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Robert Paxton: The Outsider

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Martin Evans discusses how the historian Robert Paxton shifted the terms of debate over the collective memory of Vichy France.

It is undoubtedly significant that the best book on the Vichy regime, the one that revolutionised the way in which French historians understand the period, was written by an outsider, the American academic Robert Paxton. However, the fact that his Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-44 now has the status of a classic in twentieth-century historiography means that it is easy to forget just how unpalatable the book was when it first appeared in French in 1973, one year after publication in the USA.

Paxton’s basic argument – that  Vichy was not merely a shield to protect France against the Nazi victors but a regime that had begged Hitler to accept its collaboration – was shocking to large numbers of French people. It led him to be instantly vilified. Professors at the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris attacked his credentials as a historian. He could not be trusted, they claimed, because he had misspelled names. In the letters pages of Le Monde Paxton was subjected to character assassination. What right did he have, as an American who had been only eight years old in 1940, to sit in judgement? What could he possibly know about the complexities of foreign occupation? Finally in May 1976 Admiral Auphan, president of the Pétain association, branded Paxton as a liar during a face-to-face live television debate.

Yet on the face of it there is nothing controversial about Robert Paxton. A sprightly man with a striking mane of white hair, his quiet accent and a reflective manner make him a model of academic courtesy. In 1997 he retired as professor of European History at Columbia University, but he still lives in New York, just round the corner from his old intellectual stomping ground, in an apartment overlooking the Hudson river. There in April this year he explained to me what initially stimulated his passion for history. He was born in 1932 in Lexington, Virginia, to parents who were a vital influence. His father was a solicitor, so he was brought up in a family milieu which placed great store on learning and thinking. It was also a milieu which followed current affairs very closely and was greatly disturbed by the gathering European crisis at the end of the 1930s. In political terms his parents were Roosevelt democrats.  Deeply anglophile, they saw Roosevelt as a saviour figure not only because he had wrested the country from the Depression but also because he had rightly brought America into the war on the side of Britain. Thus as a young boy Paxton was fully aware of the enormity of the events unfolding in Europe and the Pacific and he followed the war avidly. This was history with a capital H, and all the more poignant because it had strong personal dimensions. Many men from Lexington were going off to fight and in 1945 his brother was called up as part of the Japan invasion force. 

In the South history was permanently present in other ways too.  The memories of defeat in the Civil war were still very strong and Paxton himself was raised on stories of Yankee brutality. Lexington town was bombarded in 1863 and his great-grandfather, a brigadier general, was killed in the war. However, when he went to secondary school in the North, in New England, his received ideas were completely overturned. His history teachers were excellent and, as the children and grandchildren of abolitionists, they were very critical of the South. This experience taught Paxton an enduring lesson – that there is not just one historical truth. He returned to Lexington hostile to the segregation system and this hostility led him to publish his first article, an anthropological study decoding the racism of his home town. Henceforth he knew too that he did not want to study American history. He wanted to flee all that and was fascinated by Europe.

Paxton graduated in history from Washington and Lee University in 1954 and then studied for two years as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford University. Oxford, he remembered, had a wonderful intellectual atmosphere. Tutorials with the modern European historians James Joll and John Roberts were formative experiences. Paxton admired their historical rigour as well as his openness to new interpretative approaches. In the early 1960s he began a doctorate at Harvard University which led him to focus upon the French officer corps and their dilemmas between 1940 and 1942. For Paxton the key question was one of legitimate authority: was it with Pétain or was it with de Gaulle? The thesis soon became his first book, Parades and Politics at Vichy, published in 1966.

