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War Crime Investigations Among France's Release Of Vichy Documents


This week, France is making public some 200,000 documents from one of the darkest chapters in its history during World War II. In 1940, the army of Nazi Germany swept into France and occupied Paris. A hero of the first World War, Marshal Philippe Petain, told the French people in a radio address that he had made a gift of his person to France to mitigate the country's misfortune.


PHILIPPE PETAIN: (Speaking French).

SIEGEL: He said, "it is with a breaking heart that I tell you today we must stop fighting." Petain made peace with the Germans, and until 1944, he led a regime based in the French spa town of Vichy. The Vichy Regime administered most of Southern France while the Germans occupied the rest, and Petain's government pursued policies that kept the Nazis satisfied. Historian Robert Paxton of Columbia University has made a study of Vichy, France, and joins us from New York. Welcome.


SIEGEL: Why are there still any documents at all of the Vichy government under wraps more than 70 years after the liberation of France?

PAXTON: Well, almost everything is open - the political documents, the (unintelligible) of cabinet meetings. What has been opened now and what had been closed are things that many governments still close, and that is police files and trial records, trial records of the special courts set up by Vichy. And especially interesting are the trial records of the Purge Trials after the war.

SIEGEL: What questions might the French learn, then, from these documents being being released this week?

PAXTON: Well, I think they're going to learn that an awful lot of French people changed their minds. In 1940, the Third Republic had made a miserable mess of it.

SIEGEL: The Third Republic was what France had been from the late-19th century until the second World War.

PAXTON: Yeah. Many French people of right and of left were desperate for a new start. Marshal Petain's Vichy regime looked like that new start. A couple of years later, it wasn't so evident that he was going to be able to protect them from German extortions, and it didn't look so much as though they had won the war, either. And so by '43, a lot of people are shifting sides.

SIEGEL: So people who might, by the end of the war, had been regarded as members of the resistance would have a messier history than that during the actual time.

PAXTON: Absolutely. And I think the career of President Mitterrand, which was rather sensational when it was revealed, is probably very typical.

SIEGEL: Mitterrand, socially, really revived the French Socialist Party a couple of decades after the second World War. It turned out he'd been a fairly active functionary of the Vichy regime.

PAXTON: Well, he worked for a fairly harmless agency. He worked for the agency that looked after French prisoners of war. Though he was capable of some horrendous blunders when he was president. He once said that the Vichy legislation against Jews affected only foreign Jews, which was, of course, absolutely wrong. So he obviously wasn't too well-informed about what is going on in the Vichy government.

SIEGEL: Forty years ago, in the 1970s, it seemed to shock the French to come to grips with the fact that there had been at least as many collaborators as there had been resistors to the German occupation. Do you think the French have come to grips with their history by this time?

PAXTON: Well, I really do. And I think the French have come to grips with their past, and that was true up until about - until the '70s. And then there were things like the film "The Sorrow And The Pity." There were the events of 1968 when young people began to ask their parents, what did you do in the war? And since the middle- or late-'70s, the French have been absolutely obsessed with the Vichy regime. They have an institute of contemporary history that turns out first-rate scholarly work. Their textbooks are accurate. Whether the students actually read them is another matter.

SIEGEL: Professor Paxton, thank you very much for talking with us today.

PAXTON: Thanks for inviting me.

SIEGEL: That's Robert Paxton, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.