Death of a Collaborator

Death of a Collaborator

Early on the morning of June 8, a messenger arrived at an apartment in one of the poshest districts of Paris bearing documents to be signed by a former high-level government official and prominen


Early on the morning of June 8, a messenger arrived at an apartment in one of the poshest districts of Paris bearing documents to be signed by a former high-level government official and prominent banker. Once ushered in, the messenger pulled out a gun and shot the host four times at point-blank range. The old man who was killed was René Bousquet.

Fifty years ago Bousquet was head of the police at the height of the mass deportation of French Jews, so the initial guess was that the killing must have been the work of a descendant of one of his victims, unable to bear the idea that such a scoundrel should be living so comfortably, untormented by conscience. As it turned out, the “avenger” was a frustrated scrivener who craved celebrity rather than justice. The media gave him the limelight he was seeking, but in killing Bousquet he deprived France of a trial that would have thrown light on the complicity of high-level officials in Nazi crimes.

Bousquet was one of three elderly Frenchmen facing trial for crimes against humanity committed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. He was, however, the crucial one. Paul Touvier, for so long protected by the Catholic clergy, is a sort of junior Klaus Barbie, a bloody torturer who operated on a local scale in the Lyons area [see Singer, “Bad Memories,” May 25, 1992]. Maurice Papon, who became an influential politician after the war, was also a local figure, whose atrocities were confined to Bordeaux. Bousquet was much more than a provincial, anti-Semitic thug. He was a brilliant member of the establishment, and as head of the French police in 1942-43 he was responsible for repression and deportations throughout France. His example shows how far raison d’état combined with ruthless ambition can lead. His case is worth examining because it tells us a great deal about the ambiguous relationship between postwar French politics and wartime collaboration.

Murderer in White Gloves

René Bousquet, born in 1909, seemed destined for a high post in government. He picked the prefectural service, which is most subservient to the powers that be. (The prefect is not so much the servant of the state as the instrument of the government in power, its direct representative in one of the ninety-five departments into which France is now divided.) The young civil servant garnered laurels and medals, showing personal courage in a rescue operation during a flood.

Bousquet cannot be described as the product of the French anti-Semitic right. He hails from the Toulouse region in southwestern France. During the interwar period Toulouse was dominated by the Radical Party, which, despite its name, was the mouthpiece of the moderate left. (It was said to be like a radish: red on the outside, white on the inside and always on the side the bread is buttered on.) With good connections in such quarters, Bousquet found that his rise was not interrupted when the Popular Front government of Léon Blum came to power in 1936–quite the contrary. But it did not slow down after Blum was thrown out of office, because Bousquet linked his fate with that of another prominent politician, Pierre Laval. Indeed, his climb continued as the Third Republic collapsed, and the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain was set up under German auspices. At the age of 31 Bousquet was the youngest prefect in France. Yet the real jump in his career came in April 1942, when Laval returned as prime minister in the Vichy government, which collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Laval brought Bousquet to Vichy as secretary general of the police with ministerial rank. The ambitious newcomer was determined to preserve as far as possible the sovereignty of the French police–or so he would say later in his own defense. To prevent the Germans from acting, he explained, one had to do the dirty jobs for them. One had to collaborate in the ruthless repression of the Resistance, which was inspired, as one of the joint agreements between the French and the Nazis put it, “by Jews, Bolsheviks and Anglo-Saxons.” One had to provide French policemen to round up Jews in Paris and later to raid Jewish homes throughout so-called unoccupied France–rather than let the Germans do it. One had to prove one’s zeal by adding small children to the lists. One had to supply thousands and thousands of Jews for the Nazi gas chambers. The distinguished young minister, a darling of the Vichy haut monde, was too elegant and too smart to stoop personally to torture like a vulgar Vichy militia thug. But he had more blood on his hands.

