Vichy Syndrome Revisited – By Sophie B. Roberts

Sophie B. Roberts on Daniel Lee’s Pétain’s Jewish Children

Daniel Lee, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940-1942, Oxford University Press, 2014, 274pp., $110
Daniel Lee, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940-1942, Oxford University Press, 2014, 274pp., $110
Shop Indie Bookstores

A century after France became the first country in Europe to grant Jews citizenship, it produced some of the most prolific modern Jew-haters, Edouard Drumont among them, whose chants of “France aux Français” fused nationalism, nativism, and antisemitism in the 1880s and after. One can still find today that phrase scrawled on buildings and metro walls in Paris. The Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s and the discourse that emerged from it — both the antisemitic commentary on Jewish patriotism and military service and the defense of Dreyfus and the power of assimilation by Zola and others — underscored modern France’s deep-seated ambivalence toward Jews. And in 1940, under the leadership of Marshal Philippe Pétain and his cronies, France (now Vichy France) took back the citizenship it had offered Jews in 1791.

The defeat of Vichy France and Nazi Germany appeared to resolve France’s Jewish Question once and for all in favor of Jewish emancipation and integration. But antisemitism did not disappear, and in the past decade — bookended by the Ilan Halimi kidnapping, torture, and killing in 2006 and the Hyper Cacher attack in January 2015 — it has increased markedly. The 2014 Anti-Defamation League survey of global antisemitism (Global 100 Study) found that that 37% of the adult population of France harbored antisemitic sentiments or accepted antisemitic stereotypes, higher than the EU average of 25%. To be sure, French antisemitism today is different from that of Vichy France, at once less institutionalized and more diverse. Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala’s quenelle, as well as other forms of baldly antisemitic commentary have spread throughout France in the past few years, especially among disaffected young Muslims of North African descent.

In a different context, ultra-nationalist politicians such as Jean Marie Le Pen (a Holocaust denier) and his daughter Marine have used nativist rhetoric to build the far-right National Front into a major force in French politics. The National Front has long been associated with antisemitism, though, for now at least, the party has condemned it and increasingly fixed its arrows on Islam and immigration. Yet, in spite of the mounting anxiety of French Jews, individual Jews continue to occupy prominent positions throughout French society. With regards to the treatment of Jews in particular, France’s muddled history of acceptance and rejection endures.

Among these moments of rejection, Vichy stands out. Vichy is a profoundly dark mark on France’s history because it evolved from within, sui generis. Nazi Germany did not impose Vichy on France, but merely provided the conditions for its articulation. It is precisely because of its complex origins that Vichy continues to fascinate, haunt, and perplex the French and those who study France. Some contemporary French thinkers, eager for a return to more traditional values, have begun to view Vichy in a more positive light, even rehabilitating the apologetic assessments of Vichy’s activities that were popular in the postwar era. There is an audience in France today that welcomes such approaches. In 2014, Éric Zemmour, a conservative journalist, and a Jew born to “repatriated” Algerian Jewish parents, published Le Suicide Français. The book argues that in the past forty years France has been in decline, to the point that the French can no longer recognize their country. His concept of French values — family and country — harken back to a longing for Vichy’s National Revolution. France today, Zemmour argues, has drifted away from those qualities and has been injured by immigration (ironic given his own background), feminism, and the pro-gay, egalitarian lobby. Zemmour’s arguments echo the increasingly popular opinions of the National Front in France.

Most controversially, Zemmour contends that Vichy actually saved French Jews, albeit by deporting foreign Jews first. Here, Zemmour uses the historian Robert O. Paxton as a strawman. Paxton was among the first, in his Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-44 (1972), to argue that France bore responsibility for the actions of Vichy. Zemmour attacks what he calls Paxton’s oversimplified Vichy syllogism: if Vichy is guilty, and Vichy was France, therefore France is guilty. Zemmour accuses historians and scholars, such as Ze’ev Sternhell, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Serge Klarsfeld, and others of the same logic. While Paxton holds Vichy responsible for the fact that one-fourth of France’s 330,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, Zemmour argues that the Vichy leadership should be applauded for saving the other three-fourths.

According to Zemmour, criticism of Vichy has become a political reflex, one used most recently by President François Hollande on July 16, 2012, on the 60th anniversary of the Paris Vel d’Hiv roundup, when he stated that the crime committed in France by Vichy was committed by the French. During the Vel d’Hiv roundup, French police officers conducted a mass arrest of over 11,000 Jews in Paris and detained them in the Winter Stadium (Vel d’Hiv), in crowded and inhumane conditions. Despite its entirely specious claims, Zemmour’s book is a best-seller, in part because France is looking to move out of Vichy’s shadow and because rising antisemitism has contributed a more welcoming audience for his revisionist thesis.

