France announced Sunday that it is set to open its archives from one of the country’s darkest hours, when the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazi occupiers during World War II.
At the time, France was divided into a northern "occupied zone" under German military occupation, an area that included Paris, and a south-eastern so-called "free zone" in which France had sovereignty but was dependent on Germany. It was here that the Vichy government made its base.
From Monday the archives, which were previously only accessible to academics, can be "freely consulted" by citizens "subject to the declassification of documents covered by national defence secrecy rules”, according to a decree.
The archives include more than 200,000 documents relating to cases brought before special courts established under the Vichy regime, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported. They reveal details about the work of brigades made up of French citizens that targetted and rounded up Resistance fighters, communists and Jews during the German occupation.
The most sensitive of the files refers to the ‘shadowing’ of citizens – the tracking of individuals and Resistance groups suspected of activities in defiance of the Vichy state - records of interrogation and letters of denunciation in which French citizens were encouraged to spy and inform on one another.
Painful period of French history
France has a painful relationship with this portion of its past and particularly its treatment of French Jews with the Vichy government helping the Nazis deport 76,000 Jews from its territory during the war.
Jean-Pierre Azéma, a historian and specialist on the Second World War said that allowing public access to the archives was crucial to understanding France’s role during the Vichy period, but cautioned that any information extrapolated from the documents should be used responsibly.
“When we use these archival documents to understand the past, we need to exercise caution about the kind of conclusions we draw,” he said.
“There’s an obligation – that applies not just to historians – but to everyone who has the privilege of accessing these documents, to respect the honour of individuals.”
Under the new rules, access will be granted to documents related to the prosecution of war criminals in France, Germany and Austria as well as cases taken before military and maritime tribunals.
The opening of the archives comes 70 years after the end of the Second World War and five years ahead of the expiration date by which, under French regulatory laws, the public can apply to access declassified files.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2015-12-28