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The Good, the Brave, and the Ugly

On the eve of the anniversary of the German occupation of Vichy France, one of the regime’s youngest inhabitants reflects on the moral choices available to those living under authoritarian rule.

Daniel Chirot

It is well known that as France’s armies were very unexpectedly being defeated by Germany in May and June of 1940, France’s democratically elected but hapless government chose as its military head seventy-two-year-old General Maxime Weygand, who had never previously been assigned a field command. It then turned to the pessimistic eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain to take over political command and save France. Together, the two decided to negotiate an armistice and give in to harsh German terms rather than continue the war on the side of the British. This alternative could have been undertaken by transporting hundreds of thousands of available troops, a still-large air force, and the world’s fourth-largest navy to French North Africa, and augmented with the resources of the African Empire. Instead, the new leaders set up a puppet regime in 40 percent of France, with its capital in Vichy. While only a minority of French citizens were active Nazi sympathizers, the Vichy regime by and large decided that if France turned itself into an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic state, then Hitler would recognize the French as useful partners. Germany could even serve as a helpful model for reforming France.

Vichy’s driving ideology was the result of a long-standing, irreconcilable division in French politics. Conservatives – supported by most of the Catholic Church, the upper classes, and army officers – were deeply hostile to the French Republic and its democratic institutions. They blamed secularists, liberals, socialists, foreigners, and Jews for having corrupted and enfeebled the “real,” traditional, small-town and rural France that had once been the healthy base of a great nation. The military disaster, conservatives claimed, was the natural outcome of that rot. Now, so they thought, there was an opportunity to purify France. A new France, vigorous and young, would emerge under the Vichy regime, working with Germany to create a united fascist Europe.

Pétain and his ilk were completely deluded. Hitler only wanted a compliant France he could exploit. He hated the French but recognized the need to keep them cooperative until the war was won. France’s industry, manpower, and resources were vital. And he got his wish: French authorities cooperated almost entirely with his designs.

Only in early 1943, as it started to become apparent that Germany would lose the war, did a serious French resistance get started. By then Pétain was just a figurehead. The real leader of Vichy was Pierre Laval, titular head of the Milice, fascist gangs that had been activated to catch resisters, communists, Jews, and other enemies. Laval claimed that by collaborating with the Nazis he was saving France from suffering the fate of Poland, where Nazi racial ideology envisioned the enslavement and destruction of the Slavic population. Laval believed that France needed to adhere more closely to a fascist state, and he exceeded immediate Nazi demands in handing over non-citizen and even many French citizen Jews. He won some minor concessions from Hitler, including the return of a small number of French prisoners of war, but overall France got very few benefits from trying to please its German masters.

Laval had originally believed that given the circumstances of the 1940 defeat, collaboration was the only way to save France. As the roundup of Jews, the killing of political opponents, and the ever more drastic looting of French resources accelerated, Laval stuck to his original position. He must have seen by 1943 that none of his hopes were working out, but it was too late to change. Eventually, after being forcibly exiled to Germany as the Allies were freeing France in mid-1944, he fled to Spain, was turned over to the Free French, and was shot in 1946.

The astonishing aspect of French collaboration during 1940–44 was how poorly so many of those in positions of authority misjudged what Hitler was about. They truly believed, at least for the first two years of the occupation, that Germany and France could cooperate to build a new Europe. But that was never going to happen. Though France, like most of occupied Western Europe, did not suffer as much as the Nazi-occupied parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it was still very seriously damaged. France was ultimately saved only by the Anglo-American-Canadian invasion of June 1944.

There have been many studies exploring why various leading French politicians and intellectuals collaborated, some for a couple of years, but others for the duration of the occupation. Interestingly, the best early writing after the war was done by scholars in the United States such as Robert Paxton and Stanley Hoffmann (who had survived in Vichy France as a teenage Austrian Jewish refugee). There was a broad division between those who were motivated by “reasons of state,” that is, practical considerations, and the true French Nazis. But even among the “practical” ones like Pétain, Weygand, and Laval – and among the many opportunists, like the ever-scheming head of the navy, Admiral Jean-François Darlan – there was an underlying distrust of democracy, pervasive anti-Semitism, and admiration of authoritarian repression. French conservatives’ ideological preferences made it easy in a time of crisis to abandon moral decency.

