Papon Defends Wartime Role, Rebuts Historian’s Statements

The crimes-against-humanity trial of former French Cabinet minister Maurice Papon has taken up the broader issue of the Vichy government’s role during the Holocaust.

In testimony Monday during the fifth week of his trial, Papon said the legislation enacted by the Vichy regime against Jews “shocked me politically, intellectually and emotionally.”

The next day he testified that he was “disgusted” by the string of anti-Semitic laws that Vichy adopted beginning in October 1940 on its own initiative — four months after France surrendered to the Nazis.

“Not with my heart, nor with my hands, did I participate in these laws of exclusion,” said Papon, who has maintained that as a senior Vichy official he worked to save Jewish lives.

Papon, 87, went on trial Oct. 8 in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux for allegedly ordering the arrest of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, between 1942 and 1944, when he was secretary-general of the Bordeaux prefect’s office and head of its Jewish affairs office.

Nearly all of the Jews deported from Bordeaux died in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

After the liberation, Papon went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as police chief of Paris between 1958 and 1967, then as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s.

Legal action against Papon began in 1981 after a newspaper article detailed his past.

But proceedings against him were repeatedly obstructed by French officials reluctant to see a trial dredge up embarrassing memories of France’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws — which stripped Jews of their right to teach, practice law or medicine, work as civil servants and own property — came under scrutiny at the trial by historians who argued that they reflected wartime France’s role as an willing accomplice of the Nazis.

U.S. historian Robert Paxton, in testimony for the prosecution that lasted more than three hours last Friday, spoke of the Vichy regime’s eager assistance to implement the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Paxton explained that the Nazis, who were short of manpower, would not have been able to arrest as many Jews — 76,000 out of 300,000 Jews were deported to death camps from France — without the help of the French police, who knew the terrain and the population.

“I don’t see how anyone can say that the Germans’ job was made more difficult by a regime that provided them with the ways to list, track down and arrest Jews, not to mention the help of the police,” said Paxton, a retired Columbia University history professor.

Papon, who has testified that he used his position in the Vichy regime to work against the Nazis, countered Paxton, saying, “History, like science, is fluid matter and difficult to comprehend.”

Papon arrived at the courthouse last Friday in an ambulance, appearing for the first time since he was hospitalized Oct. 23 with a bronchial infection.

The health complaints of Papon, who underwent triple bypass surgery last year, has thrown the trial off schedule, leading some relatives of Jews deported from Bordeaux to fear it will never be completed.

Paxton, whose 1972 book, “Vichy France, Old Guard, New Order,” is credited with having “broken the mirror” in which the French saw what they believed was their laudable conduct during the occupation, depicted France under Vichy as an anti- Semitic nation eager to carve out a place for itself in a new world order led by the Nazis.

He explained that Vichy adopted anti-Semitic laws long before the Nazis asked for them.

“Many French people believed at the time, and many still do, that German pressure was the cause of Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws,” he said.

“The effect of Vichy’s actions made the Jews more vulnerable. The Aryanization of property and the exclusion of Jews from many professions facilitated the big roundups for deportation,” which were carried out by French police, he said.

Paxton added that Vichy made life worse for the Jews by negotiating with the Germans for an arrangement under which the French police could act independently.

“That meant that the French police had to act against the enemies of the Reich — Communists, terrorists and Jews. That was the fatal mechanism that brought France to provide the Nazis with Jews” for extermination, Paxton said.

“There were very few similar cases in occupied Europe.”

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