Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why wasn't there a Nuremberg trial of Vichy criminals?

Why wasn't France treated as an enemy in the same way that Germany was? The answer is de Gaulle. De Gaulle insisted that Vichy was illegitimate. It wasn't really France. David Schoenbrun, in his The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle on pages 127-8 quotes de Gaulle saying, "There are both good and bad Frenchmen, but France is only good. Frenchmen are mere mortals, but France is immortal. The state is a passing manifestation of a system of government, but the nation is the emanation of an eternal spirit. In that sense it was quite conceivable -- indeed, necessary -- to envisage Frenchmen fighting Frenchmen and Free France fighting Vichy France. 'Vichy, being what it was and not at all France,' would have to be fought. . . ."

Schoenbrun writes, "De Gaulle's concept of the false and the real France eventually led him into conflict with the United States even more than with the British. The British had officially declared that in their view the Petain regime was not an independent government, and they had recognized de Gaulle's Free France movement, if not as a government, at least as the sole organization empowered to speak for French interests. However, from 1940 to 1943 the United States granted no recognition of any kind to Free France or to de Gaulle but, on the contrary, recognized Petain as the legal government of France and accredited an official American diplomatic mission to his capital at Vichy, and even after breaking with Vichy the United States continued to recruit and support Vichyites in North Africa.

"The American people, shocked by the fall of France and the abject surrender of Petain, may have been thrilled by the defiant courage of the patriotic Charles de Gaulle, but the American government, perhaps sharing the same general sentiments, felt it could not afford the luxury of shaping policy for sentimental reasons."

COMMENT: One recalls de Gaulle's famous "I am France" and can understand why he felt enmity toward the U.S. which believed no such thing. Petain was leader of France and Roosevelt would deal only with him.

De Gaulle's declaration that the Vichy government was illegitimate ended up being the prevailing understanding, the one that was acted upon. Britain and the U.S. had other things to worry about; so they were happy to let de Gaulle deal with France. Yes, they initially occupied France, but merely as a second front against Germany; something Stalin had been demanding. They had no wish to conquer or occupy France as France; although for consistency's sake they might have.

Britain and the U.S. tried the Germans responsible for Nazi excesses, but why didn't they also try Frenchmen guilty of like excesses? Because, de Gaulle insisted, Vichy wasn't really France and the Real France, de Gaulle himself, would deal with the Vichy pretenders. Oh, they were punished, but as collaborators, not representatives of an official French government.

I am not arguing that there should have been a Nuremberg-like trial for France -- I have my doubts about the one they held in Germany -- but I do think it interesting that France was treated differently from Germany. De Gaulle managed to get his manic view of France accepted by a depressed world, and that even today is the prevailing view. Vichy wasn't really France during the Vichy years -- de Gaulle was.

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