This is the context in which Daniel Lee’s excellent new book on Vichy’s treatment of Jewish youth enters. Lee examines what he calls the “plural Vichy,” and its inconsistent approaches to the treatment of Jewish youth in the early years of the regime. Lee presents a series of case studies of Jewish youth activities under Vichy. One such study is of the scouting movement Éclaireurs Israélites de France (EIF) and its relationship to Vichy, particularly the ways in which it cooperated with Vichy leadership, as well as the EIF agricultural project at Lautrec; a second is of Jewish involvement in the Vichy-organized Chantiers de la Jeunesse.

The EIF was established in 1923 by a seventeen-year-old Jew, Robert Gamzon. Gamzon envisioned a scouting movement that fused love of France with Judaism. In 1926, the organization opened its ranks to all Jews, regardless of religious observance, including Zionists and assimilated Jews. While the religious element remained to a degree throughout the 1930s, the EIF shifted away from an identity focused on Judaism. In 1934, Gamzon reoriented the EIF around agricultural and manual skills training, in hopes of combatting mounting antisemitism, likely inspired by the Zionist goal of developing the New Jew. As part of this project, the EIF leaders set up a carpentry workshop and in 1938 a training school to teach young Jews how to tend to the land. By the end of the 1930s, there were approximately 2,500 participants in the EIF. Lautrec, located in the department of Tarn, was the EIF’s largest project that focused on the return to the land and agricultural development. It operated as an agricultural commune. Lee’s treatment of Lautrec emphasizes the cooperation between Vichy and the EIF’s leadership in the organization and running of Lautrec, as well as the outright support of Lautrec from certain Vichy officials, despite its particularly Jewish orientation. Over the course of the war, Lautrec housed more than 200 Jewish youth.

Lee focuses on Jewish youth because, he argues, they were steeped in Republican ideals, as well as the ideals of Vichy’s National Revolution. The Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), did not exactly coincide with the National Revolution’s values of travail, famille, patrie (work, labor, family); an emphasis on regeneration was common to both ideologies, however. The New Man mirrored Jewish approaches to renewal, most particularly Max Nordau’s Zionist New Jew, the muscular, active, and agrarian reinvented Jew. Vichy’s emphasis on the return to the land provided an outlet for Jewish youth to develop agricultural skills, especially in the setting of Lautrec. The EIF itself sought to work with Vichy. Personal connections between EIF leaders and Vichy officials led to EIF’s continued existence and success in the early years of the Vichy regime. Vichy leaders, especially within the Ministry of Youth, approved of the scouting model and of the efforts of the EIF to connect young Jews with the land and to teach them useful skills. Lee demonstrates the fraternity of the Jewish and non-Jewish scouting organizations, which also helped the EIF continue its work, and demonstrated support for Jewish scouts.

Lee’s depiction of EIF’s Lautrec is especially illustrative of his larger argument regarding areas of cooperation between the Vichy government and Jewish youth organizations. In 1940, Vichy leadership supported the idea of a Jewish return to the land, to the point that Vichy even gave the fledging Lautrec horses and machinery to support its development. Leo Cohn, whom Lee describes as the “soul” of the training school, reflects the efforts of the leaders of Lautrec to align themselves with the goals of Vichy’s National Revolution. Yet though supporting the general goals of National Revolution, Cohn also engaged in Zionist teachings. He believed that Zionism without a homeland was a cowardly enterprise. Lee offers the revealing example of the names of two cows at Lautrec: Degania and Hanita, the names of two significant kibbutzim established in Palestine, which connected Lautrec’s goals to the legacy of the kibbutz, and by extension, the Zionist movement. Lautrec’s commitment to Jewish teachings and Zionism reflect a degree of resistance to Vichy. While Lautrec superficially cooperated with Vichy’s goals for young people, it still imparted a Jewish education and sense of Jewish pride to its participants.

The Lautrec project also highlights the role of gender in the experience of Jewish youth under Vichy. Lee acknowledges that his project is mostly male in focus, and this is due in large part to the fact that the National Revolution focused on the development of the New Man, rather than the New Woman. Women were praised as mothers, not as agricultural contributors. However, Lautrec had a woman as director, Denise Gamzon (although her husband, Robert, was the founder of the EIF and also involved in the leadership), and women were involved in the activities of Lautrec, albeit in different, gendered capacities. Women were largely confined to domestic labor, while men at Lautrec engaged in physical labor and training programs. In Lautrec, one can see the development of relationships, even weddings between participants. While Lee describes the gendered realities of Vichy’s expectations of women, as well as those within the Jewish youth organizations, he does not give many examples of the position of women in the other Jewish organizations associated with Vichy. Readers do not, therefore, get a sense of the range of the experience of Jewish girls and young women under Vichy. Nonetheless, Lee’s discussion of Lautrec illustrates the fact that in the development of the New Man and the New Jew, there was very little space for young women.

