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.

Vinen has a keen eye for incidents whose sheer absurdity shows just how chaotic and unpredictable things were. For instance, a Canadian insurance company, taking Vichy’s theoretical neutrality at face value, continued to pay Pétain a pension throughout the war. Meanwhile, the French children’s magazine Le Journal de Mickey, with support from Walt Disney, not only went on publishing but solemnly instructed French children in their duty to “the Marshal.” So complex were Vichy’s criteria for Jewishness, and so rigid the racial bureaucracy, that one woman was deported from France and sent all the way to Auschwitz, only to persuade officials there of her “Aryan” status, upon which they returned her safely home. Meanwhile, on the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, an idealistic young French scoutmaster set up a model camp for “volunteer” French workers, leading them in songs, games and exercises that were occasionally disturbed by the smell of burning flesh. The scoutmaster later turned out to be a Gaullist spy.

Beyond the confusion and unpredictability, Vinen is particularly good at evoking the privations and hardships that served as the backdrop to nearly all French lives between 1940 and 1944. He waxes eloquent on subjects like ration cards, waiting in line (you could pay a mother seven francs an hour to wait for you; her children would deliver the provisions) and the black market. He explains persuasively that farmers endured their own share of hardships and did not enjoy a plenty denied to city dwellers. He recounts the plot of a novel whose intellectual hero, having gone hungry for too long, declares with bathos: “My son will run a dairy.” He also reveals that Parisians kept 400,000 rabbits on their balconies as a source of food.

When Vinen takes the time to sketch out individual characters and incidents, his book is especially instructive and revealing. He gives a lively account of collaborationist crime and figures like the gangster Henri Lafont (who counted a black singer and a German Jew among his mistresses, and eventually volunteered to fight in the SS). Vinen also makes a fascinating comparison between three young French Jews who survived the war, showing the determining effect that their prewar social status had on their experiences. Unfortunately, however, much of the book moves too quickly for its own good. To take just one example, in his section on the “exodus” of June 1940, when as many as 8 million people fled their homes (including more than two-thirds of the population of Paris), Vinen seldom devotes more than a sentence to any single person or story. It is an admittedly unfair comparison, but Némirovsky’s Suite Française gives a far more vivid sense of the chaos, confusion and anguish of this moment, and of the variety of individual experiences.

More serious, Vinen’s allergy to generalization often leaves him with little to say that does not sound simply obvious: “German troops in France were not all the same”; “French people often discussed how they should deal with the Germans”; “Prison camps changed over time.” At the end of the book, he writes: “The first and simplest conclusion of this book is that life for most French people between 1940 and 1944 was miserable.” Did we doubt it? True, some historians of late have put relatively little emphasis on the hardships, but the basic facts have not been in question.

Most surprising, while Vinen details the many different ways the French dealt with the German occupiers, including political collaboration, sexual contacts, forced labor in Germany and bureaucratic connections, he almost entirely avoids the subject of resistance. He has an entire chapter on French laborers in Germany, but nothing at all on the “Free French” forces in England. And he provides only five pages on the organized Resistance itself–half the amount given over to the head-shavings of 1944-45, and scarcely more than on the black market, or standing in line. True, the book explicitly concerns “the bulk of the population” who did not actively resist, and is partly set against the old myth, long discredited by historians but still tenaciously upheld in some fiction, that France was a “nation of resisters.” But in downplaying the Resistance so thoroughly, Vinen ends up diminishing the importance of the choices the French did indeed face during the war, however much their sheer exhaustion and despair, and the ambient chaos, may have led them to pretend that these choices did not exist.

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.

Into this madhouse, in March 1942, came Louis Darquier, to replace the conservative Catholic Xavier Vallat, whom the Nazis and their French soulmates considered too soft. Darquier immediately began to abuse the office, siphoning off funds, sexually exploiting secretaries and trying to use the commission’s investigative unit as his own private police force. But he was right at home. Typical of the commission’s personnel were Jean Bouvyer, a thug from the prewar right-wing terrorist group the Cagoule who tracked down Jews in hiding, and Georges Montandon, a reputable anthropologist who inspected men and women for physical signs of Jewishness and took large bribes to issue “Certificates of Non-Belonging to the Jewish Race.” Darquier himself developed a profitable sideline issuing the same certificates, and amassed a small fortune from this and other corrupt practices. His laziness was legendary; the only significant policy he actually formulated and implemented himself was to oblige all Jews in the occupied zone to wear the yellow Star of David.

