France emerged from World War II with a sketchy record. The debacle of 1940 was so astonishing that it left even the Germans gasping.
Perhaps its only redeeming feature was that it persuaded Hitler’s skeptical generals of his military genius and their own invincibility, leading them to launch an attack against the Soviet Union where the Wehrmacht was eventually destroyed. Petain’s regime, for all its promises of a New Order, quickly turned out to be corrupt, ineffective, blindly collaborationist, and increasingly criminal. Even the purges that followed the Liberation turned sour; while thousands were executed without trial, many of the officials who played a key role in the deportations of Jews and resisters to Nazi camps escaped justice and went on to enjoy successful careers in postwar France. The civil war during the last months of the Occupation left a bitter legacy that even the myth of the Resistance could not erase. A few decades after the end of the war, even this myth, which had facilitated the reconstruction of the nation, came under increasing attack.
The French have confronted the memory of “the somber years” by successively redefining and reconceptualizing the identity of the period’s culprits, passive victims, and heroic martyrs. The process, in turn, derived much of its own logic and terminology from the debate over the causes of the debacle in 1940 that began even before France signed an armistice with Germany. While there were widespread anticipations of an apocalyptic war throughout the 1930s, and some on both the extreme Left and Right welcomed that prospect, hardly anyone expected defeat to be so rapid, overwhelming, and total. Nor was it anticipated the Germany would occupy most, and eventually all of France. It was the shock of defeat, as well as the disgust with the fallen republic and its leaders, that led to the initially massive support for Petain. Only this ancient “savior” of Verdun seemed to possess the gifts necessary to keep the nation together at a time of chaos and trauma. And he, as we know, readily made France the gift of his person.
Petain also offered the nation clear-cut explanations for the defeat. These did not concern his own disastrous military leadership during much of the interwar period, nor did they refer much to the foreign foe on whose good will the Vichy regime depended. Rather, he focused on the nation’s domestic enemies. For Petain and his followers, the root of the debacle was to be found in republicanism itself and all that it stood for. France had been undermined from within by democracy and socialism, modernity and lax morals, the “new woman” and the abandonment of family values, refugees and immigrants, and, not least, the Jews. But since this long list encompassed a vast portion of the French people, Vichy had to articulate a worldview that contrasted such positive notions as patriotism, family values, and the Catholic faith, with a narrower category of domestic enemies, among whom the freemasons, the communists, and most important, the Jews, played a prominent role. Hence the alacrity with which Vichy passed its Jewish Statutes, not merely in anticipation of German pressure, but as an indication of the regime’s need rapidly to identify an enemy who could be charged with all the evils that led to the defeat, and whose elimination from society would not undermine the unity of the nation, but rather symbolize Vichy’s determination to rejuvenate it.
This was, of course, a tactic used with considerable success by the Nazis. But unlike Germany, Vichy was ultimately a creature of Hitler’s interests, and its popular support rapidly eroded. Indeed, the legitimacy of Petain’s regime was challenged from the very beginning by its opponents, among whom Charles de Gaulle gradually became the most prominent. Much as Vichy tried to discredit him as a traitor, de Gaulle ultimately succeeded in presenting himself as the very embodiment of France, whereas the progressive subservience of Petain’s regime to the Germans made it increasingly suspect as a true representative of French national interests, especially following the German occupation of the Free Zone in November 1942. To be sure, both Petain and de Gaulle had grand notions of French fate and destiny, but there was much more grandeur in advocating resistance and sacrifice than in appealing for collaboration with the unloved Boches. Thus, almost by definition, the Resistance now became Vichy’s primary elusive enemy, both because it vied with it over the role of the nation’s legitimate leadership, and because while de Gaulle himself was out of reach, activists of the resistance could hypothetically be found anywhere, even among the regime’s own officials. In this sense, as the movement expanded, the notion of an elusive enemy acquired an increasingly concrete form, since the very existence of resistance was predicated on demonstrating its presence through action while never being fully uncovered.
Moreover, Vichy’s anti-Jewish policies contrasted with those of the Third Reich in several important respects. Whereas the Germans began by trying to drive out their own Jewish citizens, Petain’s regime, despite its racist legislation, showed growing reluctance to act against Jews with French citizenship. This was in line with popular attitudes, which distinguished between recently arrived refugees and France’s well-integrated Jewish community. The growing xenophobia and antisemitism of the 1930s, therefore, rooted as they were in economic crisis and anti-immigrant sentiments, did not have as deep an impact on the public in France as in Germany, not least because, until 1940, there was no openly antisemitic government to orchestrate them.
