That these choices did exist, despite all the limiting factors that Vinen explores, is brought home with astonishing force and passion by Carmen Callil in her biography of Louis Darquier, who headed Vichy's General Commission for Jewish Affairs between 1942 and 1944, the period that saw the most Jews deported to the death camps. Her book is a brilliant and frightening tour de force, a triumph of research and one of the finest portraits of human evil I have ever read. It is not a story of ordinary people by any means. Darquier stood out even from the leaders of Vichy in his rabid anti-Semitism and ideological hatreds. But it shows all too clearly the sort of monsters, French and German, who had so many of France's ordinary people at their mercy during these terrible years.
Darquier's prewar story was mostly one of pathetic failure. He was born in 1897 into comfortable circumstances in the southern French town of Cahors, the son of a prominent doctor and politician. In the army during World War I, he performed well in action but turned disorderly and disobedient (and usually drunk) away from the front. After the war he tried selling advertising, followed by a stint in the wheat business, but proved incapable of holding down a steady job. He was lazy, sloppy, arrogant, pompous, mendacious and frequently intoxicated. He also had a penchant for embezzlement, and only his family's political connections kept him out of jail. Between 1927 and 1934 he lived in a series of cheap hotels (constantly dodging bill collectors), spinning ever more fantastic stories about himself. Appropriating the identity of a more distinguished family, he called himself Darquier de Pellepoix and sometimes passed himself off as a baron. Tall, broad-shouldered and never without a monocle, he at least looked the part.
In the late 1920s he met a mate perfectly suited to him: an Australian chorus girl named Myrtle Jones, who matched him in scrounging ability, outdid him in alcohol consumption and liked to pass herself off as Sandra Lindsay or Lady Sandra Workman-Macnaghten. In 1927 they married--probably bigamously, because there is no record of a divorce from her first husband--and moved to London as Baron and Baroness Darquier de Pellepoix. There, they lived hand-to-mouth in Darquier's familiar style, and in April 1930 he made it into the pages of the Evening Standard under the headline "Monocled Baron Charged" (with being a penniless illegal alien). Later that year they had their first and only child, a girl named Anne, and promptly abandoned her into the care of an English nanny paid (irregularly) by their families, scarcely ever to see her again. The couple had frequent drunken rows, during which he beat her ferociously. Yet even though they were sometimes separated, they could not cut their bonds. Soon after Anne's birth, her parents returned to France.
In the early 1930s, as the ideological climate turned extreme, he followed his older and more successful brother into right-wing politics, and in February 1934 had a life-changing stroke of good luck: He got shot. The occasion was the riots of February 6, in which crowds from a variety of far-right organizations attacked the National Assembly and tried to overthrow the weak government of the Third Republic, which much of the population considered unrepresentative of the "real country" and therefore illegitimate (the extreme-right author Robert Brasillach infamously called it "an old syphilitic whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection"). Painfully wounded in the thigh, Darquier immediately became a political celebrity. "It's like having a winning ticket in the lottery," he wrote during his recovery, with characteristic cynicism. "I think I'm going to find influential friends now, as I'm a unique example (the others who were severely wounded are cooks, drivers and shop employees). I believe that I'm going to profit from the accident--I've decided to play this card for all it's worth!" True to his word, he started to cultivate leaders of the extreme right, including Pierre-Charles Taittinger, the champagne magnate (think of him next time you have something to celebrate), and to lead an association of February 6 veterans. In 1935 he won election to the Paris City Council and used it as a platform to spout a message of hatred toward democracy, modernity, freemasons and Jews.
There is little sign that Darquier gave particular attention to the Jews before the mid-1930s. He was anti-Semitic, of course, but in the reflexive, unthinking way that characterized nearly all right-wing Frenchmen of the day (and a good many on the other side of the political aisle as well). He had cordial relations with individual Jews. But after 1934 a number of hard-line anti-Semites decided he could be a useful spokesman, and prompted him to make the Jews his principal political issue. Darquier eagerly complied. He started to put references to Jewish finance, blood purity and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into his speeches. He demanded anti-Jewish legislation and founded anti-Semitic publications. He acquired a dog named Porthos and taught it to attack at the command "Aux Juifs!" All this time, he and Myrtle were continuing to live their drunken, helter-skelter existence. In 1935 his bar tab alone came to some 50,000 francs (roughly $40,000 today). Several times debt almost derailed him.
In the late 1930s, though, Darquier found a new and sinister source of funding: the Nazi government. With its support, he expanded his loose network of clubs and associations, and turned ever more strident and passionate in his denunciations, calling for the expulsion of all Jews who had entered France since 1918. Repeatedly hauled into court on charges of libel, of defamation, of disseminating enemy propaganda and of being an enemy agent (the Nazi subsidies were an open secret), he used each controversy to raise his stature on the extreme right. The day after Hitler invaded Poland, he got into a fistfight in the Brasserie Lipp after loudly denouncing the "Jewish War." Soon afterward, Darquier went back into the French army and was captured, along with millions of others, by the Germans. But the Nazis quietly arranged his release, and by the summer of 1941 the Vichy regime had cleared him of all outstanding legal issues. His moment had arrived.
At first, it was not clear that the new regime created under Pétain's aegis would follow Hitler's line on the Jews. Pétain stood for order, for dignity in defeat, for a "national revolution" that would cleanse the country of the corruption and weakness of the Third Republic, but not necessarily for official anti-Semitism. As Vinen points out, several Jewish deputies to the National Assembly joined that body's infamous vote to award Pétain full powers (which gave Vichy the status of the Republic's legitimate successor). Among Vichy's most enthusiastic initial supporters, there were far more Catholic conservatives than fascists, who remained a tiny minority of the population.
Yet as the regime began to consolidate, extremists like Darquier wriggled out into the open, and both they and the Germans began to push for French counterparts to the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws. The regime willingly obliged. Starting in October 1940, it issued two "Statutes on the Jews," which went further than even the Nazis requested, banning Jews from teaching, journalism, film, theater, the officer corps and civil service, most professions and finance. Foreign Jews were interned, and in the summer of 1941, 250,000 Parisians visited an anti-Semitic exhibition titled "The Jew and France." Vichy set up its General Commission for Jewish Affairs.