France and the Nazis: Memories, Lies and the Second World War

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9780413759702: France and the Nazis: Memories, Lies and the Second World War

On June 9th, 1944, citizens of Tulle, France silently watched as soldiers lazily consumed cherries from the abundant trees, whilst hanging nooses from its leafy branches in preparation for the murder of 99 randomly selected Frenchmen, condemned for being Jews. This gruesomely vivid image is emblematic of the Vichy regime's enthusiastic application of its Nazi masters' policy towards the Jews and is one of many memories rejected by the people of France today. In "France and the Nazis", journalist Adam Nossiter explores the conscience of a nation. Following the trial of Maurice Papon, the government official connected with the deportation of 1500 Jews to Nazi death camps, Nossiter seeks "those who might have reason for not remembering". Instead he encounters many who are self-serving, dismissive and forgetful. Vichy, the capital of occupied France, housed the Gestapo headquarters; here, Nossiter finds many who confess ignorance to the government's actions and memories that have been distorted to provide a comfortable view of the past. In Tulle, site of the aforementioned atrocity, the victims' families are still angry, whilst to others the incident seems to assume the texture of a long-forgotten dream. This is a searching study of the ghosts of modern France - from collaboration to collusion to compromise - and a resonant story about how we remember and why we forget.

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About the Author:

Adam Nossiter was formerly a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times. He is is the author of Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: The Sewing Room

