Bad Memories

Bad Memories

France is still feeling the shock of a legal decision destined to induce collective amnesia.


France is still feeling the shock of a legal decision destined to induce collective amnesia. The Paris appellate court dismissed war crimes charges against Paul L Touvier, leader of the pro-Nazi militia, which aided and abetted the Gestapo in Lyons during World War II.

The case of Touvier is extraordinary. Now 77, he was sentenced to death in absentia just after the war. He managed to hide for years and was protected by members of the Catholic clergy, including an archbishop. Trying to rally and unite the French right after the student and worker revolt of 1968, President Georges Pompidou granted Touvier a pardon in 1971. “Crimes against humanity,” however, are by law not pardonable offenses. Touvier was prosecuted a second time, sheltered again by the Catholic clergy and caught only in 1989. Now it was the turn of the Paris judges to do the dirty work. They discarded five of the accusations against Touvier as not proven. The sixth, the execution of seven Jewish hostages, could not be so dismissed, so they decided it was not a “crime against humanity” because Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, unlike the Nazis, did not have a plan of extermination.

Thus, to whitewash Vichy, the judges had to become historians and special pleaders, skillfully forgetting that the militia had been an instrument of the Nazis. Why did they do it? Presumably, to prevent a proper debate on collaboration, on the extent to which French officialdom and the bourgeoisie worked together with the Nazis. If Touvier, with blood on his hands, gets off scot-free, then the two members of the establishment whose trial for collaboration is always being postponed (René Bouquet and Maurice Papon, wartime police officials in Paris and Bordeaux) can assume they will die quietly in their homes–unless there is an outcry provoked by this shameful verdict that forces the highest court of appeal to reverse it very fast.

Is it worth it to drag these guilty old men into court? Yes, for the sake of a nation’s political sanity. At the end of the war, after a brief period of purges, the French refused to examine their record. A clever syllogism–de Gaulle was a resister; de Gaulle is France; therefore, the whole of France resisted–allowed them to push awkward memories into the unconscious, where they festered. Naturally, the rise of Jean- Marie Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front has its own economic and social causes. But the revival of racism, this time anti-Arab even more than anti-Jew, is not unconnected with this refusal to examine the past. Amnesia is a very dangerous disease for nations as well as individuals.

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