The seed for this book was planted in 1972, when Carmen Callil saw Le Chagrin et la pitié, Marcel Ophuls’s stunning documentary of life in Clermont-Ferrand during World War Two. Her attention was caught by a clip showing Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution and Himmler’s deputy, shaking hands in May 1942 with Darquier de Pellepoix, charged by the German occupiers and the Vichy government with delivering France’s quota of Jews for deportation. The name was familiar. Between 1963 and 1970, she had been treated three times a week by a psychoanalyst named Anne Darquier, to whom she had become very close, and who had probably committed suicide. Were they related? They were, and for more than three decades Callil, conscious of a need to discharge a debt as both a patient and a friend, pursued Darquier, Vichy’s commissioner for Jewish affairs, whose role was to eliminate and despoliate all the Jews who lived in France.
He was born plain Louis Darquier in Cahors in 1897. His forebears were peasants and artisans, though he later claimed descent from the dukes of Gascony, assorted minor nobles and even, possibly, Joan of Arc. He called himself baron and appropriated ‘de Pellepoix’ from a distinguished but unrelated 18th-century astronomer. His father was a doctor and both a German governess and an English one were employed for the family’s three sons. Louis grew up fluent in both languages. His older brother, Jean, qualified as a neurologist and René, the youngest son, became a successful businessman on whom Louis would sponge shamelessly.
He left school in 1914 and began to study medicine, which he abandoned the following year to enlist. At school, he had been considered unpredictable and not a team player. He did better in the army. He was mentioned in despatches and was cited for ‘unshakeable bravery’ and ‘superb disregard for danger’. But he was also charged with indiscipline and left the service under a cloud in 1919.
Having no useful qualifications, he took a job selling advertising, until family connections found him work in the Alsace wheat trade, then run by Jewish businessmen. His work took him to various European cities. When in London, he stayed at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. He acquired a reputation as a rake, got into debt and in 1926 was quietly ‘resigned’ for using his company’s money for his own purposes. Two years later, still with no prospects, he married.
Myrtle Jones was born into a farming family in Tasmania in 1893. In 1916, she left home to go on the stage, though neither as ‘Sandra Lindsay’ nor under her own name did she leave any trace in Australia’s theatrical history. In 1923, she married a British-born Gilbert and Sullivan trouper, Roy Workman, and late in 1926 they set out for Europe calling themselves Lord and Lady Workman-Macnaghten of Belfast. How Louis met Myrtle is not clear, but he quickly detached her from Roy, whom she never divorced. In 1928, in a London Register Office, Myrtle Jones bigamously became Mme Darquier de Pellepoix, despised by Louis’s family and as addicted to fancy titles as her new husband.
Without an income, they relied mainly on handouts from René and lived in a succession of seedy hotels from which they were periodically ejected. But they kept up appearances, he with homburg and eyeglass and she with twinset and pearls. In April 1930, Louis was summoned before London magistrates for failing to register properly as an alien. Under the headline ‘Monocled Baron Charged’, the Evening Standard described him as ‘tall and distinguished-looking’ in a ‘speckled-grey overcoat’. When he registered the birth of their only child, Anne, a few months later, he gave his occupation as ‘landowner and French baron’ while Myrtle signed herself ‘Myrtle Marion Ambrosene Darquier de Pellepoix, formerly Lindsay-Jones’. Subsequently, and not merely to misdirect creditors, Callil observes, she answered to Sandra Lyndsay-Darquier, Cynthia de Pelle Poix and Myrtle Darquier de Pellepoix, and was variously Irish, English, American and the owner of ranches in Australia. She preferred to be called baroness, baronne or baronesa.
They found a nurse called Elsie Lightfoot for Anne, then went about their lives, virtually abandoning child, nurse and their financial responsibilities. Louis wrote unpublishable novels, Myrtle honed her drinking skills, and they lived apart for periods on money cadged from their families. But their fortunes improved when Louis gave up his literary ambitions and discovered politics.
