Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-1944; Vichy: An Ever-Present Past; Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France

In This Review

Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-1944

By Ian Ousby
St. Martin's Press, 1997
348 pp. $25.95
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Vichy: An Ever-Present Past

By Eric Conan and Henry Rousso
University Press of New England, 1998
291 pp. $45.00
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Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France

By Richard H. Weisberg
New York University Press, 1996
447 pp. $45.00
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The most troubled and troubling years in the history of modern France, those dark years of Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime, continue to provoke the fascination and challenge the serenity of scholars in France and abroad. Ousby, a British student of literature, has written a general history of the occupation largely based on well-known memoirs and secondary sources. It is comprehensive, incisive, compassionate, remarkably free of prejudice and condescension, and eminently readable. It does not go very deeply into all its topics, particularly collaboration, but it succeeds in showing how complex, painful, and often atrocious these years were for the French. Ousby is less attracted by politics and ideologies than by individuals -- literary figures and Charles de Gaulle -- but he has captured the atmosphere of the occupation splendidly.

For the last 30 years, the French have examined their wartime past with relentless passion and ferocity. In 1994 the journalist Conan and the historian Rousso (author of the 1991 The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, the best study so far of the treatment of Vichy in post-1945 France) published a book about these continuing debates. It has now been translated. It offers to its American readers both a series of case studies about recent controversies concerning Vichy (including two especially fine chapters on the trial of the Lyons militia chief Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity in 1994, and on former President Franois Mitterrand's Vichyite past) and an exemplary demonstration by two scrupulous students of history of the art of dealing fairly and accurately with controversial events that the media, in particular, tend to distort.

Why passions are still so hot, more than 50 years after these events, is immediately apparent if one reads Weisberg's book. A professor of law at Yeshiva University, he does far more than study Vichy's anti-Semitic (and almost completely indigenous) legislation. Going beyond the pioneering work of Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus (Vichy France and the Jews, 1981), he examines the role of lawyers, law professors, magistrates, and ministers in carrying out policies of expropriation, exclusion, and elimination. He shows how an apparently liberal legal system can be used for repressive and repulsive purposes, and how Vichy's legal philosophy assumed the fundamental non-Frenchness of Jews. It is a depressing work, based on extensive and original research, and a major contribution to our understanding of the scope, depth, and ugliness not merely of collaborationism, but also of what could be called "ordinary Vichyism." What the recent trial of Maurice Papon suggested about the state's bureaucracy is confirmed here in the case of the legal professions. We knew already about their behavior in Nazi Germany. Now we know about their conduct in Vichy France. This book drives a big nail in the coffin of the Gaullist myth of a predominantly resistant France, which Jacques Chirac, in July 1995, on the anniversary of the 1942 roundup of Jews in Paris by the French police, decisively repudiated.

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