A re-examination of the French collaboration with their Nazi occupiers during World War II.
The German occupation of France, between 1940 and 1944, was an unmitigated catastrophe for its Jewish residents. Their wealth was stolen; they were summarily arrested, expelled from their homes, and shuttled to concentration camps to labor and die. Debut author Mack argues that this was only possible because of the active participation of the collaborationist French government, a dark fact not only largely redacted from official French history, but dishonestly replaced with heroic tales of resistance. The author conscientiously traces the historical arc of anti-Semitism in France and discusses the ways Jews become a convenient scapegoat for economic malaise and an explosive immigration crisis. In the first of three sections, Mack takes the reader on an architectural tour of Paris, highlighting the buildings the Nazis took over for their administrative purposes, as well as the ways a divided France become complicit in its own abuse. In the second section, the gruesome extermination of the Jews is considered, the culmination of a campaign that began with the deprivation of their civil rights and equality. When the dust settled, more than 73,000 Jewish residents of France were murdered. In the last section, Mack confronts the collective silence on the part of the French regarding the nation’s acquiescence to German aggression, a self-censorship that has prevented an honest grappling with its shame and guilt. This is the fulcrum of the study—a philosophical examination of the reasons for France’s muteness regarding its active partnership with German occupiers in crimes against humanity. Mack, a psychoanalyst, unpacks the elements of French culture and history that would have made these transgressions possible.
The author dissects, with journalistic meticulousness and polemical verve, the motivations of Vichy statesman like Philippe Pétain, who saw the nation’s invasion as an opportunity for a kind of conservative revolution. Mack’s writing, consistently lucid and even elegant, is commensurate with the gravity of the subject matter. His command of the historical period in Paris is exceptional, though he tends to bury the reader under mounds of minute detail. Also, his judgments can be rhetorically strident—surely it’s an exaggeration that “the tendency of the French to resist consisted mainly in listening to the broadcasts of ‘Les français parlent aux français’ on Radio London.” In fact, he provides plenty of counterfactual evidence on this score. And while the author’s chief historical premise isn’t original—he cites the influence of Robert Paxton’s groundbreaking Vichy France 1940-1944—his consideration of the proper distribution of blame is an important reflection on the moral dimension of the 20th century’s central disaster. He follows a tradition inaugurated by the philosopher Karl Jaspers, also a psychoanalyst, of plumbing the murky depths of moral responsibility with sensitivity and insightfulness. Mack’s study is an intrepid one, challenging pieties historically repudiated but still alive in the public imagination. Included are pages and pages of beautifully illustrative photographs.
A well-researched and powerful indictment of France’s complicity in the Holocaust.