The Path Less Traveled

There also have been many attempts to explain why some ordinary people in occupied Europe took courageous actions to save Jews or otherwise resist, while others went out of their way to collaborate with the Nazis. Most people did neither, and just tried to survive. Doing the right thing could be a matter of chance encounters and circumstances, personal ideology, prejudices, or religious sentiments. Resistance could be a personal moral choice. Encouragement to collaborate from Vichy’s leaders made it easier for many to conform, at least passively, unless there was a persuasive reason not to.

When she was eighty-five my mother told me a story she had never told anyone. In the spring of 1943 a gendarme officer came to the house our family was renting in a small village within the borders of the supposedly autonomous French Vichy regime. As refugees from Paris, we were well known as such by everyone in the village. I was a baby. My father and uncles had fled in 1942 to try to get to North Africa to join the Free French, leaving behind my pregnant mother and her mother, neither of whom had French citizenship. In 1943, though the Germans had by then directly occupied Vichy, administration and policing were still in the hands of French officials, as was the case to some extent in most of the rest of France, too.

The gendarme told my mother he knew we were Jews, but now that he had met her, he had a proposition. Looking at old pictures I recognize that at twenty-three my mother was a very attractive woman. If she would sleep with him when he visited, he promised to not turn us in. She told me, all those years later, that something from deep within her had revolted. She thought we would eventually be caught and killed anyway, so she refused. The officer left, only to return a few days later to apologize. After that, the mayor of the village, who was to be recognized after the war as a genuine resister, would receive warning when Milice or police searches were planned for our area. My grandmother and mother would hide in separate farmhouses far outside the village, and I usually was sent to a family that promised to adopt me if my grandmother and mother were caught.

Why did these people help us, when they could have been exposed and shot? Why did this one gendarme who came to our village commit himself to decency, and probably take some risks? Some individuals have greater empathy with those who are frightened and helpless, while there are certainly many who have none at all. We were fortunate to run into a man who was morally sensitive and who had no ideological commitment to anti-Semitic fascism. We were equally fortunate that the village’s mayor did not like Vichy and that most of the local population felt similarly. Some friends of ours signed papers testifying that we should get residence permits. Even the Vichy-sympathizing village facteur (the mailman, a minor administrative position that was significant in rural France at that time) did not denounce us. He once told my mother that he knew he was supposed to since Jews were enemies of the Germans, but if Jewish men should be arrested, what did the Germans want with women and babies? He obviously didn’t understand the Nazis’ biological theories about racial purity, which saw Jews as a virus-like disease that had to be extirpated. His tempered extremism didn’t save him, though. After liberation, he was shot amidst the lynching of eight to nine thousand possible collaborators before Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle was able to reestablish order and legal procedures throughout France.

Throughout occupied Europe, many of the earliest and best resisters were idealistic communists (mainly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941). There were also liberal and conservative resisters who loathed Nazism.  There were religious resisters. Most French Protestants and eventually many Catholics who had at first believed in Vichy were outraged by the deportation of Jews and German brutality.

Resistance could sometimes be explained by circumstances. In Eastern Europe, Slavic populations who were immediately brutalized and enslaved produced early guerrilla resisters, though some were so anti-Semitic that they nevertheless collaborated with the Germans. In France the situation changed after the Germans began commandeering young Frenchmen for forced labor in Germany in late 1942. Then many joined the resistance because the alternative was worse. There were even opportunists who joined the Resistance as late as 1943 or early 1944, sometimes after having collaborated for several years.

As for us, ultimately it was lucky that we were in an unimportant village where most people were not supporters of Vichy, and even those who were supporters of it were not fanatics. There wasn’t much to gain by turning us in. There were no German troops or French police units stationed there. Given a chance, even in dire circumstances, when not directly forced to collaborate with evil, there are many who will maintain their morality. Though few will take direct risks, some will, and we were fortunate that there were enough such admirable individuals around. If many French politicians were either fools, prejudiced, corrupt, cowards, or all four, not all French were so bad. In between those who compromised their principles and those who were courageous resisters, there were many who, given half a chance, remained fundamentally decent.

Sinister Patterns

Other extreme cases of brutal rule throughout history – like Stalinist Russia during the great purges, China during the Cultural Revolution, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – test almost everyone’s morality. But in some ways, when ultra-violence turns into a kind of routinized, lower-level, long-lasting system, compromising oneself can easily become more widely acceptable so that fewer than ever think of resisting. Gradually abandoning all moral boundaries corrupts an entire society. Conforming with what originally would have been seen as immoral cooperation with autocratic oppression becomes normal.