But by the time Darquier took office, the Final Solution had begun in earnest, and the Germans had serious plans for his commission. Adolf Eichmann demanded that Vichy deport 100,000 Jews to the death camps and, through his French subordinates, put pressure on Vichy to make the arrangements. Darquier found himself in the unfamiliar and unwelcome position of having to take responsibility, along with the police official René Bousquet, who actually organized the deportations. The Germans, believing exaggerated propaganda, thought that the Jewish population in France numbered 865,000. In reality there were only 330,000, and fewer than 100,000 of the non-French refugees whom Vichy hoped to expel first, so the French found it hard to comply with Eichmann’s directives.

There followed the sort of bureaucratic chaos and confusion described by Vinen, as the French and the Germans bickered and bargained over numbers, but it had gruesome results. In July 1942, the French police–acting on the authority of the French state, not the Germans–arrested nearly 13,000 Jews in Paris, including more than 4,000 children, and shut them up for days in stifling heat in an indoor bicycle racetrack (the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Vel’ d’Hiv’) without water or proper sanitation. The final destination was Auschwitz. Thousands were gassed on arrival, and hardly any survived. Many more arrests and deportations followed. As a result of macabre bureaucratic logic, young children initially exempted were sent to their death later on, when the rules changed. Children born in France, and therefore possessing French citizenship, were separated from their parents. Darquier’s chief of staff, Pierre Galien (a Nazi agent), asked to intervene on behalf of a 10-month-old child left parentless by the deportations, replied: “It’s a Jew child, let it die.” Vinen tells the moving story of a brother and sister, 14 and 10 years old, left to fend for themselves after their parents’ disappearance (their landlord coldly insisted that they continue to pay the full rent on their apartment).

Nonetheless, by March 1943 the French had met less than half of Eichmann’s target; the Germans were furious with them, and with Darquier in particular. “The result of Darquier de Pellepoix’s activity over his past year in office,” a German memo concluded, “is nil in all areas.” Darquier was continuing to make speeches, to preside over his various clubs and associations and to embezzle money meant for anti-Semitic propaganda efforts, all the while complaining about his workload. He and Myrtle (who remained in Paris with him throughout the war, although technically an enemy alien) remained as disorderly as ever in their private lives, although now in the more luxurious confines of the Hôtel Bristol (as Callil acidly remarks, Darquier was one of very few Frenchmen to gain weight during the war). The Germans tried to dismiss him, but he saved himself for a time by helping to broker the theft and sale of a large private Jewish art collection (in the northern zone alone, Vichy stole more than a billion francs in Jewish property, along with 100,000 artworks, 40,000 of which were never recovered).

Darquier finally lost his job in early 1944, but he remained in France until after D-Day. And then, as the Allied armies approached Paris, he and a French mistress escaped south, walking across the Pyrenees into Spain. The Franco regime welcomed him (along with many other French exiles), gave him an apartment, found him jobs teaching French and translating, and protected him even as a postwar French court condemned him to death in absentia. Later French governments made no serious efforts to uncover his whereabouts, let alone extradite him, and so, like many other prominent French (and German) officials, he paid no price for his wartime activities. He had another daughter by his mistress, but was eventually reunited with Myrtle. In 1978 a journalist from L’Express tracked him down and surreptitiously recorded an interview in which Darquier angrily defended his wartime record, spouted familiar anti-Semitic diatribes and declared that the only thing gassed in Auschwitz was lice. The interview caused a scandal in France and eventually led to the indictment of Bousquet, who had gone on to a brilliant career in business (thanks partly to the protection of François Mitterrand, himself a former extremist and supporter of Pétain who switched sides at a convenient moment). Darquier finally died in August 1980, near Málaga.

While Darquier was hardly an unknown figure, Callil has done a Herculean job of research to give a far closer, richer portrait of his life than we have for almost any figure of his era. Her bibliography lists nearly 100 separate archives in seven countries, more than 100 interviews and countless letters given to her by individuals, including members of the Darquier family in France. Bad Faith is long, and detailed, but in this case the details reveal the devil.

Callil is not a professional historian (she is the founder of Britain’s Virago Press), and her motivation for pursuing Darquier’s story was anything but academic. In the first pages, she explains that soon after she came from Australia to Britain in the early 1960s, she attempted to commit suicide. When she recovered, her doctor prescribed therapy, and for seven years Callil went three times a week to see a half-Australian psychiatrist. She was Anne Darquier, the abandoned daughter of Louis and Myrtle who had been raised in Oxfordshire by her redoubtable nanny, Elsie Lightfoot. Anne died in 1970 at the age of 40, poisoned by alcohol and pills. (“It was not suicide,” Callil writes, “though there are slow ways of trying to kill yourself not given that label.”) Callil, who was deeply affected by Anne’s death, learned of the elder Darquier’s identity only later, when she spotted him in Marcel Ophüls’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.