Lautrec’s success had to do in large part with the tensions between Vichy’s goals of regeneration and antisemitic exclusion. Despite Vichy’s antisemitic legislation, exclusionary laws were not always implemented fully at the local level. Lautrec existed in this gap. Lautrec also benefitted because of support from local, as well as more senior, Vichy leaders. Nonetheless, the EIF’s, and by extension Lautrec’s, Jewish identity led to resentment and conflict with Lautrec’s neighbors, who vocalized their dislike of the center. Although Lautrec was the object of police surveillance and attracted the interest of the Commissariat Général des Questions Juives, the most active efforts against Lautrec came from local veterans groups, who resented Jewish activity on the land. Lee concludes his study of Lautrec by noting that the EIF, and Lautrec, continued to reinvent itself from 1942 to 1944, but after the summer of 1942, it no longer cooperated and worked with Vichy. It began to shift towards rescue of Jews.

While Lautrec existed as a kind of island of Jewish authority in a sea of Vichy control, the Chantiers de la Jeunesse was a Vichy-developed enterprise to cultivate the next generation of Vichy leaders. After the 1940 armistice, all male French citizens were required to serve in one of Vichy’s Chantiers de la Jeunesse instead of formal military service, which was outlawed by the terms of the armistice. These military-style youth camps aimed to develop strong young men who were faithful to France and Pétain and engaged them in manual labor, such as road work and forestry, which served the broader community. The Chantiers emphasized physical and mental regeneration and a commitment to the ethos of the New Man. In the first two years of the Chantiers’ existence, French Jewish youth participated, and by the summer of 1942, approximately 2,400 Jews had served in a Chantier. When the Chantiers were formed in the summer of 1940, there was still space for Jews to participate; however, by the summer of 1942, Jews were excluded. In his analysis of the Chantiers de la Jeunesse, Lee uses a variety of sources to illustrate the quotidian experiences of Jews. Lee successfully demonstrates that although the Chantiers were infused with Vichy rhetoric, this did not affect Jewish participants in the early years. In his examination of letters written home by young Jews from the Chantiers, Lee finds that Vichy ideals do not show up at all in their reports. Lee also examines the negotiations that occurred between Chantiers leadership and Jewish religious leaders, such as Rabbi Samy Klein, who believed that Vichy’s National Revolution could go hand in hand with Jewish regeneration.

Lee’s ultimate argument is that there was enormous diversity of Jewish youth experience under Vichy, especially in the first two years of the regime. He emphasizes Jewish attempts to accommodate to Vichy’s National Revolution by finding spheres of “liberty” within Vichy’s competing goals of regeneration and exclusion. He does not seek to absolve Vichy of its role in French antisemitism during World War II, but rather to show that Vichy was not the hegemonic entity that some seek to demonize, and others, like Zemmour, to excuse. Between 1940 and 1942, Jewish youth experienced Vichy’s discrimination to varying degrees, and even found ways to participate in or alongside Vichy’s programs relating to the National Revolution. Ultimately, the gaps in implementation of antisemitic legislation that occurred at the local level allowed Jewish youth space in which to engage in scouting activities, agricultural enterprises, and Vichy’s youth programs. Lee’s approach is successfully integrative; it does not just focus on what Vichy did to the Jews, but on how Jewish youth organizations worked within the Vichy framework to continue their activities. Even the example of Philippe Pétain providing his young Jewish neighbor with rides to school serves to complicate our understanding of Vichy and its treatment of Jewish youth.

Lee is especially successful in using personal archives and memoirs to bring a more human perspective to his study. He shines most when he gives examples of the young Jews who navigated the spaces between Jewish activity and the Vichy regime. But his analysis would have been strengthened by including the broader implications of Jewish youth activities under Vichy, such as the impact on Jewish families and their fortunes. Nor does Lee analyze the socio-economic status and level of religiosity of those who participated in EIF and Chantiers activities, or explain how that may have impacted their involvement. And, beyond a handful of examples, it is not clear how Jewish youth responded to being defined as Jews by the Vichy government. In many ways, the experiences of EIF and Chantiers participants seem largely positive, but one understands that there must have been significant challenges to living as a young Jew under Vichy. In addition, the participants in Lautrec and Chantiers were but a limited number, and cannot represent the larger experiences of Jewish youth under Vichy, which was certainly not as positive. Similarly, issues of gender disappear, except in a few cases; the book is more about Pétain’s Jewish sons, rather than Pétain’s Jewish children. Lee is most successful in steering the ongoing debates regarding Vichy away from the binaries of resistance and collaboration to the gray areas in between.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres, many Jews in France are considering their futures and whether they will remain in France or emigrate. The world looks on as French Jews contemplate their past and their future, and the position of Jews in France continues to fascinate the world media. Vichy hangs as a shadow over this debate, both its legacy, its echoes in growing antisemitism in France, and its reappearance in the apologetic analyses of its impact by Zemmour and others. Vichy revisionism finds a welcoming audience due to the recrudescence of antisemitism and the desire for a return to “traditional values,” espoused by the National Front and others. In the end, France is still absorbed in what Henry Russo aptly named the “Vichy Syndrome.” While Zemmour endeavors to excuse Vichy and to urge a return to French national values, Lee shows us that Vichy’s history is extremely nuanced, as is the Jewish future in France.