In 1970–71 as a Columbia University graduate student doing historical research in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, I was assigned to a research institute of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Ceaușescu had struck up a kind of personal friendship with President Richard Nixon, and American researchers were welcomed as honored guests. By then, the fear and repression of the early communist period, while Stalin still ruled his empire, had passed. Many Romanians had joined the Communist Party because that was necessary for most prized professional jobs. The party and its dictator were generally viewed as striving to improve material life and keep Romania as independent from Soviet domination as possible.

Individuals at this time could be mostly passive, occasionally reporting to the Securitate (the secret police) about their colleagues and acquaintances. But the higher one was on the professional scale, or the more likely one was to know a foreigner like me, the greater the pressure to inform, and almost everyone complied. My colleagues at the research institute made it pretty clear to me that I should never tell any of them what another of their colleagues had told me, because that was what the security service was really after, not my own American opinions. The Securitate wanted to see if I had contacts with any known dissidents. None of this seemed nearly as dramatic as the life-and-death situation that my family had endured during World War II. My own research was about agrarian relations in Romania from the Middle Ages until 1914, so it was hardly considered dangerous.

And yet, people were being arrested. Some were being tortured. Others – even if they were not active dissidents but simply refused to go along – lost good jobs and were reduced to abject poverty, while their children were kept out of good schools. There was nothing benign about the dictatorship. Furthermore, the situation got much worse as Ceaușescu’s autarkic economic policies ruined the economy in the 1980s, with repression taking a drastic turn for the worse. By then, when I would periodically visit, old friends were clearly afraid to see me, so I stopped contacting most of them.

In 1987 I visited Romania for the last time in the communist period. The regime would collapse in a bloody revolt in December 1989, when Ceaușescu and his wife were shot, and in all some fifteen hundred or so Romanians died in street fighting. But in 1987, despite growing cracks in communist systems, the future was still uncertain. In that winter Bucharest was a dismal, dark place, with electricity rationing, growing shortages, and large parts destroyed to make room for Ceaușescu’s grandiose building schemes. The Intercontinental was the only hotel that was warm, well lit, and had decent food.

One day a former friend from 1970 showed up at my door and told me he had heard I was in town. I didn’t ask how he knew. He invited me to dinner at his comfortable apartment. There, he and his wife served me good steak and Johnnie Walker Scotch, two things that no ordinary Bucharest resident could possibly have obtained.  As we ate and drank, my host asked me who I had seen. It was so obvious I almost laughed. I told him I’d visited an old professor who was so long retired he had said he no longer was of any political interest. Yes, of course, my host said, but who else? No one, I said. I left amazed by how clumsy it all was. Did they know who else I had visited? Perhaps. I’d been careful, and the streets at night were dark with almost no cars. A day later I left and did not return until after 1989.

In the 1990s I started visiting Romania again and reconnected with some old friends. Certainly some, perhaps almost all, had informed on me at one time or another, but they were just routine collaborators at a time when that was commonplace. None had ever tried to get me to compromise other Romanians except the one who’d served steak and Johnnie Walker. After Ceaușescu’s fall he wrote me several letters to explain he had always been opposed to communism and that he was a Romanian nationalist. I never answered or saw him again.

It all came back to me when my mother started to tell me about the village and the gendarme who had apologized. What would have happened if he had been like that sleazy Romanian opportunist who had so clumsily tried to get me to inform on others? What if someone in the village, hoping to get a few extra luxuries or privileges in a difficult time, had fallen prey to temptation?  Oppressive systems corrupt and seduce.  Many people go beyond just getting along to become active collaborators, even if they don’t buy the ruling ideology. And in the end, collaborating becomes normal. We were fortunate that it hadn’t reached that point in our village.

Today, in a world of rising autocracy, of political regimes that lie constantly and turn citizens against each other, the question of why some collaborate while others resist remains with us. We cannot predict who might succumb, who might remain neutral at least for a while, and who might courageously resist. All we know, ultimately, is that if oppressive, anti-democratic regimes are on the rise, the odds are that more leading figures and more ordinary people will become morally compromised.

If that gendarme who confronted my mother seventy-seven years ago or anyone else in the French village had been like the Romanian informer, you wouldn’t have gotten to read my story.

Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.