Banality of Evil, the French Version

Maurcie Papon, the Vichy bureaucrat whose trial for crime against humanity provides one of the few instances in which the French examined their part in the Holocaust, is dead. In the Economist:

That summer he also received other orders. He was to round up a “sufficient number” of Jews and send them to a staging camp at Drancy, in northern France. And he was to make such convoys regular. This meant ordering arrests, arranging police escorts and organising express trains that would not stop at stations. He managed it with his usual competence. Between 1942 and 1944 1,690 Jews were shipped out of Bordeaux, including 223 children. Most ended up in Auschwitz.

Had he known they would? No, he insisted later, nor did he have any inkling of the Nazis’ broader plans. He had certain fears about Drancy. But people had to understand that he was not a free agent. There was a German imperium in force; Vichy was subject to it and he, after 1940, obedient to Vichy. With the coming of the Nazis numbers of civil servants had been sidelined or silenced, but he had a job to do, and “desertion was not in his ideology”. There was a duty to survive, to keep things running, to avoid gratuitous provocation that might make a bad case worse. In Bordeaux he resisted in his own way, he said: taking names off arrest-lists, tipping off families in advance, sheltering a rabbi in his house. Why, he even chartered the city trams to spare the very young or old the walk to the station, and booked passenger trains, not goods wagons, to make their journey comfortable.

These self-justifications came out at Mr Papon’s trial, one of only two of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity. Hundreds more might have been charged, including all those who worked for him. But once the Vichy leaders had been executed for treason after the Liberation, a different imperative prevailed: to keep France united, to avoid recriminations and to draw a veil over the past. In this new version of history all Frenchmen had resisted, including those who were now intent on quietly protecting each other. In his mind Mr Papon, too, had spent the Occupation fighting.