Why Barbie may never be tried

R.W. Johnson

  • 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.

The analogy with the Terror was, of course, seized on by critics of the purge. ‘The criminal courtroom,’ one critic wrote, ‘was filled to bursting. People were smoking, eating, shouting, exchanging comments in the pure tradition of the French Revolution ... The spectators were agitated; the tumult never died down.’ This way of talking, together with allegations of sweeping acts of private vengeance amounting to a virtual massacre, created the powerful right-wing myth, still sedulously propagated by the Hersant press, that the purge was really a Communist-led attack on the privileged classes. According to Le Monde, the news of Mitterrand’s victory in 1981 was greeted with horror by at least one woman in Giscard’s campaign headquarters: the Left’s victory, she said, would inaugurate a new purge, recalling ‘the terrible years of the Liberation’. Examples like this are not without their own historical irony. Hersant himself was made to suffer for his early career on an anti-semitic paper under Vichy; while just before the 1981 Election Giscard’s Budget Minister, Maurice Papon, had had to resign when Le Canard Enchaîné reprinted Vichy edicts in which, inter alia, Papon described certain buildings as subject to ‘Jewish infestation’.

Criticism of the purge is easy. ‘Treason,’ as Talleyrand remarked, ‘is a matter of dates.’ And the sight of so many résistants de la dernière heure naturally encouraged cynicism. ‘Wasn’t the secret of the purge,’ Roger Peyrefitte wrote, ‘that there had to be victims so that there could be heroes?’ In a sense, it is difficult to take the opposite view: advocates of the purge were in much the same position as pro-abortion lobbyists today. No matter how just the cause, the hounding of terrified victims, like the termination of a foetus, is an irretrievably sad and ugly business: no one can feel any enthusiasm for it. It is much to Herbert Lottman’s credit that he weighs the evidence judiciously and avoids the easy emotional let-outs his subject affords. He is also likely to be right in his overall judgment that the purge was remarkably light and that all too many of the guilty got away.

Judges led the most charmed life of all, but the Catholic hierarchy – which had included many of Vichy’s keenest supporters – was not far behind. Even the Foreign Minister Georges Bidault, a leading Catholic layman, was moved to write indignantly of ‘the silence of the bishops of France’ as Vichy and the occupation authorities went about their business. Pius XII, as Bidault learned to his horror, was calmly assuming that Valeri, the Papal Nuncio and former dean of the Vichy diplomatic corps would remain in place under the new regime: he would merely be extending the ritual New Year greetings to de Gaulle rather than Pétain. Valeri was blackballed and had to be replaced by an angry Vatican with Mgr Roncalli (later John XXIII). In return Pius XII insisted that the French Catholic hierarchy remain unchallenged. This was clearly impossible: opinion polls showed that a better than eight-to-one majority wanted the collaborationist bishops punished. (Some of them had already had to flee their dioceses at the Liberation; and Cardinal Suhard of Paris, who had received Pétain at the gates of Notre Dame in April 1944, was warned by the Gaullists that his presence at the thanksgiving mass at Notre Dame in August 1944 would be not only inopportune but dangerous.) De Gaulle took personal charge of the Church purge and seven bishops were quietly removed. But Roncalli bargained hard. De Gaulle told him, for example, that the presence of Archbishop Feltin in Bordeaux was ‘not desirable’ and that he should on no account be made a cardinal. Roncalli compromised: he kept Feltin in place, but promised that he would never receive his cardinal’s hat. In the event Feltin was promoted to the Archbishopric of Paris in 1949 and became a cardinal in 1953. As for the seven ousted bishops, no public reference was ever made to their forced retirement.

The case of that other pillar of the French Establishment, the Académie Française, was equally scandalous. The Academy had long been a notoriously reactionary body: in the Thirties it had elected Maurras a member just after his release from prison for having called for the murder of members of the Popular Front legislature. Under Vichy it came into its own, joyfully electing Pétain and other members of the Vichy Government to the ranks of the ‘Immortals’. Despite direct pressure from De Gaulle himself, the Academy refused outright to expel Pétain and Maurras, and when a decree was issued banning them from all public functions and official bodies their seats were left vacant as a mark of respect. The most that could be wrung from the Academy was a grudging discretion. Ten years was deemed a decent enough interval in the case of Paul Morand, for example, whose ‘role during the last war’ led to the defeat of his candidacy in 1958: in 1968 he was duly elected to the Academy. The Academy’s refusal of all attempts at reform and renewal has not done it much good: today it is seen by most people as the epitome of reactionary mediocrity.

