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Home Books, Arts, StageBooks Robert Paxton evokes the origins of his historical researches about Vichy regime and the Jews

Robert Paxton evokes the origins of his historical researches about Vichy regime and the Jews

by Pierre-Alain Lévy

In our Press and Documentation database, the Online review K. which defines itself as Les Juifs, L’Europe, le XXIè siècle. It contains cutting-edge research texts and relevant analytical grids. This month’s issue includes a letter from Robert Paxton, an American historian whose books Vichy and the Jews, first published in 1981, following La France de Vichy, co-authored with Michaël Marrus and published in 1972, constituted thunderclaps in the emollient doxa of a certain French historical school, and of a political class that, it must be admitted, is surprisingly silent on the burdens of the past. The power of the research carried out, of the interviews and documents brought to light, swept away the unspoken words of a timidity of French academic research that was quite surprising.

One book, and one only, was enough to make everything be considered differently. An old Talmudic and Kabbalistic lesson in a way that places the one (the zero would say Arthur Koesler) before the infinite!

One word to turn the world upside down, one word, one single word to exist, to be. A word, a single word to make energy live. One word, life!

And then, yes, and then also this “great clock”, whose cogs, the notched gears, suddenly (suddenly?), change the world forever. Nothing will ever be the same again! In doing so, an unalterable game of rhetoric, of dialectics, and what we are experiencing today with the war in Ukraine and the Russian aggression is the perfect demonstration of this.

By the way, it is always tasty to observe and discover how much our French specificities, whatever the field they belong to, make the happiness of our friends from other countries and other languages, who often pierce us, much better than we could do it ourselves! Two examples among many others, the first one Voltaire, who knows it better than the English! The second is the wine of Bordeaux, whose most eminent oenologist and specialist is the American expert Robert Parker

Let’s reframe our subject, and let’s pay tribute to Robert Paxton in turn. Thanks also to the Revue K, whose text we are publishing.
Pierre-Alain Lévy


Forty years ago, the great history book Vichy and the Jews, by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, was published simultaneously in French and English. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton. Re-edited in 2015, the book is now experiencing a revival of interest, as certain statements question France’s responsibility for the persecution of Jews under the German occupation. In 2015, on the occasion of a day in homage to the man who was at the origin of its writing, Roger Errera, Robert O. Paxton, who now authorizes us to reproduce this text, returned to the difficult process of producing this book that so violently challenged the myth of Resistance France.

My adventure with Roger Errera began in 1971. On July 2, 1971, he sent me a letter that caught my attention. Referring to the Diaspora series that he had founded at Calmann-Lévy shortly before, and whose first titles were to be published the following October, he suggested that I write an essay on the Vichy regime and the Jews.

Good books on Vichy,” he wrote in this letter, “are, in France, non-existent.

Roger Errera did not know me, but he knew from my teachers at Harvard, Stanley Hoffmann and Nicholas Wahl[1] , that I had already written two books on Vichy. The second, in press in New York at the precise moment of Roger’s invitation, was to be published in France two years later under the title La France de Vichy, by the Seuil publishing house. Roger had therefore not been able to read that book. But he indicated in his letter that he had indeed read my first book on Vichy, my doctoral thesis on the army of the armistice, published in the United States in 1966 (and translated into French under the title L’Armée de Vichy, only 38 years later).

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It should be noted that in 1971 my first book on Vichy was virtually unknown in France. Although it had appeared on a list of “received books” in an issue of the Revue d’histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, no French publication had published a review of it, to my knowledge, except for eight lines in the Revue française de science politique (February 1967). The book was, after all, in English. I had to offer a copy to the Bibliothèque nationale myself. It is true that the Sciences Po library bought a copy – it was, I believe, the only library in France to do so.

Roger Errera thus belonged to an extremely exclusive club: the small, very restricted circle of French people who, at that time, knew my first book, the one on the Vichy army. I could see immediately that I was dealing with someone of extraordinary curiosity and intellectual energy, someone who read everything, in several languages. This first positive impression was never denied afterwards.

Vichy and the Jews
Robert O. Paxton le 14 juin 2015, lors de l’hommage à Roger Errera au mahJ, crédit Sandra Saragoussi

I must say that I hesitated when Roger invited me. I had not considered turning my attention in that direction. I come from an American Protestant family which, established in Virginia since the beginning of the seventeenth century, had never had any contact with the world of Judaism. I thought that my later research on Vichy would be more focused on the world of business and economic collaboration.

