movement. In Vichy the local notables were once again supposed to give orders and the plebs obey. There was no desire to mobilise the masses on behalf of the regime.

Finally, political scientists emphasise that Vichy was not dedicated, like Germany and Italy, to the survival of the fittest through war. Petain could never have echoed Mussolini’s statement that ‘war will transform the Neapolitans into a Nordic people.’ Vichy was the product of defeat and armistice.  Syria and North Africa were sideshows.

These points are made by Olivier Wieviorka, the distinguished French contemporary historian, but do they matter? They tell us perhaps more about political science definitions of fascism than about the reality on the ground.
Wieviorka is more convincing when he discusses the support of the regime given by the French people. How fascist had they become?

The first thing to realise is that Petain was already a national hero and that his popularity grew on account of the armistice. People were relieved to be out of the war. It was hoped he could still protect them from Hitler. In a sense he was seen like Adolphe Thiers after 1870. Again, many French had been shocked by the Popular Front and wanted a National Revolution based on family, Church and ‘patrie’. They positively approved of laws against Jews and foreigners; but.. this support was conditional and shrank over time.

Compare the Italian historian, de Felice’s, differentiation of active and passive support for Mussolini in Italy. Petain could not get active support against the black market; he could not get active support for working in German factories; Vichy could not therefore prevent harsh rationing or forced labour in Germany. War came back in Syria and North Africa and from 1942 Metropolitan France was bombed. Many who wanted to avoid collaboration with Germany began to join the resistance. By 1942-43 the French were also hiding their Jews of whom three quarters were saved. In the end the regime just collapsed. There was no last-minute resistance as in Italy’s Republic of Salo. There was no will to fight to the bitter end as in Germany (In 1947, 55% of Germans still thought Nazism was ‘a good idea badly executed’.) French authorities everywhere simply accepted Gaullist authority and takeover.

Wieviorka concludes that Vichy therefore was not a fascist state but rather a very nasty counter-revolutionary regime steeped in French history. This may, I fear, be letting it off too lightly. Maybe it was just a hybrid fascist state that proved unable to retain its popularity.

In any case, its successor would very soon also have blood on its hands, more even perhaps than Vichy itself.

Next week I turn to Algeria and Rwanda.

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Photos of Marshal Petain stamps from Vichy France bLefteris Papaulakis from Adobe Stock 


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