Speaker describes Vichy France
On Thursday, April 5, Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Science at Columbia University Robert Paxton delivered the annual Berger Family Holocaust Lecture. The lecture, which was titled “Vichy France and the Jews: Shield or Traitor,” focused on the role of the Vichy France government during the Holocaust.
In his introduction for Paxton, Professor of History Raffael Scheck insisted that Paxton “has changed the history books” and added that his publications have been “extremely distinguished,” especially his 1972 book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, in which Paxton argued that Vichy collaboration with the Germans was voluntary.
Paxton began his lecture with the name Irene Nemarovsky, a French Jew who was “one of 75,000 Jews deported from France in the early 1940s.” Paxton added that Nemarovsky’s “family had thought of France as a refuge” from persecution in other states. However, despite her status as a famous writer, whom Paxton called “well-known and well-connected” among conservative French leaders, she was arrested by French gendarmes on July 13, 1942.
Paxton asked, “Why is it that the French police are participating?” He said that, contrary to popular belief, the Nazis “depended highly on local assistance from the Vichy government” as they did with other governments in occupied or semi-occupied areas.
The members of the Vichy government thought of themselves as “realists,” according to Paxton. Given the chance to be what Paxton called, “at least theoretically a sovereign country” under the Germans, Vichy accepted the peace terms.
Paxton said of the Vichy government, “they were not the fire-eating anti-Semites of the Paris collaboration,” but rather a product of France’s “serious crisis of self-confidence in the 1930s.”
In Paxton’s words, conservative France was “utterly terrified” by the 1936 victory by Jewish Socialist Party Prime Minister Leo Blum. Having taken back the government in the 1940 elections, Vichy sought to eliminate what was considered to be “exaggerated Jewish influence.”
Paxton said that even before the Nazis came for the Jews “they embarked on a program in Vichy France of actually confiscating businesses from the Jews.” This, he said, was done in 1940, a time when the Vichy government had a good deal of freedom from Nazi influence.
Despite the relative freedom of the Vichy government, French police carried out thousands of arrests in unoccupied areas of their country. There were only about 2,300 German police in France and they would have been unable to arrest the thousands of Jews without assistance.
While “the defenders of Vichy love to compare it with Poland,” Paxton contends that this is an invalid comparison. While three-fourths of French Jews survived during World War II and only one-fourth were taken away, Poland under full occupation had no control over what happened to its Jews. Therefore, Paxton believes that Poland and other occupied countries deserve less blame than France for what happened to the vast majority of Jews who died in their countries.
More appropriate comparisons included Italy and Denmark. While both countries were under some Nazi influence, they did not give up their Jews at anything near a 25 percent rate. According to Paxton, despite implementation of anti-Jew laws in Italy by Benito Mussolini, Italy’s population was “quite indifferent to this nonsense.” In Denmark, only 0.5 percent of Jews were lost to the Holocaust.
After WWII, when the government of Vichy France was put on trial, the commissioner for Jewish affairs in the government claimed that he took the initiative on “the Jewish problem.” Paxton disagreed, adding, “It’s unthinkable to me that you could argue that, left to themselves, the Germans could have taken one-fourth of the Jews.”
However, not all of the French were to blame for the actions of the Vichy government. As Paxton said, “a great many people took Jewish refugees in France,” an action later commemorated by the planting of thousands of trees planted in Jerusalem.
Paxton concluded by saying, “in the end, people believed what they wanted to believe....I don’t think it exonerates anybody.” Overall, he believes that Vichy France made things worse for the Jews, and the Vichy government’s responsibility for the Holocaust should not be hidden.