France Doubles Down on Honoring the Memory of Vichy’s Victims

French President Francois Hollande’s speech on the seventieth anniversary of the infamous French round-ups of Jews doubled down on the French Republic’s recent efforts at the highest levels to come to grips with a shameful evocation of Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies.


French President Francois Hollande speaks on the 70th anniversary of the infamous French round-ups of Jews.

The laudable trend started in 1995, when President Jacques Chirac finally accepted that “France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and of human rights, the country of safe harbor and welcome, behaved irreparably” toward Jews on French soil during the War. Whereas before, only some historians, filmmakers, and novelists had faced the reality of Vichy wrongdoing head on, now the deflection of guilt on to the Germans alone and the myth of “universal French resistance” were forthrightly rebuffed by France at its highest levels.

President Nicolas Sarkozy did nothing to alter the gradual move to honest self-criticism. In a small gesture, for example, he awarded me the Legion of Honor in 2009 in recognition of my work “on behalf of human rights and the Jewish victims of the Vichy regime.” This marked quite a turnaround, since when I started my work as an historian of Vichy and then a litigator on behalf of its victims, France hardly displayed any enthusiasm for my efforts. I was most gratified to receive the honor, and am even more proud of it now that Hollande has spoken.

Nonetheless, for the past few years, there have been voices of revisionism in France, and not only from some expected extreme right sources. It is very difficult, as everyone everywhere should recognize, to sustain sincere self-criticism regarding shameful national episodes. Some of the same historians and moral voices that had educated a reluctant France to accept responsibility for the anti-Semitic policies that led to the arrest and deportation of more than 75,000 Jews from French soil have recently declared that it might be time to “turn the page” and again emphasize the origins of genocide within Nazi Germany itself.

As outstanding a moral leader as Serge Klarsfeld and his son Arno Klarsfeld — whom I interviewed a dozen years or so ago and who helped at the time, like his father, to correct the ensconced myths about World War II France and the Jews — have more recently vigorously defended the French National Railroad (SNCF) against efforts to hold it accountable for transporting Jews to the camps (see the January 25, 2011, editions of the New York Times and Le Figaro.) Their campaign to cushion the SNCF, which has extended to Arno’s appearance in a French court on its behalf, and to Serge’s labeling as “relentless” Americans seeking accountability, has surprised many. The seeming 180-degree shift within such outstanding figures probably signals their desire to slow the laudable trend towards full revelation of, and a measure of justice for, French complicity on all levels in the Shoah.


An official plaque commemorates the round-up of Jewish men, women, and children by French police.

The slippery slope to forthrightness, and the even more treacherous path to reparation, may well have been on the newly elected French President’s mind when he went beyond his predecessors to offer a magnificent promise that France will never forget and that he, individually, will make sure that no French school child will lack knowledge of his country’s most shameful years. “We must fight against all forms of historical falsification,” declared Hollande on the day that marked the seventieth anniversary of the arrest of Jewish men, women, and children in the capital of the enlightenment itself by French police working alone (“not one German soldier, not one, was mobilized for this operation”). The eternal fight, he declared, would be “not only against negationists, but also against all those tempted by relativism.”

For me, the ribbon that I proudly wear now seems brighter still because the country that gave me the honor has come full circle by both demanding historical truth and countering the very human urge to retreat from it when all kinds of secondary factors and arguments remain available to underming reality. Hollande’s words merit reflection in our own country, too, where some shocking post–September 11 policies are adopted and accepted without much protest. I refer here to policies connected to torture, interrogation techniques, Guantánamo, prolonged detention, and targeted killings, and I have written elsewhere about the connection I see between some US post-9/11 policies and France’s wartime ability to compromise its own finest traditions. (See my piece on “Loose Professionalism” in Sanford Levinson’s Torture: A Collection.)

Hollande also referenced the ongoing work of the French Commission on the Indemnisation of Victims of the Shoah, an agency I have been charged with overseeing in the specific mode of restitution for Vichy-era banking theft. In that agency, supported by successive governments, individual victims or their heirs can make claims and receive some measure of justice.

There is no statute of limitations in these areas. There is no avoiding the lessons of history or the responsibility to figure out the “hows” and especially the “whys” of departures from a nation’s finest traditions.

The new French president has made clear that some issues must be addressed with intractability and not compromised. If heeded, this lesson from our old ally in human rights will radiate even beyond the nation and the specific historical period it addressed.

