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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Comment l’État français est devenu antisémite

by Book Review: by Roger Bourderon, historian

Vichy: How the French State Became Anti-Semitic, by Tal Bruttman

Translated Wednesday 30 August 2006, by Ann Drummond

How the French state became anti-Semitic. Tal Bruttmann who went through the Isère archives with a fine tooth-comb, reveals how Vichy officials became steeped in racism.

"Inside the Office for Jewish Affairs. The French Government and the application of anti-Semitic legislation (1940-44)" by Tal Bruttmann. Editions la Découverte, 2006. 288 pages. 23 euros.

Central to this extremely informative work is the question – how did the government of the republican state go within a few weeks from serving the Republic to serving the French state? Working his way through the available archives, Tal Bruttmann, who is doing research on the Milice (1), examines how the anti-Semitic policies of Vichy were applied in the Isère département, thereby penetrating the secret workings of officialdom.

He scrutinizes the administration in view of the status of Jews, after identifying the various stages of Vichy anti-Semitic policy, whose authors made known to the representatives of the Reich their willingness to tackle the Jewish question from mid-July 1940 onwards and began to put in place the first discriminatory measures (such as the ’purification’ of the civil service). Bruttmann shows that the Jewish Statute of October was certainly the work of the whole government, with provision for the countersignatures of all ministers, even if the main architects were Alibert (Justice) and Peyrouton (Interior). He also notes the personal involvement of Petain.

Then a whole administrative language began to grow with its codes which varied in terms of their decipherability: such as the "service for regulating provisional administrators", which is in fact about economic aryanization. In summer 1942, the "police for Jewish matters" which was discredited by its brutal methods, was replaced by the "control and inquiry section" which carried out the same dirty work. It was no longer permitted to write "Monsieur Levy", but "Jew Levy". But above all, the administrative bodies - primarily the prefecture, the police and the courts – adapted to the reality of the situation, interpreting vague instructions in such a way as to give the best response. This is how the use of the term ’race’ became widespread in civil society even before any state directive was in place.

Through these instructions, there then developed a multiplicity of controls, censuses, file creation, repression, hunting down for offences, actions, culminating in the ultimate task, the round-up, which was the prelude to delivering the Jews to the Nazis. Vichy ordered three of these between July 1942 and the spring of 1943. In Isère, some officials did fight back (as individuals or working with Maurice Chioso, the departmental head in the prefecture), while others were extremely zealous, especially those close to the Prefect and his staff.

Most applied themselves in the same way they carried out the Vichy decision at the time of the STO (2) from which Jews were excluded, to bring the latter together in order to "put them to work" – some would be affected by the agreement with the Occupiers with the Todt organization (who built the Atlantic wall) which would often mean the antechamber to Auschwitz. With the occupation of the Free zone (November 1942) the Isère prefecture was concerned with German round-ups only to the extent that they were being carried out in accordance with official regulations – the final mockery of any pretence at sovereignty.

From month to month, an administrative routine along these lines developed in terms of applying anti-Semitic legislation. Now as Tal Bruttmann emphasizes, apart from a few zealous individuals, this behaviour was not the product of officials who were overwhelmingly anti-Semitic. Were they aware of the power entrusted in them by Vichy to decide who was French? The author puts forward his hypothesis on this. The question remains open. As is the question, still relevant today, of realizing that disobedience is a necessity when faced with iniquitous laws.

Roger Bourderon, historian

Translator’s notes:

(1) Milice: French wartime paramilitary organization which collaborated with the Germans against the Resistance

(2) STO - ’service du travail obligatoire’ which involved compulsory work in Germany for young Frenchmen.

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