Vichy and the Holocaust: A New Book
A historian of French origin, Alain Michel, argued in his 2012 book ‘Vichy et la Shoah: Enquête sur le Paradoxe Français’ that ‘Vichy, although anti-Semitic and an accomplice in crime, sought to limit the impact of the Final Solution in France, and succeeded in doing so.’ According to Michel, occupied countries like France that had collaboration regimes were much more successful in protecting Jews in their territories than occupied countries like Belgium and the Netherlands whose governments fled. This thesis, although balanced and in no way extreme, runs counter to the obligatory views in France, where, says Michel, unlike in the United States and Israel, discussion of the Holocaust is not free. Since the publication of his book, Michel has found his participation in various Holocaust related projects in France cancelled.
A review of Vichy et la Shoah will appear in the next issue of C & S; meanwhile here are two extracts from Alain Michel’s blog; the first concerns a comment by Paxton, the hegemonic American historian of Vichy, and the second is a review by Paul Sanders.
Re a comment by Paxton:
“In his review of a book by French historian Jacques Semelin [“Jews : How Vichy Made It Worse,” NYR, March 6] Robert O. Paxton writes:
Even some present-day authors try to use the ‘’French paradox’’ to make a positive case for Vichy. The latest example is Alain Michel’s Vichy et la Shoah: enquête sur le paradoxe français, a work Semelin denounces as an effort to “rehabilitate” Vichy.
This passage concerning my book [says Michel] calls for a response, which I propose to do in two distinct ways. First, I would like to state formally that Semelin’s appraisal, which Paxton adopts as his own, is defamatory. “Rehabilitating” a regime implies not only a desire to sweep under the carpet its sins, but also adherence, however minimal, to its ideology, as well as an intention to promote its ideas.
I am a historian and a rabbi of French origin living in Israel. I have worked for almost thirty years at Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, where I created French-language seminars on teaching the Holocaust in 1987. Nothing in my “pedigree” fits the description of a Vichy rehabilitator. My biography, which I have kept intentionally brief (but which I could supplement with further elements), demonstrates the baselessness of the accusation leveled at me by Semelin, and by Paxton.
The reader of The New York Review also deserves knowing that my book opens on the explicit affirmation that my research is in no way founded on nostalgia for Pétain and his regime, and that it concludes with a specific reminder of Vichy’s anti-Semitism and complicity in mass murder. Therefore one has to be particularly malevolent to dare accuse me of any intention of rehabilitating Vichy.
If the accusation targeting me is nevertheless formulated the way it is, two questions arise: Why does Semelin feel a need to slur my research? And why does Paxton bother referring to that particular phrase in Semelin’s book dealing with my work, in what is, after all, a very small passage in a nine-hundred-page tome?
The answer to this can be found in the title of Paxton’s article. This article justly criticizes the downsides of Semelin’s book, in particular the author’s method of drawing general conclusions from a limited number of case studies, the representativeness of which is not convincingly established. Beyond this critique, however, Paxton’s and Semelin’s approaches rely on a common conception, that of a Vichy government as the “ultimate culprit,” whose every single action expedited the implementation of the Final Solution in France and aggravated the situation of the Jews.
My approach, which, by the way, builds directly on the work of two widely respected Holocaust historians, Raul Hilberg and Léon Poliakov, adopts the exactly opposite stance. I argue that Vichy, although anti-Semitic and an accomplice in crime, sought to limit the impact of the Final Solution in France, and succeeded in doing so. I also argue that the first and foremost beneficiaries of these efforts were Jews of French nationality.
Both Semelin and Paxton have no interest in my hypothesis being presented, debated, and discussed. This is the reason why, rather than allowing for genuine historical debate among proponents of opposite views, they prefer eliminating their opponent, through calumny.
Is it because they have run out of arguments? The day Paxton, and his followers, accept a genuine debate on the role and attitude of the Vichy government with regard to the Final Solution, we will see what remains of their conception of a Vichy that is still seen, by many, as an embodiment of absolute evil.
Alain Michel Jerusalem, Israel”
Review of Michel’s book by Paul Saunders, professor of geopolitics at NEOMA Business School (Reims, France):
“In his book Vichy and the Shoah, Alain Michel addresses the ‘French paradox’: why did the country that practically ‘invented’ the notion of ‘state collaboration’ with Nazi Germany have one of the lowest rates (approximately one-quarter) of Jews deported to extermination and concentration camps during the Final Solution? Surprisingly, historians have eluded this core contradiction, subscribing to the assertion, popularized by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), that collaboration facilitated the Nazis’ dirty work and was co-responsible for the Jewish catastrophe. Conversely, Arendt argued that bureaucratic chaos and disorder would have resulted in a significantly lower number of victims. This point of view was adopted by Robert O. Paxton in his paradigmatic and highly influential history of Vichy France (1972). Paxton argued that the presence of the regime brought no benefits to the French; quite to the contrary, it made matters worse for them, and they would have been better off without Vichy. The low Jewish victimization rate in France was turned on its head, with Paxton arguing that the low rate would have been even lower had it not been for Vichy. Under the weight of this ‘learned opinion’ the genuine driver of the Final Solution in France has remained in the dark. Alain Michel’s book redresses the balance. He demonstrates how the Vichy government was driven by an objective of protecting certain categories of integrated Jews, namely those with French citizenship, and how, generally, it started dragging its feet as soon as the genuine meaning and purpose of the ‘evacuations to the East’ had become clearer, in late summer 1942. The regime’s ‘protection’ of Jews with French citizenship did not come without a ‘price’: in its negotiations with the Nazis the regime offered the minority of recently arrived foreign or stateless Jews in France as a pawn, and it was this group that would become the prime target for filling the deportation convoys. While Michel condemns the regime’s use of foreign Jews as bargaining material, calling this a ‘crime’, he stresses that, under the conditions pertaining at the time, collaboration did not, invariably, lead to worst possible outcomes (as argued by previous literature). In fact, the sacrifice of the few for the greater number was a ‘lesser evil’. The overall indication is that, contrary to Arendt’s assertion, the presence of collaboration governments in Europe moderated the impact of the Final Solution. In any case, the death rates were consistently higher in countries under direct German domination than in countries run by independent or semi-independent collaboration regimes. This does not amount to a rehabilitation of such regimes; at the same time it shows that the black-and-white dichotomies characterizing the majority of studies on the role of collaboration regimes in the Holocaust require urgent revision. Michel’s rigorous reappraisal of Vichy’s role relies on quantitative material to support its central claims, in the light of which a number of chapters of French Holocaust history will have to be rewritten.”
Alain Michel’s blog (mainly in French):