Richard Weisberg is the Floersheimer Professor of Constitutional Law at Cardozo Law School in New York and the author of Vichy Law and the Holocaust In France.
tags: Politics & Society, War & Peace   
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3 Responses to France Doubles Down on Honoring the Memory of Vichy’s Victims

  1. Prof. George Pieczenik August 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Prof.Weisberg clearly states that the new French policy of revising its view of the unique role of the Vichy government and its collaborators rounding up France’s Jewish population in the infamous Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver is wrong.
    There is one simple reason to support Prof. Weisberg. He is correct.
    There is a more complex reason. Every country in Europe collaborated with the nazis in rounding up and liquidating its Jewish population. The Nazi Collaborator video series by the BBC visually documents this collaboration. One such collaborator, Alexis Carrel, Rockefeller Institute’s Nobel laureate, was a virulent anti german anti-Semite and one of the prime eugenicists advising Vichy France.
    What is not known is the cover-up of collaborators and nazi criminals by American agents. Allied High Commissioner John Mc Cloy, later Rockefeller’s lawyer, was bribed by American lawyer Earl J. Carroll to release Krupp and other nazi war ciminals on the condition that he receive five percent of Krupp’s evil empire. McCloy released them.
    McCloy also hid Klaus Barbie from French prosecution for the brutal torture and murder of Jean Moulin.
    McCloy also instructed Adenauer not to sign a peace treaty so that France and Poland would not have to pay reparations for the nazi use of their population as slave labor.
    McCloy was a reparations lawyer for the Black Tom explosion and settled german reparations for WWI in 1976. He then blocked any german reparations to France for WWII slave labor. Therefore, there is no peace treaty signed by germany ending WWII, only an armistice. We and they are still at war.
    McCloy also blocked the bombing of Auschwitz. McCloy’s law firm still handles Himmler’s daughter’s ill gotten gains.

    The IRS tried to get taxes out of Earl Carroll. But, he appealed. the US Supreme Court supported Carroll’s position of not paying any taxes on his ill gotten gains.

    The issue of individual responsibility for the round up and liquidation of the Jewish population is a universal issue and should continue to be addressed and prosecuted. Nothing has changed and all structures and institutions for such liquidations are still in place in various countries.
    Prof. Weisberg’s has laid the historical and legal groundwork for this just cause. It should not be ignored.

  2. Daniel F. Tritter August 30, 2012 at 5:15 am

    As an old student, friend and colleague of Richard Weisberg, I am much in his debt for first awakening me to the complicity of the Vichy government in defining, rounding up and shipping French Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps. His work and that of Professors Marrus and Paxton preceded the high level admissions by Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy and now Hollande to the crimes against humanity by the French puppets in Vichy. It has been an ongoing revelation, and Professor Weisberg has been a leading voice, in books, essays and from the lectern, as well as in American federal courtrooms to gain some reparation to victims and their families.

    Professor Pieczenik points out that France was not the only perpetrator of such horrors. That doesn’t undercut the double disgrace that for nearly four decades after World War II, most French wore the mask of faux resistance, hiding their active role in the deportations.

    As a footnote to the catalogue of evil machinations by John J. McCloy, Professor Pieczenik omits the indefensible, unethical, in fact, criminal role of McCloy while serving in the wartime Justice Department,
    when submitting an appellate brief to the Supreme Court in the Japanese detention case of Korematsu v. United States. He deliberately cut a footnote that documented the failure to establish a single act of disloyalty or subversion by any of the imprisoned 120,000 Japanese-Americans. The inclusion would have seriously undercut or destroyed the government’s case. If McCloy’s record as a racist after the war was evident, one shouldn’t forget that during the war, the United States was his training ground.

    Daniel F. Tritter
    Vice President
    Law and Humanities Institute

  3. Jacqueline Swartz September 25, 2012 at 11:48 am

    The gist of Weisberg’s article and the comments that followed do not, I believe take into consideration some facts on the French ground. As the noted French (and Jewish) historian of Vichy, Henry Rousso, author of The Vichy Syndrome and the Haunted Past, has said, France is obsessed with the dark years of the Vichy government. What’s more, talk of the Occupation today is dominated by the Shoah, not the Resistance.
    As for Serge Klarsfeld, his valiant work puts him above reproach. What he has objected to is the tarring of all the French with the collaborator brush. As he points out, 75% of French Jews were not deported, and many survived because they were hidden by righteous gentiles. The inverse of this number, by the way, can be found in Holland.
    Jacqueline Swartz

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