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The changing face of Vichy

In 1971 Marcel Ophuls released a film that sparked a change in how France viewed the occupation. Four hours long, it upset the establishment in France to such an extent that it could only be viewed in left bank cinemas and within West Germany until it was finally shown French television in 1981. Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) "cracked the mirror" that Gaullist historians had built and into which the French were happy to gaze. The patchwork two parter, centered on the city of Clermont- Ferrand, itself just miles from Vichy, consisted of interviews with a myriad of local people, politicians and German officers, interspersed with archival footage. It dented the Gaullist notion of France as a 'nation of Resisters', and made the comfortable point that active resisters and collaborators had been a minority, at least in Clermont while most of the population kept their heads down, keeping faith in Pétain and waiting on events to unfold. This created a further myth, that of a nation of collaborators in as much as to do nothing was to collaborate. In the accompanying book published in 1972 and essentially a script of the film with screenshots, Stanley Hoffman wrote that “the movie challenged what might be called an official myth that had become hallowed with time, and buttressed by a combination of official emphasis and general public silence: not the “myth of the Resistance” (the movie itself shows that it was a noble and formidable reality), but the myth of the French as massively enrolled in or at least standing behind the Resistance, with the exception of a handful of collaborationists and of a small clique of reactionaries.”(1) Ten years later the American historian John Sweets, who had already spent time in the Auvergne, returned to Clermont and wrote a book called Choices in Vichy France about the difficult choices of the people of the area, including those in the Vichy establishment. He was less admiring of Ophuls' film, feeling that the filmmaker picked, chose and edited rather too much. Both works have stood the test of time, in itself a reflection of the confusion and changing nature of the Vichy historiography.

France's relationship with its Vichy past is complicated and fragile. Each year young people throughout the country are invited to compete in a themed competition, the Concours national de la Résistance. In villages up and down the nation events of local and national importance are commemorated on an annual basis, attendances never flagging despite the dwindling numbers of survivors from the period. Books sell, radio and television programme debates and documentaries and the occasional feature film paints the picture, now distant, of a France under occupation by the Nazis and strangled the worst of France's own. Few periods can have provided such depth of debate for modern historians. Major works based on extensive research by historians both French and otherwise have created a fascinating topic in itself, the changing face of Vichy France for the French. Why has historical treatment of les années noires changed so radically over the years, and how has this come about?

Firstly, 'the sheer drama of the Vichy period, its innate importance, relevance to the present, and ties with the Holocaust' has soaked into the French psyche, becoming impossible to ignore. This has come about in stages, as defined in 1989 by French historian Henry Rousso who first coined the term 'the Vichy Syndrome'(2). According to Rousso this evolution of the Vichy historiography began with a period of 'unfinished mourning' (1946-54) when the period was largely off limits for historians. The remaining trials of collaborators, a hangover of the épuration, were being subsumed in importance by economic and political reconstruction with only the communists keen to pressurise the establishment. The public at large wanted to move on from the occupation and politicians who had been involved with Vichy attempted to rehabilitate their careers, reflecting on Petain's attempts to protect the nation. Few mentioned the autonomy that had been afforded to Vichy by Germany in the early days. Fewer still mentioned the Jewish deportations. France as a whole was not at all ready to accept its association with the Holocaust.

Between 1954 and 1971 came what Rousso called the period of 'repression' during which the memory of the occupation was pushed aside. Apologists for the decisions of the Vichy regime and for the nation at large helped to edge out the importance of the political establishment within France as the notion of a nation of resisters emerged. Right-wing historian Robert Aron published his Histoire de Vichy in 1954 and with it emerged a degree of retrospective dignity for those involved with Vichy. Balance between a benevolent Marshal Pétain and a Pierre Laval operating on behalf of the Nazis became the accepted norm. Aron was harsh on the Resistance, exaggerated the épuration and minimised other issues. But 1954 also saw the publication of Charles De Gaulle's first volume of mémoires. Unsurprisingly De Gaulle discussed Vichy, which he never believed to have held any authority, very little. This despite Churchill and Roosevelt very much hoping to re-establish a partnership with the regime, at least in the early days of the war. Instead De Gaulle emphasised his own role and viewed Resistance from his wartime bases of London and Algiers. In writing his memoirs De Gaulle could see a Fourth Republic that was in trouble and held back from attacking the establishment that would welcome him back to power in 1958. During this time however a myth of la France résistante had been born - that in which the vast majority of the country had rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job of rejecting the German occupation.

