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.