Bordeaux and the Nazis | Michael Murphy


For those who have imbibed its wine, Bordeaux could conjure the aromas of black current, plums, and earthiness. Architecture enthusiasts may recall the splendid cream-coloured facades of the limestone buildings that adorn its city centre. An evening spent at its opera house wouldn’t easily be forgotten.

Yet underneath this charming assortment of cultural attractions lurks a murky past that – like France’s national motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – is replete with contradictions and compromise, smoothed over by the regenerative power of declaring a new Republic. In May 1940, when German tanks rolled into France via neutral Belgium, all seemed lost.

French morale deteriorated so quickly that after only five days, the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” But by mid-June, Reynaud and his government were held up in Bordeaux, looking to solicit all the allied help they could get in the fight against Hitler’s Wehrmacht and to keep the flame of liberty alive in France.

It is a curious fact of history, then, that Bordeaux, once the final outpost of the official French resistance, should become what was later described as a “fortress of defeatism”, and the birthplace of the collaborationist Vichy government. The France that crumbled upon invasion was a nation at war with itself: still railing from the societal sores opened up by the Dreyfus Affair and the devastation inflicted by world war one, not to mention old cleavages dating back to the revolution.

French conservatives, like Bordeaux’s wine barons, or aristocracy of the cork, were often more fearful of their communist countrymen than the invading Germans. And in the words of historian Nicholas Stargardt, their new conquerors were: “Young, generous, newly wealthy…and settling into a country where 1.5 million Frenchmen had just been removed”.

Apart from the minority in the resistance, most Frenchmen just wanted to get on with life, doing their best to feed themselves and their families while forking out food and finance to the increasingly insatiable and overextended German war machine. So conditions were ripe for collaboration, and some were more enthusiastic than others.

Enter Maurice Papon: a nimble, efficient, and highly ambitious bureaucrat who served as the secretary-general of police in Bordeaux during the war. He was the man tasked with rounding up and deporting the district’s Jewish population, largely from Mériadeck, the city’s financial district. The first train of deportees left Bordeaux in July 1942, accompanied by what one historian described as an “eerie” silence when compared to the popular uproar when 650 thousand French workers were deported to Germany to undertake manual labor the following year. So meticulous was Papon in executing this assignment that when there weren’t enough Jews to justify requisitioning a bus, he would personally sign off on taxi fares – he became responsible for the deportation of over 1,600 Jews.

Papon’s ignominious wartime record was no barrier to his career in the years that followed; he was awarded the Legion of Honor, the most important and prestigious award the French state can bestow, by President Charles de Gaulle in 1961, and following a string of promotions, became minister of the budget from 1978-81. In a way, his case is so interesting not because of its uniqueness, but because of how “decidedly commonplace” people like Papon were, and how illustrative it is of France’s experience, both during and after the war.

Far from a conquered people reluctantly swept along by the fascist agenda of their new masters, France was a willing, active – and to some degree, autonomous – participant in the Nazi project. As historian Andrew Roberts highlights in his book, The Storm of War, “regime” is a misnomer when applied to Vichy, as it was the “legally constituted government of occupied France”. 

While Vichy rejected Nazi proposals to introduce the identifying Star of David arm bands, and – at least initially – resisted deporting Jews that were of French origin, it also showed initiative in adopting its own “Jewish Laws” in 1940-41, before the Nazis requested them.  

As with Germany, measures that began with the erosion of rights and confiscation of property eventually stripped Jews of all context as fellow citizens, leaving them with only what Hannah Arendt described as the “abstract nakedness of being human.”

The “world found nothing sacred” in that status, Arendt wrote, and so equivocated or looked on with cold indifference when, in the end, the right to life was taken away.

It was thanks to the enthusiastic compliance of Vichy and those, like Papon, who served it, that, as historian Tony Judt notes in his landmark book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945: “Most of the Jewish deportees from France never saw a foreign uniform until they were handed over to Germans for final shipment to Auschwitz from the trainyards at Drancy (north of Paris)”.

This is a fact that post-war France was reluctant to grapple with – so much so that the only histories detailing the extent of French collaboration, appearing in the mid-sixties and seventies, were penned by foreign historians. When Papon was eventually brought to trial for crimes against humanity in 1997, Judt notes that: “A number of French historians, called to attend as expert witnesses, refused to appear”. Despite the queasiness of his compatriots, and much pearl-clutching from swathes of the French elite, Papon was eventually convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to ten years imprisonment – three of which he served – before dying at 96.

The significance of Papon’s trial lay not in convicting an octogenarian of crimes that occurred half-a-century prior, but, Judt argues, to establish “conclusively…that the distinction between ‘Vichy’ and ‘France’ so carefully drawn by everyone from [Presidents] de Gaulle to Mitterrand had never existed.”

One could go a step further and argue that, ironically, Vichy laid the groundwork for the French government’s postwar agenda. In his book ‘France’s New Deal: From the Thirties to the Postwar Era’, Princeton historian Philip Nord has shown that the dirigiste policies implemented during the Vichy years continued after the war – enabling the state-minded young technocrats who ran Vichy to thrive in the Gaullist governments that proceeded it.

