Document 'proves' Vichy France leader was an anti-Semite
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Renowned historian Serge Klarsfeld claims that a new document is definitive proof that WWII Vichy leader Philippe Petain not only collaborated with Nazis, but shared anti-Jewish ideology and contributed to their persecution in France.
A recently discovered Vichy-era document has reignited one of the most divisive questions in post-war France: how far did the Vichy government go in aiding Nazi Germany in its endeavour to exterminate Europe’s Jews?
Serge Klarsfeld, a leading Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter, says a newly discovered document is definitive evidence that French wartime leader Philippe Petain was an anti-Semite who actively supported the holocaust.
Vichy France is the term used to describe the government of France from July 1940 to August 1944, which was headed by Marshal Philippe Petain and generally encompassed the south, which maintained some legal authority under German occupation during World War Two.
The document, anonymously donated to the Paris Holocaust Memorial, is a copy of a draft bill from 1940 intended to change the official status of Jews in France. The typewritten document has handwritten additions that considerably toughen the law, expanding proposed bans on public jobs and posts for Jews. According to Klarsfeld, these notes were penned by Petain himself.
The draft bill – with Petain’s alleged changes - was adopted on Oct. 4, 1940, exactly seventy years ago, and marked a tragic turning point for Jews living France.
Over 76,000 Jews were deported from France to Nazi concentration camps between 1940 and 1943. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.
France has long struggled to come to terms with its role in the Holocaust, and the image of Petain as a reluctant herald of Nazi orders has persisted despite very vocal Petain detractors like Klarsfeld.
The disputed role of the beloved “maréchal”
Klarsfeld, who is also founder of the organisation Sons and Daughters of the Deported Jews of France (FFDJF), hopes the document will put to rest the decades-old debate over Petain’s legacy.
“He played a leading role in this affair. Vichy was an anti-Semitic regime, headed by an anti-Semite, not by a senile maréchal manipulated by his entourage,” Klarsfeld told the left-leaning French daily Libération in an article published on Monday.
But not all historians are ready to add a new anti-Semite label on Petain. Also quoted by Libération, historian Henry Rousso says the uncovered document is significant, but hardly groundbreaking in terms of new information. “We already knew the law had been hardened, and Petain always said he stood by a law he had wanted,” he said, adding that the scientific graphology testing to determine who added the notes was still pending.
Like Klarsfeld, respected French historian Jean-Pierre Azéma thinks the document settles the Petain question. "Many have called Petain the defender of the nation and said that he did not interfere in the draconian [anti-Jewish] laws... they say Petain was the shield and De Gaulle was the sword. Some continue to convey this image of the ‘good Vichy’,” Azéma told France24.com.
Until the discovery of this latest document, the strongest evidence of Petain’s anti-Semitism was the testimony of the former minister of foreign relations under Vichy, Paul Baudouin. In his 1946 book, ‘The Private Diaries of Paul Baudouin’, he said that it was Petain who argued for harsher policies actions against Jews, and not his prime minister Pierre Laval, as was thought at the time.
But the idea that Laval was to blame for the anti-Jewish streak in Vichy has persisted until now.
Laval was judged a traitor to France and shot by a firing squad after the war. Petain was also convicted of treason and received a death sentence, but it was commuted to life imprisonment by General Charles de Gaulle
“Before it was this testimony against that testimony,” Azéma said. “Today, an official document shows that Petain had his say in the discussions. For historians it settles the question.”