By the end of 1943, as a result of factional struggles within the Vichy government, Laval was pushed out and so was Bousquet. The latter was subsequently ordered into forced residence in Germany. Back in France after the war, Bousquet stayed in jail until 1947. He was tried two years later for collaboration, when passions were spent and society almost back to normal. With the influence of southwestern Radicals, the jury somehow failed to probe into his role in the deportation of the Jews, and he was sentenced to only five years of “national indignity.” And even this was lifted almost at once because of “services rendered to the resistance movement.” (It is striking how many pro-Nazis like Bousquet took the precaution of rendering such services.)

Even so, Bousquet could not resume his career in public administration. He could, however, build a new one in business. With the help of former associates, he went into merchant banking and rose to second in command of the important Bank of Indochina, later merged with the Bank of Suez. He was also on the board of umpteen companies, including a government-owned airline and the influential Toulouse daily, Dépêche du Midi. Having recovered his Legion of Honor (first awarded in 1930), he lived for the next thirty years as a prosperous and respectable pillar of French high society. It was only in the late 1970s that the past began to catch up with him again. A team of researchers, headed by lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, acting on behalf of children of the victims, produced incriminating documents from the German archives. Touvier, Papon and Bousquet’s right-hand man in Paris, Jean Leguay, came under investigation, and since France had accepted the principle that there was no statute of limitations on “crimes against humanity,” they all could be prosecuted. To understand why matters dragged on for so long, why none of them were ever tried (Leguay died), one must consider the French establishment’s failure to settle accounts with its Vichy past.

Whitewashing Vichy

The French did put the Vichy traitors on trial. Those who were caught and tried early enough paid the price. Laval and the pro-Nazi editor and writer Robert Brasillach were judged and executed in 1945. Many lesser figures were shot or jailed. All over France women had their heads shaved because of their horizontal collaboration. What never took place, however, not even during the trial of Pétain, was a fundamental indictment of the prewar regime, an examination of why key institutions had served the Nazi occupier, why the bulk of the bourgeoisie collaborated, in keeping with the prewar slogan “better Hitler than the Popular Front.” Since, betraying the hopes of the Resistance, liberation did not usher in a new society, the old one, when restored, needed judges and jailers, police and upper classes. A veil was discreetly spread over the awkward past.

This conspiracy of silence was facilitated by a clever syllogism. Because General de Gaulle had led the Resistance and de Gaulle was France, ergo, France was a nation of resisters. This myth suited almost everybody. The Communists, who were a key element in the Resistance, could boast of their record without anyone bringing up the less glorious period between the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German invasion of Russia. The Gaullists were, naturally, the main beneficiaries of the legend. They also required a degree of obfuscation to prevent a split within the right between the majority who had followed Marshal Pétain and the minority who had rallied round de Gaulle. When Georges Pompidou granted Touvier a presidential pardon in 1971, it was not just to please the church. It was also to unite the conservative forces at a time of social stress. To achieve that purpose, however, one had to be discreet about wartime history. In French schoolbooks at the time you could learn more about the Battle of Britain or Pearl Harbor than about Pétain, Vichy and collaboration.

That silence provoked Marcel Ophüls to make his splendid documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), which revived the Vichy era, warts and all. French television banned his film for years, but it was shown in theaters and French young people began asking their parents, “And what were you doing during the war?” Since then there have been two conflicting trends in France. One is revisionist, featuring a small number of people trying to deny or minimize the Holocaust and a larger number treating collaboration not as a sin but as political wisdom. On the other side, we have writers, historians and filmmakers determined to tell the general public, and particularly the younger generation, the full, unvarnished story of that period. The trials of Touvier, Papon and Bousquet have been conceived as highlights in this campaign of collective education.

The attitude of successive governments in this affair has been, to say the least, ambiguous. To stage the trial of Klaus Barbie was fine, since it simply confirmed the criminality of the Germans. To bring a Bousquet to court was quite a different matter. A trial would adduce evidence of French complicity in those crimes at the highest level. It was likely to lead to a real debate about the state, its institutions, its function and its morality. The French authorities were clearly not enthusiastic about proceeding. The reluctance of the government and of the establishment, including the legal one, dragged out the procedure over a long period of time on the tacit assumption that the defendants would die, depriving the trials of their raison d’être.