And the carry-over wasn’t limited to France’s economic planning and social security system, but to broader culture as well. Nord writes: “Numbered movie tickets, cartes professionnelles in the film industry, state-issued licenses for theatre directors: all such practices, every one a Vichy innovation, were kept on after Vichy’s demise.”

This offers a glimpse of why Papon’s trial was so controversial; it drew a direct line between the fabric of French life previously taken-for-granted – the respectable civil servant who’d risen to one of the nation’s highest offices – and the most neglected horrors of her past.

In what could be a fitting obituary for the man as well as the governments he served, Judt writes: “Papon was a Frenchman who served the Vichy regime and the subsequent French Republic: both of which were fully aware of his activities in the Bordeaux prefecture and neither of which was troubled by them”. Indeed, this complicity wasn’t limited to French officials.

As late as 1953, the citizens of Bordeaux found no objection with casting their vote in municipal elections for Adrien Marquet, the city’s openly fascist former mayor. In his book France and the Nazis, American journalist Adam Nossiter notes that during the war, this well-tailored dentist with a short moustache had complained to the SS that Vichy was “full of Jews”. Clearly, the ethnic cleansing, or ‘dejudification’, of France could not happen fast enough for Bordeaux’s Mayor. Excepting the odious Julius Streicher, it is hard to recall another individual for whom Nazi anti-Semitism was too middle-of-the-road.

Marquet’s trial and conviction for services to Vichy in 1940 is telling – coming as it did before his election victory, and attended, as it was, by a number of Bordeaux’s important personages. Perhaps more damning from the city’s perspective is his lawyer’s argument, relayed by Nossiter, that “the entire city of Bordeaux understood and accepted this man”. And in spite of the fact it did not have its own resistance, Nossiter continues, “Bordeaux went on to name more of its streets for Resistance heroes than any town of its size in France.”

In 1995, by which time most of those tainted by Vichy were ailing or long dead, President Jacques Chirac broke a 50-year taboo by publicly acknowledging his country’s complicity in the extermination of the Jews of Europe: “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” Chirac said of the deportations, “breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” He concluded that France owed the victims “an everlasting debt.”

It is understandable that emerging from World War Two, battered, bruised, and humiliated, France’s new President and national saviour, Charles de Gaulle, crafted a convenient post-war myth – one where both French helplessness and resistance at the hands of a brutal occupying force feature prominently.

And discombobulated by five years of occupation, one can see why the binaries France had become so accustomed to since the revolution – anti or pro-revolutionary, Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard – felt like reassuringly familiar foundations.  

The new fault line was Collaborator or Resistance member – categories which invited reprisals and were a balm for hypocrites, like Jean-Paul Sartre, who dined out on exaggerated resistance credentials.

Not all were taken in by the frenzy of retributive violence that followed in the wake of the war. In his 1947 novel The Plague, one of the most frank and thoughtful contemplations on the period, Albert Camus poked this hornets’ nest by talking about scapegoats at a time when everyone else wanted blood.

Unlike in Germany where, apart from obvious war criminals, blame was apportioned more-or-less democratically, France could offer up its sacrificial lambs and feel it had been cleansed. And some of the worst victims thrown onto the pyre for the sake of national catharsis were French women who had engaged in ‘collaboration horizontale’ with the enemy. Stripped naked and heads shaven, they were paraded by jeering mobs through the streets of French towns and cities.

With grim spectacles of this kind going on, what is to be gained in interrogating one’s own conscience?

For many in France, afflicted with the wartime amnesia that French historian Henri Rousso dubbed “Vichy Syndrome”, the answer was nothing.

A convenient national fiction emerged, casting the perpetrators and their French Quisling’s as an entity that was external, alien, even, to the Republic.

Thanks to Primo Levi, we better understand the appeal of such radical simplification. Under extreme conditions, where there is moral chaos and uncertainty – the ‘grey zone’, as Levi calls it – a clearly delineated, Manichean worldview is comforting. It satisfies our craving for clarity.

But the France of careerist bureaucrats like Papon and fanatics like Marquet – not to mention all the Bordelaise who voted for the latter in 1953 – barely raised a whimper for the thousands of Jews who, for over two years, regularly vanished from its streets.

It was because of the millions of people operating within this ‘grey gone’, and their individual choices, made under often impossible circumstances, that events unfolded as they did.

When considering this, it is worth also bearing in mind what Alan Judd wrote in the Sunday Times: “We who have not known hunger have no idea how empty bellies debilitate and dominate.”

Like Levi, Judd thinks this lack of perspective means that people should refrain from passing judgement.

But the ease with which a state, a region, even a person, can morph from one thing to another – aided by a selective memory – should give us pause for thought.

Under the right conditions, would Britain have done the same? Like all counterfactuals, it is as impossible to resist asking the question as it is to come up with an answer. 

We can only hope that we never have to find out. 


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