For thirty years, since the Dreyfus Affair, left and right had been locked in a battle about what sort of country France should be: liberal and progressive, or authoritarian and traditional. Charles Maurras was the voice of royalist, Catholic, conservative, xenophobic France. Only ‘integral nationalism’, represented by Action Française, the movement whose most influential member he was, could defeat the enemy, identified as the democratic, parliamentary Republic, which he declared to be in thrall to British, German, Jewish, Masonic and Bolshevik interests. Action Française was not a political party but an extra-parliamentary pressure group and the face of French Fascism. It was supported by dissident nationalists, who after 1930 formed into vicious paramilitary groups. For some, the enemy was the global Jewish conspiracy, for others, international Communism and the Freemasons. But all agreed that only an authoritarian state could resist the dangers that threatened the nation.
By late 1933, when the Stavisky affair broke, Darquier had become a Maurrassian ‘integral nationalist’. Stavisky, a swindler who had involved judges, members of parliament and senators in large-scale financial scams, was found dead by the police: had he been ‘suicided’ as part of a high-level cover-up? On 6 February 1934, an anti-corruption march in Paris degenerated into a riot which brought France to the brink of civil war. The police shot into the crowd, killing 17 and wounding 1500. Darquier, hit in the thigh, was one of them. It was a good wound; it made him a hero.
Action Française leaders posed beside his hospital bed and publicised the benevolent society he set up to help the victims of the February riot. It proved the ideal way of making money and contacts. In 1935, Darquier made his first public speech at an Action Française rally, established 6 February as an annual day of commemoration and was elected to Paris City Council as a nationalist candidate. Up to this point, he had not included Jews in his diatribes. But then he met Henry Coston, a rabid anti-semite and publisher of editions of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Like many embittered ex-servicemen, Darquier was convinced the Jews had stayed at home in 1914, made money and let good Frenchmen fight the Boche. He also believed – had he not worked for the Jewish ‘wheat kings’? – that after the war they had profiteered at the expense of returning heroes. So when he inveighed against the Front Populaire government elected in 1936, it was not only because it was left-wing but because it had a prime minister, Léon Blum, who was part of the worldwide Jewish/Bolshevik conspiracy. He rejected the French Catholic and nationalist brand of anti-semitism which held that Jewishness was a matter of religion, in favour of the view adopted by the Nazis that Jewishness was a matter of race.
He was now a public figure, seen by those of like mind as a coming man and lampooned by liberal opponents as a pretentious buffoon. He wrote newspaper articles, took part in brawls and drunken sprees and was regularly in the news. In 1937, he was expelled from Switzerland for denouncing the League of Nations as part of the international Jewish plot. He launched new anti-semitic movements, newspapers and associations, each designed to turn a profit and all predicated on the belief that the Jewish question could be resolved only by ‘expulsion or massacre’. He thought Jews should be packed off to a distant land, Madagascar perhaps, or maybe Russia, home of ‘Jewish Communism’.
His support for Nazi ideology did not go unnoticed. When René at last wearied of financing him, Goebbels’s propaganda office stepped in with enough money for him to pay off his debts and live the high life. He was invited to Germany and, agreeing with Maurras that Britain was entirely controlled by Jews, became a devout Anglophobe. Nothing seemed to stop him, not criminal charges for inciting racial hatred nor accusations that his patriotism was venal. He was known as ‘Hitler’s Parrot’, but was never pro-German. When war was declared, he joined the army and fought with the same courage he had shown in the Great War. He was briefly held in a POW camp in Poland until the Germans, realising who he was, sent him back to Paris, where he pursued his usual goals: survival, recognition, money, applause, fame.
He cultivated the image of a ‘true son of France’ and acquired positions of power which he used to exploit the struggle for ownership of the Jewish question between Vichy, which regarded foreign ‘Jews in France’ as expendable but protected assimilated ‘French Jews’, and the Germans, who wanted to take them all. While they fought, Darquier played off one party against the other, making himself useful to both, though neither trusted him. His own goal was to restore Christian France to its purity, not to create a barbarian, Nazified patrie. Hitler, the Germans and Fascist ideology were relevant only insofar as they helped him to rid France of Jews and/or contributed to his welfare. He made anti-semitism pay. He spent his money on food, drink, clothes, bribes and the best hotels. Myrtle shared the fun, with access now to a better class of tipple and larger hats.