Hence, while in Germany the exclusion, isolation, and persecution of Jews made for widespread public indifference to their fate and growing complicity in mass murder, in France the realization that collaboration with the Nazis ultimately meant complicity in genocide, increasingly dampened both popular and official support for such actions.
From this perspective we can say that just as was the case during the interwar period, in occupied France there was no unanimity regarding the identity of the nation’s domestic enemies. Ultimately, a majority of the population came to reject the very legitimacy of Vichy and to view the collaborationists as traitors to the national cause. This profound transformation of perception, caused by Vichy’s slavish subordination to Germany, the Reich’s declining fortunes, and the ruthless exploitation of France’s industrial, agricultural, and human resources, meant that by 1944 most of the French saw Vichy’s representatives as almost synonymous with the foreign occupiers. And, as the Germans withdrew and the former collaborators tried to merge back into the population, they thereby made themselves into the nation’s new elusive enemy who had to be ferreted out and punished for all the evils of the past, be they the debacle of 1940, the German occupation, or the crimes of Vichy. This redesignation of the enemy had the merit of endowing the past with logic and consistency, and because the definition of collaboration was swiftly narrowed down to include only the most obvious cases, it also legitimized the vast majority of the French as victims of foreign rule and domestic dictatorship, of whom many had become martyrs of a national struggle for liberation. Vichy’s first and primary victims, however, were left out of this newly fabricated heroic narrative.
Elusive enemies, therefore, never played the same unifying role in interwar and Vichy France as they had in Germany. Conversely, for several decades after 1945, conceptualizations of near-universal martyrdom enjoyed an even wider consensus in France than in Germany. Indeed, following the brief period of unofficial and legal purges, the French definition of victimhood made for a relatively smooth transition from the shame and humiliation of the Occupation to a view of the past as an imaginary site of common suffering and resistance to evil. This consensus facilitated the process of unifying the nation after a long period of domestic strife dating from the 1930s and continuing well beyond the Liberation to the end of the war in Algeria. But it was also predicated on suppressing the memory of both those who had quickly adapted themselves to German rule and those who were its most direct victims. Instead, the nation was presented as having shared, as a whole, the trauma of wartime pain, suffering, deprivation and loss. With the exception of a few collaborators who had allegedly been duly punished, postwar France therefore constructed its national identity on the myth of a solidarity of martyrdom. To be sure, within this community of victims there were some who deserved to be honored more than others, namely, the members of the Resistance, whose numbers had not unexpectedly swelled in the last period of the Occupation and especially immediately after the Liberation. And among the resisters, those who had been deported to concentration camps or were executed by the authorities were made into icons of national martyrdom. The Jews, however, whose proportionate losses far exceeded those of any other category in France’s population, including the Resistance, were largely left unmentioned, while simultaneously being incorporated as a group into the national narrative of suffering and heroism. In this sense the Jews became the unifying elusive victims of the next few decades, since their fate symbolized the nation’s martyrdom, yet could not be specified lest it open the way for distinctions that would threaten national unity. In other words, if the Nazis employed the notion of elusive enemies to create a solidarity of exclusion and fear, postwar France built its national identity on the concept of an inclusive community of martyrs, the identity of whose most distinct members was repeatedly evaded so as to ensure the consolidation of the nation and to cover up the complicity in genocide that cast doubt on the claim of universal solidarity.
This manner of representing the past in the service of the present has been hotly contested in the last couple of decades. On the one hand, the reassertion of Jewish identity in France has increased the demand to recognize the specific fate of the victims of the Holocaust and the complicity of Vichy. On the other hand, many people in France, including not a few Jews, fear that by focusing on the fate of one community during a period of national tragedy, and by charging elements in French society with participation in that group’s exclusion and ultimate murder, the contemporary unity of the nation may be undermined, to the detriment of everyone, not least precisely those who had been victims of past conflicts over national identity. And yet the process of rewriting the past was also the result of the belated exposure of centrally placed collaborators who rapidly transformed themselves into powerful and respectable civil servants in postwar France. Thus public awareness of those long-forgotten, “elusive,” yet highly visible former collaborators increased just as the memory of the “elusive,” yet highly visible victims of those collaborators, began to emerge. Together, these two parallel and in many ways related currents revealed the extent to which the memory of Vichy as a whole had largely evaded critical scrutiny in the name of divergent postwar interests, even as its official narrative was gradually undermined by historians, filmmakers, testimonies and confessions throughout the intervening years. That this was, and perhaps still is, a complex and at times even hazardous process, indicates that national identity is always based both on history and memory, and on erasure and repression. For both in Germany and in France, the price of postwar national unity was paid by the victims of those very forces that these resurrected nations claimed to have eliminated.