What persuaded me to accept Roger Errera’s invitation, beyond the intrinsic interest of the subject, was that I suspected at the time that my second book on Vichy would follow the same path to oblivion in France as the first. Roger offered me a guaranteed way to express myself on Vichy France to the French public. Moreover, his way of presenting the subject attracted me. He was looking for someone who knew how to exploit the German archives, the importance of which he understood well. We were in complete agreement on this point.

Here is how, in July 1971, he envisioned my logbook:

“The respective roles of Vichy and the Germans in the elaboration of the racial laws; collaboration in the measures of persecution and deportation – the attitude of the various officials in this regard; the final balance sheet. So many aspects that still await their historian. The book that was born of our collaboration corresponded well to this initial perspective.

I cannot say that the preparation of the book followed a straight and smooth path. Rather, it was complicated by diversions and interruptions. First, I had to finish another project that was already in the works. I had committed myself to writing a textbook for American university students on the history of all of Europe in the twentieth century. This project took longer than expected. By the time Europe in the Twentieth Century came out in 1975, I was ready to begin Vichy and the Jews

Our collaboration was intense and fruitful. First of all, through the good offices of Jean-Claude Casanova,[2] Roger had an important part of the French state archives opened. This exemption met with some resistance. One of the presidents of the reading room at the Archives nationales, the old reading room on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, systematically refused to honor the very official letter of authorization from the Director of the Archives nationales. I forget the name of the archivist in question (Dr. Freud would say I turned him down). Before entering the reading room, then, I looked through the glass of the double door to see who was presiding over the room that day. If it was my opponent, I would not enter. I would turn around and go to the National Library for the day. I would add that many French archivists and librarians, apart from this overly cautious gentleman, very kindly helped me.

Roger was fully committed to this undertaking. I could measure the intensity of his commitment by the flood of letters, books, and various communications that arrived at our home in New York. We shared the same goal: to produce a book that would be irrefutable by the seriousness of its documentation and by the strength of its demonstration.

We wanted to show the truth of each sentence by referring to the sources of the time. For my first book on Vichy, on the army of the Armistice, I interviewed about thirty generals and colonels, starting with General Weygand himself. I even interviewed Xavier Vallat, but about the French Legion of Combatants, and not about the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions. But little by little I learned that memories are less trustworthy than archives, especially when the subject is hot. Not necessarily that witnesses lie, although that can happen. The crux of the problem is elsewhere: the situation and mentalities have evolved to the point where witnesses become almost incapable of reconstructing the past in an authentic way. Thus, to prepare the second book, La France de Vichy, I did few interviews. For the third book, Vichy and the Jews, Roger thought, as I did, that it was not worth talking to those responsible. We could have talked to the victims endlessly, but our subject was not the Jews under Vichy but the policy of the Vichy government and administration toward the Jews.

My work quickly fell behind schedule. But Roger, who made no secret of his desire to complete our project quickly, never lost his usual courtesy. On my side, however, I was increasingly discouraged by the heaviness of the task and the sordid nature of the story. The moment came in 1976 when I told Roger that I wanted to abandon the project. Roger used all his skills as a magistrate and diplomat to find a solution. Finally, we invited Michael Marrus, a young Canadian historian, to become a co-author. Marrus had written one of Roger’s first books in the Diaspora series: Les Juifs de France à l’époque de l’affaire Dreyfus. L’assimilation à l’épreuve [1972]. Marrus and I already knew each other. Marrus was a doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley at the same time that I arrived there as an assistant. Marrus accepted our invitation. So the book became the Marrus and Paxton. It is a thankless task to write a book together, but I can say that Michael and I are still friends.

The book was released in 1981 in both France and the United States. It did not raise the same controversy in France as my previous book, La France de Vichy, which had come out eight years earlier. Thanks to our determination to document everything solidly, it was difficult to deny our conclusions. Our opponents claimed – and still claim – that our work gives too dark a picture of reality, but they did not manage to find any really significant errors of fact.