Darquier became commissioner for Jewish affairs in May 1942, with a staff of a thousand and virtually his own police force. Implementation of his policies was left to colleagues and underlings who were mainly criminals and sadists, but he made the rules. For a lazy man – he went to the office only when he couldn’t avoid it – he generated a great deal of activity. He organised round-ups of Jews and their deportation. He enforced the wearing of the Jewish star, which was sold at police stations and cost one month’s clothing ration. He created institutes to study race and provide a scientific basis for racial selection. He supervised the ‘Aryanisation’ of Jewish property, which meant its confiscation; 50,000 Jewish businesses were redistributed; 12 million francs was stolen from prisoners held at Drancy; eight thousand pianos were impounded – Callil’s statistics are endless and chilling. In all, between 1941 and 1944, 74 convoys were organised to deport 73,853 Jews, most to Auschwitz. A tenth were children, more than half were gassed on arrival, and just 2564 survivors returned to France in 1945.
Darquier’s ruthlessness is laid bare by Callil’s deft unravelling of the complex history of his part in the Holocaust. Often drunk, regularly broke, he bullied those he despised and crawled to those he feared. He never wavered in his mission to eliminate all Jews from France or in his inflated view of his own importance. Insulated against doubt, he remained in liberated Paris after many high-profile collaborators had fled or been arrested. His brother René hid him until he could make his way to Spain in October 1944. There, he found a congenial regime convinced that its chief enemy was the great Jewish-Masonic-Communist conspiracy. Sentenced to death in absentia but never extradited, he lived untroubled in Madrid, worked as a translator, fathered a second daughter and looked after Myrtle, who joined him in 1947. They continued their odd, semi-detached life until her death in 1970. She never stopped believing that Louis had spent his life defending civilisation.
But Myrtle was not just a silly woman who drank too much. She was as selfish and odious as Darquier and showed as little interest in their daughter. Anne had grown up in Oxfordshire, cherished by Elsie Lightfoot and convinced that her father was a wealthy French baron. Early in 1946, when she was 15, Anne was briefly reunited with her mother. She found a drunk, ‘a total write-off’, and refused to acknowledge her. Later that year, she was warmly received by her grandmother Darquier in Paris, who seems to have financed her visit in 1948 or 1949 to Madrid, where she met Louis. The experience was traumatic – his conversation consisted of anti-Jewish tirades – and she returned with a deep hatred for her father. She went on to become an unusually empathetic analyst but, Callil believes, could not come to terms with the horror of having such parents and killed herself.
Her death is not the only mystery. Why was Darquier such a monster? Callil offers various tentative explanations: he was a middle child clamouring for attention, an embittered soldier who resented the profiteers who stayed at home, a chancer, a coward prepared to bully the weak to make his small self seem larger. In 1978, three years before he died, he gave an interview to L’Express, which Callil translates. In it he denies the Holocaust, saying that all the evidence for it is Jewish propaganda and lies. Anyway, he says, his task was to supply Jews: what happened to them next was not his affair. His revelations helped free the log-jam which had hampered French attempts to bring wartime criminals to book. Leguay, Touvier, Barbie, Papon and not least René Bousquet, head of Vichy’s militia, sometime government minister and friend to François Mitterrand, were eventually required to answer the charges against them.
Callil pulls off a daunting challenge quite brilliantly. This hugely readable slice of history seen ‘from underneath’ tells an unknown victim’s tale, rather as a generation ago George Rudé presented the French Revolution ‘from below’ by giving the perspective of the lower classes. Her detective work is superb, the social background vividly sketched, and the sorrow and the cruelty of it all are the more effective for being understated. She pulls no punches and has particularly harsh words for the role played by the Catholic Church. Somewhat optimistic, however, is her suggestion that what the French did to each other between 1939 and 1945 drew a line under the civil wars which have broken out at intervals since 1789. If true, this would be a closure as satisfying as her quest to honour Anne Darquier. But it seems premature in the light of the Algerian crisis, the events of 1968 or even the current struggle for the soul of the Republic.