Why Barbie may never be tried
- The People’s Anger: Justice and Revenge in Post-Liberation France by Herbert Lottman
Hutchinson, 332 pp, £12.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 09 165580 3
Modern states very seldom acknowledge their own crimes. In 1944, however, France had to assume responsibility for the fact – unlike Germany or Italy, there was no army of occupation to do it for her – that in almost every field her élites had been compromised. The resulting purge was not only a comprehensive attempt to found a new moral order: it had undeniable echoes of the Revolutionary Terror. Indeed, prosecutors and ministers alike frequently compared themselves to Danton and Robespierre, often with a note of genuine admiration for the latter. Robespierre, they said, had always had the guts to take public responsibility for his actions: Liberation justice, too, should have no truck with anonymity. Teitgen, the Christian Democrat Minister of Justice, for instance, boasted that he had purged more people than the sea-green incorruptible himself.
Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987
SIR: R.W. Johnson’s review (LRB, 5 March) of Herbert Lottman’s book The People’s Anger closes with a gratuitous reference to recent United States history, as if the parallel he suggests were obvious: ‘Just as the Americans have still to come to terms with Vietnam, the French have still, collectively, to come to terms with Vichy.’ Except in a passing reference to the presence of American troops, America had nothing to do with the review, and nothing to do, apparently, with the book being reviewed, but Professor Johnson managed to seize the occasion nonetheless: how can wickedness possibly come under discussion without mention of Vietnam? I have no doubt that in reviewing a book on Jenghiz Khan he would be able to generate a cameo appearance for Mr Nixon. That a condemnation should be gratuitous is, of course, no argument against its substance. Consider, then, the parallel itself. Is Vietnam to America as Vichy to France? Did the United States leadership send soldiers to Vietnam because it was comfortable to do so? Or to indulge its latent racism? That the Vietnam war was a failed enterprise is plain: do the French look on Vichy as a ‘failed enterprise’?
One more comment. Why should the French still, collectively, have to come to terms with Vichy? The ‘shame and humiliation of the Occupation’ is something for the participants to come to terms with, I should think. In America, at least, Bills of Attainder and the Corruption of Blood are prohibited by the Constitution.
University of Rochester, New York
R.W. Johnson writes: I meant, of course, that Vichy and Vietnam were both national traumas. Because they were national traumas there is a collective need to come to terms with them. The sharpness of Mr Raimi’s response to a two-line simile appears simply to make my point in another way.