Henri Michel, a socialist, and representative of the Comité d'Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale shared a goal with De Gaulle when writing his various publications in the early 1960s. Both men wanted a Fifth Republic free from the danger of pétainism and the representation of the Résistance as the 'valiant struggle that embodied republican legitimacy' suited their purpose well. France was portrayed as a nation of résistants, in thought as much as in action. If the number of those that actively partook in the Resistance was a minority, its success would have been impossible without the support of the many. This was acceptable, popular and covered up the deep divisions that still existed in most communities.

The years of the ‘broken mirror’ (71-74) quickly followed the events of 1968 when French intellectuals began drawing on the enthusiasm of a younger generation hungry to reassess France's past. The period began with Ophuls' film but was quickly followed in 1972 with a much publicised and widely-read book written by American Robert Paxton, an historian whose fresh archival research in Germany and France took thinking beyond the ideas that Ophuls' had put forward on celluloid, as well as rejecting the notion of la France résistante.In his book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944 Paxton skilfully uncovered how impetus for collaboration had largely arisen from Vichy and not the Germans. He smashed the idea of the double game, secret negotiations between Pétain and Britain. Paxton, an expert on fascism, showed how the national revolution was undoubtably French in nature and revealed long existing traditionalism in social reform that would re-emerge with the Republic of the1950s. He went further and controversially demonstrated that the anti-Semitism of Pétain's Vichy government owed little to German pressure. Jews were offered up to meet targets and the likes of Pierre Laval and René Bousquet were answerable. He showed that despite early enthusiasm for Pétain, if not the Vichy government, public support waned in 1942-43 as public consciousness of the more extreme Vichy policies and systems blossomed. Later research has demonstrated that Pétain's early support hardly lasted beyond 1941.

So followed for historians a period of ‘obsessions’ (1974-80s) around the Vichy regime. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s a breadth of research broadened around all aspects of it. Paxton had already claimed that the France of Pétain was not a shield against the merciless Nazis and had in fact spared France little. While newer research claims that Vichy operated under very real constraints, the myth of France as a nation of resisters was fractured. Writers such as Serge Klasfeld emphasised Vichy's role in the persecution of the Jews and his work on deportation along with that of Paxton and Michael Marrus helped redefine just what Resistance was in Vichy France. The protection of those persecuted, the supply lines to maquisards, Resistance within the political establishment, within public services and railways, and the distribution of propaganda all became more of a focus in Resistance studies than had previously been the case as writers such as Rod Kedward and Jon Sweets focused in on the realities of the day through archival analysis and interviewing. The numbers of those considered to have 'engaged' rose again, as did an acceptance that Resistance could take a multitude of forms and a wide scale of degree. The likes of Robert Gildea emphasised that while the numbers of actual fighters might have been extremely small, the mechanisms that allowed for their continued existence required a significantly larger network of participants.

Trials of the likes of Gestapo boss Klaus Barbie and the opening of state archives in which prefectural reports became a goldmine of information, emphasised more and more the repressive and xenophobic nature of the regime and fascination with it has continued. French and anglophone writers continue to explore a vast range of elements. France is singular in its appetite for local history, and published works that give great detail exist on the shelves of municipal libraries throughout the country, just as do recorded interviews, official archives, personal collections and the few remaining eye witnesses to the dark years. Ground-upwards studies can and will bring a breath of fresh air to Resistance studies and the specificity of the work of regional historians is a bounty of material for those who only care to look for it.

* The themes explored in this blog post are drawn from the first part of Nicolas Atkin's book, The French at War 1934-1944. 'Interpreting the Vichy Regime', referenced below. It is meant as a brief guide to the changing historiography only.

(1) Ophuls, M., The Sorrow and the Pity: A film by Marcel Orphuls (New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972)

(2) Atkin, N., The French at War 1934-1944 (London: Pearson, 2001)

“Pacey and engaging, this study explores the drama and complexity of the German occupation and resistance, highlighting moral ambiguities, deceit, betrayal and violence. A fascinating contribution to the field.”

Robert Gildea, author of Fighters in the Shadows and Marianne in Chains

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