When I was a small child, living in a gloomy old house at the edge of
Paris, there was a room on the second floor I avoided entering. It
was not a big room, just large enough for an ironing board, a Singer
sewing machine, and a bed. The room was called, in my family, the
sewing room. There was nothing forbidding about the little room; it
had plenty of light, its colors were pale, and it looked out on the
street, a solid bourgeois street of nineteenth-century houses at the
unfashionable end of a fashionable district. Some time after moving
to 18 Rue Weber, which is near the Porte Maillot in the Sixteenth
Arrondissement, the room took on a fearful association. In this room,
my parents said, a man -- the owner of the house -- had killed
himself. They provided an explanation, impressive and immeasurably
big, or so it seemed to me. The man had committed suicide, I was
told, the day the Germans marched into Paris. He had been a famous
doctor, and he had gone into the room to put a gun to his head (this
last part turned out to be incorrect).
It had happened in the past. When? Not the distant past,
apparently. It was not recited as a kind of gruesome curiosity, as
when I was given a lesson out of a guidebook in front of some
European monument. This was serious: the tone was solemn. It was
something that affected the tellers. My parents had not read about it
in a book. The information had come nearly firsthand, or at least
from somebody who had a connection to it.
My parents had not known this doctor. There was no reason why
his action, undoubtedly distressing, should have had any special
impact on them. Yet there was something else that gave it force: the
history behind it. And so the explanation itself became at least as
fearsome a fact as the doctor"s death. The man killed himself because
the Germans marched into Paris. For a six-year-old child, born in the
United States in 1960, far in time and space from whatever sinister
occurrences might have been behind the death of the man, that
explanation immediately assumed troubling overtones. This was all the
more true because it was associated with a clear image: I thought I
knew what "marched" meant. It couldn"t have been good.
When I grew older, I tended to dismiss the story. It seemed
to be an example of parental exaggeration, even a far-fetched
projection of certain inner fears and animosities that themselves
might have been legitimate but were unlikely to have had such an
intimate link to our mundane family life. There was no use putting
oneself into a story not one"s own, or so I thought.
It wasn"t until years later that I began coming across
references to the suicide of Dr. Thierry de Martel in June 1940. Many
books describing the defeat of France in that year mention this
notorious death. The historians evoke it as a singular gesture,
exemplary in some respects, though there were at least fifteen
suicides in Paris that day. Thierry de Martel was a society doctor,
an aristocrat who had had a brilliant career, a pioneer of brain
surgery in France, and the director of the American Hospital of
Paris. As a young man he had been an ardent anti-Dreyfusard, and
before the war he had joined anti-parliamentary, anti-Semitic
organizations like Action Française and Faisceau (Fasces). He was a
fervent nationalist and a decorated World War I veteran who had lost
his son in that war. Thierry de Martel had always told friends that
he wouldn"t be able to bear the idea of German troops in Paris. On
June 13 he wrote to his friend William Bullitt, the American
ambassador: "I made you the promise that I wouldn"t leave Paris. I
didn"t say whether I would stay in Paris alive or dead. Alive, I give
the enemy a blank check; dead, an uncovered one."
On Friday, June 14, 1940, a brilliant sunny day, troops of
the Wehrmacht entered the city. They marched up to the Arc de
Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées. Thierry de Martel had arisen
early, shaved, and dressed with his usual care. He heard the troops
and their tanks. He went to his study on the second floor, stretched
out on the divan, and injected himself with strychnine. His
housekeeper found him several hours later, a copy of Victor Hugo"s
play Hernani, open to the line "Since one must be tall to die, I
arise," by his side. A letter warned against any possible attempt to
revive him. Six weeks later the far-right newspaper Candide paid
tribute to the memory of "our faithful colleague."1
Not long ago, I looked up Thierry de Martel"s name in the
Paris telephone book for 1939. At the top of page 889, above an
advertisement for a neighborhood confectioner that still exists, I
saw "Martel, (Dr. T. de), 18, rue Weber (16e)."
A few historians have used the example of the doctor"s
suicide to open or close their accounts, a desperate act
foreshadowing the period to follow or epitomizing the one just
ending.2 For me (and I realized this long after my family had left
France), the story also may have been a kind of beginning. It was an
ongoing problem to be solved, one that had entered the mind of a
small child, survived adolescent skepticism, and been revived in the
light of an adult"s greater knowledge and puzzlement. For a long time
I was obliged to be reminded of it every day, whenever I walked past
that little room. Around it our family life continued, but so did the
fact of the doctor"s death. The paradox was this: something old yet
bad had happened in there. It had happened a long time ago, yet it
continued to be bad. And it had happened because "the Germans marched
into Paris."
These intruding facts would have seemed striking to me, all
the more so in that they coexisted with a familial atmosphere of
confidence. Several years ago, watching portions of a French newsreel
from 1965, I glimpsed a trace of this atmosphere. In the newsreel,
President Charles de Gaulle gives a press conference under the
crystal chandeliers of the Élysée Palace. Visible for an instant
among the reporters, standing out because of his height, is a man
with dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses. This was my father, then a
member of the Washington Post"s Paris office.
Assembled amid all this gilt and velvet, my father and his
colleagues have a deferential air about them. De Gaulle was God in
those years. Some of my earliest childhood memories are infused with
his image. On Bastille Day in 1966, I was taken to an outdoor
fireworks display, a wondrous occasion culminating logically in the
representation of the General himself, his huge nose and peaked
French military hat floating in the ether. When I was a small child,
de Gaulle seemed to be the reason for my father"s employment, if not
his existence. His name was part of the furniture at 18 Rue Weber.
Unlike some of the American reporters, my father admired him, seeing
as constructive the grandiose ambitions others found absurd. "On
balance, the world is deeply in debt to this strange man," he wrote
in 1966. Sometimes I would hear the General"s emphatic voice
pridefully booming out of our black-and-white television. My father
shared this mid-1960s confidence. "The central feature of present-day
Europe, both east and west of what used to be called the Iron
Curtain, is its comparative affluence," he wrote from Paris. The
article, entitled "Notes on the New Europe," is accompanied by a
photograph of him sitting at a café on the Champs-Élysées, peering at
the newspaper Le Monde.3
The late war continued to exist in this optimistic world, but
only as a kind of negative foil. The country was moving forward; de
Gaulle, as everybody knew, had triumphed in those war years,
incarnating the essence of France with his refusal to collaborate.
His version of the war"s aftermath -- nothing of the country"s murky
collaborationist regime subsisted, and France had been reborn -- was
the accepted one. "After the war, he wiped out most vestiges of the
Vichy dictatorship and restored France"s democratic institutions," my
father wrote in 1966. Our admired family doctor, like many others,
had "been in the Resistance," a phrase I remember as being nearly as
common as "bonjour." The Marais, the old Jewish quarter, meant Sunday
trips to Goldenberg"s restaurant, not roundups of Jews twenty-odd
years before. The disciplinarian French schoolteachers who terrorized
us were "Nazis," to be successfully resisted by brave parents. Of
course, no one in my family had any inkling of Thierry de Martel"s
political allegiances.4
There would have been a relative lack of interest
corresponding, for other reasons, with an attitude that prevailed in
France during those years. The country"s official public relation to
the war was still untroubled. Paradoxically, the war was both closer
in time -- I remember buildings fitted in ancient coats of soot, just
as they are in the haunting photographs of occupied Paris -- yet
further away than it was to become. In that era, the war was simply a
part of history, safely resolved. The French historian Henry Rousso
has written that it was in 1964, the year of my family"s arrival in
France, that "this new version of the Occupation -- a version most
comforting to French sensibilities -- achieved its definitive form:
France was now cast as a nation that "forever and always resists the
invader," whatever uniform he might wear, be it the gray-green of the
German army or the paraphernalia of the Roman legion."5
Against this background there was the interior world of the
house and the aura of what had happened in the sewing room. What made
that event linger? It was not a question I would have asked myself at
the age of six. Yet long after most definite memories of that time
and place had disappeared, long after I left that house, the doctor"s
story stayed in my mind. It stayed even through years in which France
was far from my thoughts. Recently I went back to the neighborhood
around the Rue Weber for the first time in more than thirty years.
Something much less precise than a memory, but palpable nonetheless,
had persisted: the scale of the buildings and the angles at which the
streets met each other were oddly familiar. It amounted to no more
than a vague feeling. Yet the vagueness of this persistence put into
sharper relief the memory of the sewing room.