Our first conclusion, that the first Vichy racial laws owed nothing to direct German pressure, is generally accepted today. It remains difficult, however, to persuade the average reader, even today, that the Germans did not want a “Judenrein” France in 1940. On the contrary, they wanted to make the unoccupied zone a dumping ground for their own Jews. German policy concerning the situation of the Jews in France in 1940 was therefore the opposite of Vichy policy. At the same time that Marshal Pétain was shaking hands with Hitler at the small train station in Montoire-sur-le-Loir in October 1940, the local authorities in the Rhineland were sending more than 6,000 German Jews to the free zone in sealed railroad cars, to the great displeasure of the Vichy authorities. Successive governments of the Third Republic had sought since the late 1930s to get rid of the overflow of Spanish and Jewish refugees, and the disaster of 1940 had made this desire even more acute. This helps to explain why Vichy so happily agreed to participate in the transfer of German Jews in 1942, when the Nazi leaders replaced their policy of expulsion with a policy of recovering Jews in order to exterminate them.

Extrait du journal Le Matin du 19-10-1940 publiant un modèle bilingue allemand-français de l’affichage obligatoire signalant les entreprises appartenant à des Juifs. Extrait de l’image de la Bibliothèque en ligne Gallica ark:/12148/bpt6k586899k

Our second conclusion, that the anti-Semitic measures of Vichy were rigorously applied until the last moment, has been validated by a whole series of scholarly works that have since been published.

Our third conclusion concerned public opinion. According to the prefects’ reports, the French public often greeted Vichy’s first measures of discrimination and exclusion with indifference, sometimes with approval. Those who seek to refute this point are forced to believe that the prefects and also the wiretapping services falsified their reports to the Minister of the Interior. Then opinion underwent a striking reversal: the French public was outraged by the mass arrests and family separations that accompanied the deportations that began in March 1942. From the summer of 1942, rescue actions spread throughout France, following a development that we have perhaps not sufficiently emphasized in our book. At the last moment, to fill this gap, we dedicated Vichy and the Jews to “the French who, between 1940 and 1944, helped persecuted Jews in France”.

The fate of the Jews in France under the German occupation remains a hot topic to this day. A certain French television star wrote last year [2014] that I was the one who taught the French to hate themselves. Two recent books claim that Vichy tried from the beginning to save the Jews of French nationality. It is easy to show that this effort began only in the summer of 1942, and that it was limited in scope. 

A recent major book on the rescue of Jews during the Occupation once again asks the question: why did so many Jews survive in France? According to this book, a surge of sympathy for the Jews, which became almost universal in 1942, explains this relatively positive result. But should we not rather ask the question in the other direction? Why, given the multiple opportunities for rescue in France, did so many Jews perish there? The subject remains very topical in today’s debates.

I am currently preparing a new edition of Vichy and the Jews [published in October 2015]. The quantity and quality of scholarly works that have appeared over the past three decades make this task mandatory. We believe, Marrus and I, that all this new work has not overturned our main conclusions. Rather, the new works reinforce them: the lack of means on the German side making the help of the French administration indispensable; the major role of the traditional administration, and not only the General Commissariat for Jewish Questions, in the application of discriminatory measures against the Jews; the effort to replace German anti-Semitic measures in the occupied zone by French measures applying to all of France.

Roger enthusiastically supported the project of a second edition of Vichy and the Jews. As in the past, messages began to pour in from New York, this time in electronic form. But, alas, he was unable to see the result. I thank him again today for his initial inspiration, for his unceasing enthusiasm, for his wise counsel, and for his friendship.

Robert O. Paxton

Stanley Hoffmann (1928-2015). Professeur de science politique à l’université Harvard (Massachusetts), fondateur du Centre d’études Européennes dans cette université, titulaire de la chaire de civilisation française à partir de 1980 et de celle de relations internationales à partir de 1997. Stanley Hoffmann avait préfacé La France de Vichy : 1940-1944, de Robert O. Paxton, paru aux éditions du Seuil en 1973, ouvrage traduit de l’anglais Vichy France. Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1972. Anthony Nicholas Maria Wahl (1928-1996). Spécialiste de l’histoire politique de la France contemporaine, il a enseigné à Harvard, à Princeton et il a dirigé l’Institute of French Studies à New York University, de 1978 à 1996. (NDLR)
2 Jean-Claude Casanova (1934-), professeur agrégé des facultés de droit et de sciences économiques, directeur d’études et de recherches à la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques jusqu’en 1990. Durant la période de rédaction de Vichy et les Juifs, il a exercé les fonctions de conseiller technique notamment au cabinet de Joseph Fontanet, ministre de l’Education nationale, de 1972 à 1974, et de conseiller auprès de Raymond Barre, premier ministre, de 1976 à 1981.(NDLR)

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