Better late than never? Doubts were creeping in as Maurice Papon–co-responsible for the Vichy government’s deportation of 1,560 Jews, adults and children, Piom Bordeaux to German death camps–finally stood in the dock, more than half a century after the tragic events. Given that he is 87 and could appeal a conviction, he might never go to prison. But in this trial the educational side, the impact on the people, matters more than the punishment of the accused, however despicable his acts.
The man is horrendous in a strangely prosaic way. He is not moved by sadistic impulses or racist passions. He is horror’s obedient servant, the timeserver ready for anything to advance his career, for whom the Vichy regime was merely an opportunity. Indeed, by 1942 he rose to be second in command of the French administration in Bordeaux, in charge of, among other things, Jewish affairs. Untroubled by scruples, he supervised deportations with the same efficiency and precision as any other chore.
His luck came two years later, at the time of France’s liberation, when Papon managed to jump from one bandwagon to the next and continue his career for new masters, with the same obedience and zeal and the same readiness to get blood on his hands. In October 1961, while he was at its head, the Paris police slaughtered a couple of hundred Algerians trying to demonstrate, and corpses were left floating down the Seine. A bright future awaited a man of such determination, and indeed he became a Gaullist deputy and then minister of the budget during the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Everything would have been for the best if the son of one of the deported had not found incriminating documents in the Bordeaux archives. Even so, it took sixteen years to bring Papon to trial, so great was the reluctance of many people, starting with President Mitterrand, to see the spotlight turned on the role–subaltern yet significant–played by the French in Nazi crimes.
For years after the postwar purge the French were ready to conceal their past under the comforting syllogism: de Gaulle was France; de Gaulle was a Resister; hence, so was France. Things have altered since. Many books and documents, including serious studies of Vichy France, have been and are being published. President Jacques Chirac was willing to do what Mitterrand had always refused–apologize publicly for the French contribution to German atrocities–and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has endorsed this apology. Actually, the Papon trial is the occasion for all sorts of acts of contrition. French policemen expressed sorrow that their predecessors helped the Nazis arrest Jews; doctors apologized for throwing Jews out of the profession during the occupation. The most moving “declaration of repentance,” however, one that did not please the Pope, was by the French bishops deeply sorry for the silence and incomprehension of their church, an attitude they partly attributed to 2,000 years of anti-Jewish tradition.
It will be objected that all such declarations come rather late. The Papon trial is likely to be the last of its kind; the protagonists are disappearing. And with the change of generations, it is easier for Chirac and Jospin, for the doctors and the priests, to take their distance. But let us go further: No condemnation of Papon, any more than mountains of Swiss gold, will bring the victims of Nazism back. All that we can hope for is to help prevent the repetition of such human disaster or of lesser tragedies.
The Papon trial, scheduled to last till Christmas, could male a treble contribution. First, it can, and already does, revive memories, bring the past back to new generations. Historical studies that are being done are crucial, but a trial widely reported in the media makes it possible to reach a much wider public. The second point is made by the very staging of this trial. It should send a shiver down the spine of public criminals, past and present, all over the world. They must now fear that somehow, someday, human justice could catch up with them.
Yet the most vital is the third point, which will be made if the trial is conducted properly: to illustrate that whatever the circumstances, the individual act does matter; that whether one shows zeal in obeying orders or whether one tries to obstruct or even defy them makes a major difference in human and historical terms. The Papon trial could be a reminder for us all, from Algiers to Jerusalem and from Paris to Washington, that there is not just a right but a duty of disobedience, and not only toward inhuman orders but also, sometimes, toward the alleged consensus, if one does not want to be a cog in the bloody machine, horror’s servant or an impeccable technocrat of death.