Callil’s book, then, is the result of what can only be called an obsessive quest to understand: to understand the unhappy Anne Darquier by understanding the bizarre and terrible legacy that she had the impossible task of living with. While principally a biography of Darquier himself, it is also the story of the entire family, with long, fascinating pages on Myrtle and her Australian family, and also on the story of how a hard-edged ambition took Anne Darquier from genteel poverty with Lightfoot to university at Oxford, and then into medicine. Anne, who during the war had idealized the father she had never met (and whom she had very little idea of), finally met him after he arrived in Spain, and the experience left her utterly appalled and distraught. Just before her death she remarked to Callil that “there are some things and some people you can never forgive.” Incidentally, Darquier inherited £16,552 from his daughter and used it to purchase his apartment in Madrid from the Spanish government. As one of Myrtle’s pallbearers remarked (she had died soon before Anne): “No one, it seems, survives Darquier.”

Callil writes with passion (how could she not, under these circumstances?), and it gives her book a force and drive that keeps the reader going through its 400-some pages of narrative. Occasionally she overwrites: “The threnody of [Myrtle’s] Tasmanian family and the money she would one day inherit trills through all her letters like the sound of a piccolo.” More often, however, she holds back, giving her prose touches of dry, penetrating wit. For instance: The existence of the unoccupied zone gave France “a sedative pretence of sovereignty.” Or, on Darquier’s appointment to head the commission: “An even worse punishment for the Germans responsible for his appointment was their discovery that Darquier was a pestiferous bore.” Or, on Louis and Myrtle: “Their mutual inventions were one of the strongest cords that held them together.” Callil also has an unfortunate line, in her postscript, about what “the Jews of Israel [are] passing on to the Palestinian people.” It has caused a predictable controversy, and is wrongheaded. Since when does a great crime confer any special moral burden on the victims?

But what of the question of Louis Darquier’s own moral responsibility? Here, Callil poses more genuinely troubling, and difficult questions, and the problem of identification rears its head. On the one hand, by telling the story in the way she has, Callil inevitably relates Darquier’s monstrosity in his private life to the monstrosity of his public actions. Callil knows, of course, that most monsters injure no one other than their nearest and dearest, while many great criminals lead impeccable private lives. But she draws a connection nonetheless by characterizing Darquier, in the end, as a sort of wanton incompetent whom chance and tragedy swept up into a position where he could do harm on a bizarrely vast scale:

Yoked in mutual self-deception with Myrtle, the Baron and Baroness, twin children–wicked children–played games, murderous games, pulling wings off butterflies, dispensing cruelty like liquorice water. Left to himself, Louis Darquier would have destroyed only his own children and any adult…foolish enough to dabble in his fantasy world…. Above and around Darquier were the real criminals, the Pétains and Weygands, the Bousquets and Vallats, the cardinals and clergy, the judges and lawyers, the industrialists and businessmen…who put his babbling mouth to work for their own ends…. Looking at him, hearing him speak…they stared their own inhumanity in the face…. He was ridiculous, he was their fall guy, but he was also the dark essence of l’Etat français.

There is something about this judgment that is just a little too easy, and this may perhaps have to do with the many years Callil spent inside Louis Darquier’s head. It is not that she sympathizes with him in any way. Darquier was a man almost impossible not to loathe, and Callil loathes him fiercely. But she may have gotten to know him too well to take him as seriously as he deserves. Darquier was indeed a wicked child of sorts–indeed, a certifiable maniac. But World War II was a time when the maniacs emerged from the asylum and nearly destroyed civilization. What was Hitler, after all, if not a more efficient, a more energetic, a more ambitious Darquier? The more sober men of Vichy–the Pétains and Lavals and Bousquets–were indeed criminals. They exploited their country’s defeat for their own ideological and personal ends. But left to themselves they would never have devised the idea of sending tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children to their death for the sin of being born Jewish. That insanity came from the Darquiers. It is relatively easy to imagine being a classic collabo like Bousquet, who doubtless defended his actions to himself better than Darquier could ever be bothered to. Putting oneself in Darquier’s shoes is much harder, precisely because of the extent of his mania. Even Callil, understandably, flinches from the task in revulsion. Nonetheless, thanks to her, we now have a portrait of his evil that remains scorched in the brain long after the book has been closed.