Many of those ‘collabos’ who were punished were given remarkably light sentences. Xavier Vallat, the notorious Vichy Commissioner for Jewish Affairs (who at his trial objected that one of the judges was a ‘son of Isaac’) received only a ten-year sentence, and served far less than that. René Bonnefoy, sentenced to death in absentia in 1946 for crimes under the Occupation, emerged from hiding in 1955 and got off scot-free. This was all too frequently the pattern: the Vichy high-ups, quicker than their minions to grasp the likelihood of an Allied victory, fled abroad, leaving the small fry to face the purge. In 1953 a general amnesty was declared and they returned to France. Franco’s Spain was, of course, a favoured refuge, and a number of those found guilty of torture and anti-Jewish atrocities lived out their days there in peace and tranquillity. But successive amnesties gradually made even exile unnecessary. Lottman cites the case of the last three collaborators to serve in French prisons. All three (whom the law, incredibly, prevents him from naming) were at one time or another sentenced to death for large-scale murder and torture: their sentences were commuted and by 1983 all had been released.

The brunt of the purge fell on those whose collaboration had been most visible. The political parties did their own purging – none more thoroughly than the Socialists, who found it necessary to exclude from their ranks as many as half of the Socialist Deputies who won seats in the Popular Front election of 1936, as well as 12 of the 17 Socialist cabinet ministers still alive at the Liberation. The purge also cut deep among the press: nine hundred newspapers and periodicals were banned and 115 press companies confiscated. Journalist collabos were weeded out to a man, in a purge more thorough than that suffered by any other profession – they had, after all, provided indisputable evidence of their sympathies by signing their articles. Among book publishers the purge was far less sweeping – most had carefully played both sides of the street. The most striking case was that of Gallimard, who had published the pro-Nazi Nouvelle Revue Française and accepted the Occupation ban on Jewish authors. Claude Gallimard’s trial produced predictable fireworks from such Gallimard authors as Sartre, Camus and Malraux, the heart of the intellectual Resistance, as they saw themselves, who argued that they would be tainted with dishonour if their publisher were punished. Had Sartre not put on ‘Resistance’ plays under the Occupation? (Critics could not resist pointing out that the ‘message’ of Sartre’s plays was so routinely obscure that it had not been difficult to do this while wholly escaping the attention of the Vichy authorities.) Even the Communist poet Eluard rallied to his publisher’s support and Gallimard was exonerated. The case of Grasset was more difficult, given that Bernard Grasset himself had written a book in praise of ‘the creative power of the Fuhrer’. Grasset was found guilty and the judge ordered that his publishing house be confiscated: but there was an outcry at the closure of the house which had published Proust, Malraux and Mauriac. The confiscation order was replaced by a fine and then by a pardon. Grasset remains a major imprint.

In the entertainment world hostility fastened on actors and singers who had worked for Radio Paris or for Continental Films, both Nazi propaganda organs, as well as on those who had toured Nazi Germany. This brought a number of household names to trial – Sacha Guitry, Maurice Chevalier, Fernandel and Edith Piaf. It turned out – surprise, surprise – that the show-business community stood solidly behind its stars: all of whom, it emerged, had only toured Germany to give comfort to French prisoners of war. Chevalier, who had been granted special privileges under the Occupation, had a particularly difficult time: indeed, there were reports just after the Liberation that he had been stoned to death by angry Parisians. Chevalier said that the Germans had done him ‘a bad turn’: ‘they announced that I sang and acted for them ... But all that is false.’ Luckily for him – and embarrassingly for the authorities – he was already much in demand as a performer with the British and American troops. Fernandel and Chevalier were exonerated; Guitry was indicted for collusion with the enemy – L’Humanité spoke of him ‘banqueting with the torturers’ – but the prosecutor ‘lost’ his file. Guitry thus escaped. On a tour of Lyon in 1948 he and his troupe were met by a contingent of local Résistants who forced them out of their car and marched them to the Resistance memorial, where they were made to observe a minute’s silence.

Only Piaf emerged with real credit. It turned out that she had posed for photographs with French prisoners in Germany so that they could have fake identity papers rigged up for them by the Resistance when she got back to France. On subsequent trips she would then smuggle the papers back to them in a false-bottomed suitcase. She had thus, at great risk to herself, furnished 147 prisoners with bogus papers. She was also able to prove that she had secretly distributed her earnings to Jewish friends and had hidden Jews in her apartment. Piaf was not only pardoned but congratulated. She became something of a folk-heroine, and when she died she was buried in Père-Lachaise among the heroes of the French Left.

The most heavily used sanction – especially in the case of artists and intellectuals – was that of indignité nationale. This was, in effect, a simple reversing of the traditional French notion of citoyenneté: a collabo was judged to have excluded himself from the community of French citizens. He was not allowed to hold a position in the professions or in public life, to stand for elective office or even be a company director: in the public world of the citizen he was henceforth a non-person. A large number of such sentences were handed out, only to be revoked a few years later, just as thousands of civil servants were dismissed without pension only to have their pensions restored in 1953.