The delays were countenanced by governments of all political complexions. François Mitterrand provides an example of this double-think. Although Mitterrand was a member of the Resistance, every year until last he laid a wreath on Pétain’s tomb to celebrate the anniversary of Verdun–as if one could neatly separate the “hero” of World War I from the “villain” who, during World War II, led the French into one of the most shameful episodes of their history. In the case of Mitterrand this duality may also reflect his enthusiastic discovery of consensus politics, which, by definition, is opposed to splitting society and undermining its ruling class.

Remembrance of Things Past

But why bother at all to bring to justice a few guilty men who are on the brink of the grave? The obvious answer–because amnesia is a collective as well as an individual disease and a society that cannot come to terms with its past is handicapped in facing renewed dangers–is more relevant than ever at a time when racism once more raises its ugly head throughout Europe. When Turkish homes are torched in Germany, when “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia reminds us where prejudice can lead, the battle against racial and ethnic discrimination must again be waged, and memory is an important weapon in this struggle.

The two contradictory trends mentioned earlier are both gaining strength. Today in Paris, for instance, you can see two films, one fictional and not very good but purporting to show Pétain and Laval as villains, another a documentary, a selection of wartime newsreels compiled by Claude Chabrol to show Vichy propaganda in its ridiculous vulgarity and hypocritical repulsiveness. After Bousquet’s murder, French public television showed a different documentary, in which four Jewish survivors tell how as toddlers they were deported by the French police.

Against this you must set the trend, not limited to France, of what is best described as sneaking or creeping revisionism. You start, say, by bluntly proclaiming that Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong because he was pro-Soviet, and his schoolmate Raymond Aron was right because he chose the American side, a case you can make more easily by removing the argument from its historical context. You then publish a book in Paris suggesting, without proving, that Jean Moulin, head of resistance on French soil, executed by the Nazis, was a Soviet agent (of course, you can’t claim that helping the Russians during the war was treason, but wait…). From there, using the fashionable equation of “twin evils,” you can maintain, like the German revisionist historians, that those who, like Heidegger, picked the lesser of two totalitarian evils, the Nazi rather than the Bolshevik one, were right. We are not at that point yet, but if we don’t react strongly against the poison, it will continue to spread.

A trial of Bousquet would have had another benefit. It would have reminded criminals against humanity, not limited to Serbia or Croatia, that their turn may one day come. It would have warned those bastards all over the world that to claim “superior orders” or obedient service of state and country is no defense. It would have made it plain that the thugs doing the dirty work may not be the worst criminals, that distinguished gentlemen sitting behind their desks in the capital can do more harm with their pens (or, today, with their computers).

Yet the most crucial contribution of the trial would have been to advance the campaign against growing jingoism, against the mounting intolerance of the foreigner, the alien, the other. It does not always take spectacular forms like the burning of the Turks. In Germany you have hundreds of thousands of people born on German soil who are not second-class citizens but not citizens at all, and the government is still resisting widespread demands that it bestow nationality on people of a “different ethnic background.” In France, politicians pandering to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ultraright constituency take all sorts of measures to render the lives of immigrants miserable. The first breaches have even been made in the jus soli, the principle that those born on French soil are entitled to French nationality. Kith and kin, blood brothers, that is the fashionable vocabulary. Start with jus sanguini, the law of the blood, and you end up with ethnic cleansing and buckets of blood spilled from Bosnia to Tajikistan.

The punishment meted out to old men like Bousquet has been irrelevant for some time. But the description and analysis of their crimes, thanks to a trial or by other methods, was and remains important. It is the crucial link between past and present, the indispensable connection. Although the Holocaust was, in a sense, unique, and although today the first victims would be not the Jews but the Turks in Germany and the Arabs in France, it is the same struggle. Rendered urgent again by growing mass unemployment and the resulting social strains, it is a struggle against the barbarian future, a battle against all the Bousquets of this world.

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