What is it about Vichy France that still exerts such a strong hold on the Western imagination? Publishers bring out large, well-reviewed histories of Vichy at regular intervals. It remains an irresistible setting for historical fiction, as shown by the success of Alan Furst's novels, which return again and again to wartime France. Films about Vichy, from Casablanca and The Sorrow and the Pity to The Last Metro and Au revoir les enfants, attract large and enthusiastic audiences. Just this year, the gorgeous, heartbreakingly incomplete novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (a Jew whom Vichy deported to the death camps), finally published after lying for decades in a suitcase her daughters found too painful to open, appeared in English translation to rapturous critical acclaim.
In some respects, the attention seems disproportionate. Vichy was a dreadful regime, but just one among many during a dreadful period of human history, and surely one that occupies a lesser realm of horror than Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union. Its worst crime, the deportation of some 76,000 Jews to the death camps, involved only a little more than 1 percent of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust--nor did the French operate death camps themselves. Why, then, does Vichy remain such an unusually compelling subject, especially in the United States and Britain? Is it simply that more Americans and Britons speak French than German? Or perhaps there is a double standard at work: The French, unlike the Germans, are "civilized" and so should have "known better."
I think there is a different, more fundamental reason, which has to do precisely with the lesser horror and greater moral ambiguity of Vichy. French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman once wrote a song that begins: "If I had been born in '17 in Leidenstadt/On the ruins of a battlefield/Would I have been better or worse than those people/Had I been German?" The question is simply too painful for most people to confront, because the answer seems all too obvious, and too damning. If they had been born German in 1917, they would likely have become Nazis, or cowards complicit in Hitler's crimes. When faced with this probability, the process of sympathetic identification that draws us into the past is simply blocked.
But what if they--what if you--had been born in 1917 in France, and then experienced the catastrophic defeat of 1940, when the Wehrmacht simply steered around the famed Maginot line and conquered France in a matter of weeks? Would you have fled to fight with de Gaulle? Joined the Resistance? Supported the puppet regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain? Not only were such choices all the more dramatic for being suddenly thrust on the French; they seem more psychologically plausible as well. It is much easier to imagine oneself failing a moral test and turning "collabo" in 1940 than slowly, steadily participating in the Nazi evil from the start. This may be one reason the "collabos" are often the most vividly sketched characters in Vichy fiction and film (think of Captain Renault in Casablanca, or Lucien in Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien), and why figures like Pétain, his Foreign Minister Pierre Laval and now Louis Darquier, the regime's notoriously anti-Semitic second commissioner for Jewish affairs and the subject of Carmen Callil's extraordinary book Bad Faith, have received such intense biographical scrutiny. It is surely one reason images of female collaborators having their heads shaved at the liberation, as in Robert Capa's famous photograph of 1944, remain some of the most searing and psychologically resonant ones of the entire war. It is all too easy to see ourselves in their place.
In the introduction to The Unfree French, a general history of Vichy France from the perspective of ordinary people, Richard Vinen protests the very idea of putting himself in his subjects' shoes. "When I was working on the French social elite during the Second World War," he writes, "survivors of that period (usually Pétainists), would sometimes ask me what I would have done if I had found myself in their position. This is an understandable but futile question. If I had been alive in France in 1940 I would have been a different person, and how I would have reacted would have depended on the social and political circumstances of my upbringing." Vinen is right, of course, but he is too sanguine about his ability--or anyone's--to avoid the question. Identifying with individuals in the past is central to the writing of good history, and to the experience of reading it. It is precisely for this reason that Vichy, a name that once signified nothing but a strong-tasting type of mineral water, has now come to signify such a strong-tasting morality tale.
Practicing what he preaches, Vinen not only guards against identifying with his subjects; he avoids judging them almost entirely. Indeed, in the classic British empiricist tradition, he is leery of generalization of any sort, implying at one point that a great deal of Vichy's history still defies understanding: "Much of what people said and did under Vichy...remains inscrutable." He likes nothing better than to take a particular topic--the flight of refugees from Paris and other cities in 1940, forced labor in Germany, collaboration, resistance, the liberation--and explain sternly that its complexity and variety make general conclusions almost impossible. Vinen declares at the outset that "I am interested in the French rather than in France...how the French lived rather than abstract ideals," and he concentrates as much as possible on people's ordinary experience. His approach is deliberately episodic.
In some respects, this approach works well, for Vichy's history is indeed far more complex than its popular image suggests. After the sudden and catastrophic defeat of May-June 1940, France did not simply fall under German occupation. Different areas, including Paris, came under various German and Italian administrations, while Germany forcibly annexed the region of Alsace-Lorraine (130,000 of its men went on to serve in the German armed forces, mostly on the Eastern front). Meanwhile, a large area in the south remained autonomous and theoretically neutral until November 1942, governed from the old spa town of Vichy under the leadership of the aged World War I hero Pétain. This "Vichy regime" had a role in running the occupied zones as well, but under conditions of continuous bureaucratic chaos, disarray and infighting. The histories of these different zones involve at least as much murkiness and confusion as they do stark moral choices.