Critics of the purge were later to claim – as they still do today – that 105,000 people were murdered in private acts of Resistance vengeance, and that one way or another up to a million people were affected by the purge. These figures are nonsense. De Gaulle’s own office, after a careful accounting in 1959, gave a figure of 10,842 summary executions, of which two-thirds had occurred in the weeks leading up to the Liberation. The figure of a ‘million’ allegedly affected by the purge is equally fictitious: cases were only brought against a hundred and twenty-five thousand people. Of these, forty-five thousand never went to trial and a further twenty-eight thousand were acquitted. This left some fifty-one thousand guilty – almost exactly the number the Vichy Minister, Marcel Déat, had had in mind in 1943 when he complained bitterly that there were only fifty thousand true collaborators in France. Of the 6763 death sentences handed down, only 767 were actually carried out. On a per capita basis, four times as many collaborators were punished in Denmark and the Netherlands, while in Belgium and Norway the proportion was six times as high.

Beyond the narrow legal framework of the purge, a national convulsion was taking place. As in every other Occupied country, this convulsion went through several stages: an initial burst of self-righteous fury at the Liberation; then, a year later, a deeper, less manic fury as the advance into Germany revealed the awful truth about the fate of those who had vanished into the camps. Throughout Europe the realisation that so many friends and relatives were not coming home at all but had been horribly tortured and butchered led to a great wave of vengeful anger. It was at this time that local Prefects, fearing that embittered families would take justice into their own hands rather than stomach the long delays of the official courts, effectively defied de Gaulle’s ruling that only official courts be allowed to try the collabos: the choice was summary justice or virtual insurrection. Then, with some justice achieved, passions began to cool. This in part explains why swingeing sentences were at first handed out so liberally, only to be revoked with equal liberality a few years later. As with any great burst of anger, there were elements of pantomime in all this.

Liberation justice was far less heavy-handed in Paris than it was in the provinces, particularly in the South. This for two reasons. In the North, where the Resistance had started, the Germans had largely crushed it by 1944; in the South, where real resistance only got going after 1942, the movement was still at the height of its strength at the Liberation and in 1944-45 it provided a well-organised and vengeful army eager to fall upon collabo necks. It was also the case that collaborators found it far easier to retain their anonymity in the metropolis than in closed rural communities where everyone knew what his neighbour was doing. And while the Sartres and Mauriacs could play on sophisticated (and guilty) Parisian consciences to obtain mercy for a famous intellectual or someone who had lost a leg in the Great War, in the provinces such arguments cut little ice: a more atavistic and typically peasant view of justice – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – prevailed. Some collabos ended up in courtrooms looking badly bruised and beaten up, but there was, to be fair, no evidence of recourse to the barbarous methods of the Gestapo and the Vichy Milice, even in the most benighted rural areas. It is easy to talk about ‘typical peasant’ behaviour, but the Milice had pulled out their victims’ eyes and put live cockroaches in the eye-sockets before sewing the eyelids shut again.

There was a political dimension too. The Communists had shouldered most of the burden of the Resistance and were naturally keener than any other group for retribution. In calling for justice, they sought to rally a general patriotic fervour behind what they saw as the anti-Fascist cause. But once the Communists were expelled from the Government in 1947 and the Cold War set in, anti-Communism came into its own – and who could lay a better claim to anti-Communism than the old collabos? It was in this period of reaction – so well portrayed by de Beauvoir in The Mandarins – that the myth of the purge as a sort of Communist terror first took root.

On the other hand, there was an awkward realisation that many people had had to live double or treble lives under the Occupation, that too much delving into the crimes of the past might turn up some embarrassing facts. Even dead Resistance heroes might turn out to have betrayed their comrades under torture, to have traded the life of their best friend for that of their child. These dark doubts live on. Take the interesting case of Klaus Barbie, who has now been held without trial since February 1983. Just before the 1986 elections an indictment was drawn up listing all the crimes he had committed against the Jews. This was thrown out on the reasonable grounds that Barbie had tortured and murdered many Résistants too and that their deaths could hardly be ignored. The problem is that laying charges under that head would give Barbie an opportunity to disclose the information that he alone has about who betrayed whom. A lot of people, as the saying goes, don’t know that. And a lot of people don’t want to know that. Barbie is now 73: it is quite likely that he will die without ever coming to trial. And if he does, his death is likely to be met with a growl of frustration – and a sigh of relief. The French are waiting for a ghost to die, but the ghost lives on as part of the national consciousness: the shame and humiliation of the Occupation is seldom talked about, but it won’t go away. Just as the Americans have still to come to terms with Vietnam, the French have still, collectively, to come to terms with Vichy. Mere trials – lawyers’ rituals – will not help.