France’s relationship with its important Jewish population has been a complicated one. France led the way in Jewish emancipation in the 1790s. It was a major haven for Jewish refugees fleeing the eastern European pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1930s France received more Jewish refugees in proportion to its population than any other country. It had a Jewish prime minister in 1936. Jews played formative roles in French intellectual, cultural, and economic life. These achievements did not fail to arouse resentments, especially in periods of massive immigration and economic depression, such as the 1880s and the 1930s. The Third Republic mostly kept these animosities in check—after all, Captain Dreyfus, the subject of a notorious false charge of treason in 1894, was vindicated in 1906. But after the German armies inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Republic in June 1940, those safeguards vanished.
The French government, which withdrew in July 1940 to the central highlands city of Vichy while the Germans occupied Paris, channeled the bitterness of defeat into creating a new authoritarian and nationalist regime committed to punishing those it blamed for France’s decline. Above all, these included the Jews, closely identified with the discredited Third Republic. Without prompting from the German occupation authorities (who wanted at first only to expel German Jews into the unoccupied parts of France), Vichy France launched its own anti-Jewish program. Unprecedented new laws excluded all Jews—citizens as well as foreigners—from government service, including teaching. They established quotas that limited Jewish access to the professions and education and began confiscating Jewish business assets. Vichy worked to curtail the Jewish role in French cultural life. It forced Jews to register their names and addresses with the authorities, exposing them to danger. All this was accompanied by streams of demeaning commentary by both officials and private citizens.
In the summer of 1942 the Jews of France faced an even graver threat when the Nazis extended the Final Solution to Western Europe. Still eager to get rid of the 1930s refugees, the Vichy government helped round up and hand over 75,000 Jews to the Nazis. This task was facilitated by Vichy’s earlier measures of exclusion and discrimination. These had made the Jews of France, whether citizen or foreigner, far more vulnerable by impoverishing and uprooting them, by recording their names and addresses in public files available to the Gestapo, by interning the poorer foreign Jews in camps and labor battalions, and by making them all easier to detect by stamping their ID cards and ration books with the word Juif.
In the end, France lost 25% of its Jewish population. Among the countries under Nazi influence, only Denmark (1.3%), Finland (2.8%), Bulgaria (14%), and Italy (16%) lost less. But this seemingly moderate result brings no credit to Vichy France. The German occupation authorities, confident of French help, never felt the need to bring the kind of massive investment to bear on the task of eliminating French Jewry that they thought necessary in, say, Hungary. It is misleading to ask why three-quarters of the Jews of France survived the German occupation. Given the many opportunities for protection and escape, we must ask rather why so many perished.
It is also misleading to claim, as some Vichy apologists have done, that Vichy saved most French Jewish citizens by filling the deportation trains with foreign refugees. Aside from the ignominy of this alleged bargain, it has no basis in fact. All of Vichy’s exclusionary legislation affected French citizens as well as foreigners, and in some cases more so (e.g., exclusion from civil service jobs). French Jewish citizens were made nearly as vulnerable as foreign Jews by Vichy’s discriminatory measures and by the systematic hostility that accompanied them. In the end, although Vichy tried to avoid the humiliation of having its own citizens deported (as did every country under Nazi pressure), it was unable to provide them with real protection. The deported included 15% of the Jewish citizens of France and many children born to foreigners on French soil.
We undertook the first edition of this book, published in 1981, at the invitation of the late Roger Errera, a French magistrate who was also editor of a French Jewish history series with the Paris publisher Calmann-Lévy. The subject of Vichy France and the Jews was then just beginning to emerge from a resolute silence. Although the French archives were still mostly closed, Errera obtained special permission for us to consult some crucial Vichy government files. We had full access to German, Italian, and United States archives.
Today the study of Vichy France has been profoundly transformed. The French archives concerning the period of German occupation from 1940 to 1944 were freed of their last restrictions by a law of July 15, 2008. A host of younger scholars, mostly French but also German, British, and American, have scrutinized every aspect of the Vichy regime. The best work brings French and German records to bear simultaneously on particular issues. Documentary films, television programs, and exhibitions about Vichy have proliferated. Hardly a corner of French life between the defeat of 1940 and the liberation of 1944 has not been explored in detail in the official record.
In the face of these changes it was time to see how the 1981 edition stood up. Our basic conclusions about Vichy French initiatives remain unchanged. But we are able to be far more precise about the exclusion of Jews from the French civil service and from cultural activities; the application of quotas in the liberal professions; the reactions of the churches; and the way Vichy set up its own anti-Jewish program as a rival and competitor to that of the Nazis. We can be clearer about the energetic participation of the French administration in applying these measures. New research also permits clearer comparison with other countries.
Although much of the French population acquiesced in the Vichy government’s initial internments and discriminations in 1940–1942, the massive arrests for deportation to the death camps in the east in 1942–1944 profoundly shocked many. Rescue efforts by individuals and nongovernmental organizations, along with the many opportunities for hiding in France, saved many Jews from death.
Even so, the outcome in France was worse than it would have been without the active participation of the Vichy French administration, abetted by certain French individuals.