During an episode of The Simpsons, the Scottish immigrant known as Groundskeeper Willie is temporarily reassigned into the classroom due to a teacher’s strike, his job to teach French. Dressed in stereotypical French garb including a striped shirt and beret, Willie’s lesson involves speaking not in French, but a French-inflected Scottish burr the phrase, “Bonjourrrr, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!” The joke, of course, is directed at France’s propensity for rapid acquiescence to German aggression, but the reality is far from a laughing matter. The very word Holocaust immediately conjures up images of Adolph Hitler, Germans and Nazis. The fact remains, however, that the French Vichy regime seemed at times more than willing to honor the genocidal wishes of their Nazi overlords.
France in particular and the Vichy region in general has a long history of anti-Semitism. One of those “Trials of the Century” that seem to pop up surprisingly often dealt with the underlying currents of French anti-Semitism in a case known to history as the Dreyfuss affair. The root of anti-Semitism in France can be directly traced to the influence of the Catholic Church. France was particularly resistant to the tide of Protestantism that swept through central and northern European following the Reformation, and the long history of Catholic persecution of the Jews doubtless had a psychological effect on the country’s views toward its Jewish population. (Which is not to imply that Protestants haven’t engaged in some pretty horrifing anti-Semitism as well.) By the dawn of World War I, the Jewish population in all of France represented nearly 1% of the total population, or roughly 300,000 . Those were 300,000 of the most unfortunate French men and women in a country overwhelmed by unfortunate circumstances.
The persecution of Jews in Vichy France began in the summer of 1940. Just as they had done in their own country, the first step undertaken by the German occupation was to codify anti-Semitism. Nothing makes people more easily accept prejudicial viewpoints than making laws against it. You know how it works, if the government makes a law against it, it must be in the best interests of the majority-like the Patriot Act. Laws restricting Jewish rights had been the first step in Germany toward dehumanization and victimization and what worked well in Germany certainly couldn’t have been expected to work any less well in France, especially considering the country’s history of anti-Semitism. This codified persecution was not limited merely to saying which rights Jews did and didn’t have; it was also mandatory that a Jew be defined and identified.
Following quickly upon the process of definition and identification came the policies of discrimination. To look at what was happening in Vichy, one might well confuse it with Warsaw or Berlin. Jews were restricted in their movements, in their rights to retain their own properties, and other restrictions that met with almost as little opposition from the French population as it had from the German.
Just as in Germany and Poland, the Jewish population in Vichy may have thought things couldn’t possibly get worse. Of course, it could and it would. Much, much worse. The systematic dehumanization of the Jews was merely the prelude to another four years of an ever increasing hellish nightmare that could only have seemed like something from a Kafka novel or a Mel Gibson masturbatoy fantasy. Even today it would be hard for most people to imagine that they could possibly be persecuted so completely simply for committing the crime of being born into a certain religion. The French Jews for the most part had managed to avoid some of the worst pre-gas camp conditions experienced by their counterparts in Germany and Poland, but the unsuccessful incursion by the Nazis into Russia changed things forever. History sadly repeated itself in France as it had in those other countries by following a course of arrest, internment and deportation. The extinction of the Jewish population in France begun in earnest in 1942 with the implementation of the Final Solution. The cattle cars stuffed with victims who had committed no crimes but were to be executed as criminals ended their journey at Auschwitz. No firm number has ever been determined, but it is estimated that as many as seventy-six thousand suffered the ultimate fate, while only three percent returned alive.
The question that has always been asked, much to the consternation of the French people and the post-war French leadership, is what degree of blame the Vichy French government bears for allowing this to happen. Needless to say, the ultimate blame must always rest upon the Nazi government of Germany, but the fact remains that bona fide French resistance did exist and did successfully save the lives of thousands if not millions of French citizens who were fortunate enough to worship Jesus Christ. How deeply ingrained into the consciousness of the average French citizen was the rampant anti-Semitism that expressed itself in the unfair and illegal imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfuss? How much effort did did the Catholic Church really put forward to bear pressure upon either Hitler or the Vichy regime?
The documents that survived provide more than enough evidence that the Vichy leaders in particular and a number of average French citizens in general collaborated with the Nazi occupation with little or no attempt to mount a genuine resistance against the extermination of the Jews. Of course, these same documents reveal a persistent strain of French acquiescence that ultimately resulted in a general acceptance by most non-French people of Groundskeeper Willie’s characterization of them. The Vichy leadership was quick to surrender and far less quick to resist, but this was manifested in every aspect, not just in the utter unwillingness to protect their Jewish population. On the other hand, when the persecution evolved into deportation from 1942 to 1944, it is very clear that the Germans were facilitated by the direct interventions by the French. Beyond that, one can also easily find a connection between the Nazi Final Solution and the anti-Semitic policies throughout the history of not only the Catholic Church but the French governments.
It should perhaps not be surprising that the French are almost as adept as denying the Holocaust as the Germans. Whereas the Germans can point to Hitler and distance themselves from the crimes of a certifiable madman, what can the French say about their collaborators? The first step has always been to deny that Vichy was really under French autonomy. Since it was treasonous collaborators that ran it, how can anyone actually connect the French spirit to the actions that were undertaken or approved by those who were traitors to that spirit. It’s a nice thought, but when it comes down to it not really any different from the German equivalent of “just following orders.”
Following the war, those few French Jews who survived the concentration camp embarked upon a self-chosen Diaspora. Jews settled in France as they did elsewhere, but all the while had to watch as a succession of French governments absolve themselves of responsibility and refer to the Holocaust as merely a “German problem”.