A woman I met several years ago in the town of Vichy, where I was
living while writing this book, asked with some bewilderment what
could have motivated me, an American, to take on the messy subject of
France and its war. I mumbled something about old ties to the
country, and the conversation moved on, away from the particular
subjects that had brought me back. She began talking about a mutual
acquaintance in the town, a bluff, friendly man with whom I had
cordial relations. The woman began talking about his parents. She
slyly suggested that their role during the Occupation had been less
than honorable. She said their relations with the Germans had been
perhaps a little too close. The woman did not make this observation
because she was a student of history. In fact, as a subject of
reflection, she couldn"t have been less interested in the period of
the war.
She made the remark to cast discredit on the man"s parents
and, by association, the man himself. Something about this gambit was
familiar to me. It was unpleasant enough -- I was fond of the person
in question -- to make me think about it afterward, and familiar
enough not to have surprised me at all. It had that deep familiarity
of something that may have been implanted a long time ago, a way of
thinking I might have lived with half consciously for years. The
woman was reaching back into a past that was, in some sense, still
alive for her, even though she professed disdain for its more
everyday manifestations -- for instance, the books about the war and
the Occupation that crowded bookstore shelves, even in Vichy.
A recurring story about France in the American press over the
last several decades was that memories of the Occupation had
unexpectedly come back to haunt the country. Whenever scandalous
revelations surfaced about the half-hidden wartime record of some
official, the point would be made: France was newly haunted by its
past. This seemed to me unprovable, inasmuch as it
concerned "France." I met many people there who appeared genuinely
indifferent to what had happened a half-century before and whose
lives showed no sign of being influenced by it.
Yet it also seemed clear, just on the surface, that in
certain times and places, this phenomenon of being concerned with the
past, sometimes to the point of obsession, did exist. The mere fact
that old men, some of them quite respectable, were being accused of
misdeeds long afterward appeared to be evidence. Clearly, some long-
finished events still had the power to move people, or infuriate them.
The notion of a continuing past couldn"t have seemed
ridiculous to me. Early on, there had been the story of Dr. Martel,
and later, awareness of the recent Jewish past. This sequence was not
coincidental. Discussions about the Holocaust were infrequent in my
family. My father, a secularized Jew from the Upper West Side of New
York City, was nineteen when the war ended. He turned to the study of
economics, a tool to remake the world, and toyed with the idea of
joining Israel"s fight for independence. Unqualified admiration for
the Israelis didn"t survive reporting trips to the Middle East, but
he was more likely to be preoccupied by their struggles than by, say,
the Warsaw Ghetto (though, as a young reporter in 1954, he wrote
movingly about a pair of ghetto survivors who had settled in New
York.)6 I told him once that I had been reading Primo Levi. "Who is
that?" he asked. The Holocaust museum project in Washington, D.C.,
disturbed him -- evidence of morbid obsession, or so he thought. It
wasn"t that he was uninterested in what had happened to the Jews; far
from it. But it was not a subject of continuing interrogation. It
seemed more important to understand the world from outside that prism.
This imperative didn"t apply to me. The Holocaust imposes
itself, its shock waves felt all the more strongly in my generation"s
adulthood for having been muted earlier on. These reverberations made
the shiftings in public consciousness that had occurred in France
easier to comprehend for someone like me, born long after the war.
Indeed, the phenomenon of a previously half-acknowledged, now
renascent history was not unfamiliar.
If the past had resurfaced for the French, it had done so
largely through the portal of the Jewish experience. The wartime
crime for which President Jacques Chirac accepted national
responsibility, in his landmark speech of 1995, was the persecution
of the Jews and not, say, French assistance to the Germans on the
eastern front. The reasons were bound up with the complicated
reckoning that had taken place in the country, itself related to the
larger, international change of perspective on the continuing
significance of the Holocaust.
In the years after the war, certain facts had not been dwelt
on -- ...

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