August 17, 2011

Two steps forward, two steps back

In 1972, the American historian Robert O. Paxton published what is now considered to be the seminal text on the Vichy regime, his much-read, and incidentally much-translated, Vichy France 1940-1944: Old Guard and New Order. Paxton's book made such an 'impact', to use the modern-day academic parlance, because it smashed the so-called 'Gaullist myth', based on de Gaulle's speech from the Hôtel de Ville on the 25th August 1944. In his speech, de Gaulle claimed that Paris had been liberated by 'la France combattante'. The idea of a France which resisted the occupier and liberated itself single-handedly was the foundation for the Gaullist myth. Nearly 67 years ago, de Gaulle refused to proclaim the Republic, arguing that it had never ceased to exist.

Robert Paxton approached Vichy from the standpoint of an objective, impassionate researcher and looked not in the French archives (closed at the time) but in the German and American state archives. Vichy henceforth took on a different shape: not a regime forced into collaboration, but one which entered actively into a (mostly one-sided) partnership with the Nazis. The Republic had, as Paxton found, been voted out of existence by democratically-appointed parliamentarians. Legally, the Republic ceased to exist on the 10th July 1940. Yet in de Gaulle's view, he had been the Republic incarnate, la France résistante; Vichy was illegal, Pétain an illigitimate leader. De Gaulle's insistence on re-uniting the French people, split, as Pierre Laborie argues, between 40 million Pétainistes and 40 million Gaullistes, effectively swept the more sinister moments of the 'Dark Years' under the carpet. That so many civil servants served both the Vichy regime and the Gaullist transitional government with the same fervour was largely ignored.

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