In researching Vichy politics, Paxton was scratching away at what had become an unfashionable subject. After the post-war round of trials and purges the 1940-44 period, known popularly as the dark years, became shrouded in an embarrassed silence. For political reasons nobody had any interest in returning to the historical roots of Vichy. Gaullists cherished the image of massive support for de Gaulle from the first hour. The Communist Party wanted to forget its neutralism during the Nazi-Soviet pact. Conservatives wished to cling to the idea of Pétain’s passive resistance, whilst technocrats rejected any suggestion of a Vichy legacy in post-war economic planning. The first major historical work on Vichy, Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy published in 1954, merely reinforced these cosy mythologies. By preserving some semblance of national sovereignty, Aron claimed, Vichy had protected the French from the worst evils of a Nazi gauleiter, and in arguing thus he made a distinction between two Vichys, Pétain’s and Laval’s. For Marshal Pétain, the 84-year-old World War One hero, the June 1940 armistice was a temporary expedient, a pause which allowed France to survive intact whilst awaiting the outcome of the war. As head of state he then could play out a subtle double game, keeping the Nazis at a distance whilst he entered into secret negotiations with the Allies. In contrast, for Prime Minister Pierre Laval, scapegoated as the archetypal self-seeking opportunist, the armistice opened the way to a reversal of alliances. In terms of the daily government, Aron conjured up a picture of an essentially passive Vichy using ruse and guile to block limitless German demands. Finally, by underlining the massive resistance of ordinary French people, Aron was offering up a synthesis of the period which pleased Communists, Gaullists and conservatives alike.

Digging around in the archives Paxton became more and more dissatisfied with Aron’s shield thesis. A large part of the problem, Paxton concluded, was that Aron had limited himself to French sources. Following the lead of the German historian Eberhard Jäckel, Paxton began to use the Nazi records, captured by the Allies after the war and available on microfilm in London and Washington. Paxton remembered that no one in France had admitted to him that these microfilms existed. When at last they did, the standard retort was that they could not be trusted because they were Nazis documents. For Paxton, this was an astonishing prejudice. To him no record is a chemically pure truth. Consequently, in a telling reminder of the importance of linguistic skills for historians, Paxton carefully sifted through this material. What he found was that they revealed as much about the occupied as they did the occupier. Breaking away from Aron’s French-centred paradigm, the archives gave a more rounded perspective, and what Paxton learned was that Vichy had an enormous freedom of action. Just as long as military security and supplies were assured, the Nazis were not much interested in Vichy. The regime was not a product of Nazi demands. On the contrary, in 1940 Hitler wanted the French to administer themselves because this would save resources for the war effort against Britain.

Looking at Vichy through Nazi eyes, Paxton’s scholarship demolished the Aron mythology piece by piece. For example, his research stripped away any notion that Vichy had pursued a double game. Right from the summer of 1940 the impetus for collaboration came from Vichy. With the war seemingly over the Pétain regime made an ideological choice. It wanted to carve out a privileged position within Hitler’s New Order. By destroying the double game legend Paxton also conclusively demonstrated that the regime was not an aberration imposed from the outside.  Instead it had to be understood in the context of French history as part of the ongoing civil war which had opened in 1789 and was still raging with the Popular Front election of 1936. Not for nothing did Charles Maurras, the leading anti-Semite whose ideas of France for French people were the blueprint for Vichy’s National Revolution, call the defeat a ‘divine surprise’. For him, Vichy’s internal project  – the establishment of an authoritarian, homogeneous, Catholic state – was about revenge against the reviled Third Republic rather than some accommodation to the Nazi blueprint. It was a return to traditional conservative values which, at least in 1940-41, enjoyed mass support. In this precise way, by showing how, in the interests of stability, national feeling favoured collaboration, Paxton put the responsibility for the Vichy regime back on to the French themselves. Hence his book, as he himself readily admitted,  was not very flattering for French self-esteem.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first French publisher Paxton approached refused to translate the book. Nevertheless he persisted and it came out in 1973 with Le Seuil under the title La France de Vichy. Paxton found that his arguments immediately struck a chord with the May 1968 generation who instinctively refused to accept their parents’ version of anything. Eagerly they seized upon Paxton’s ‘non-conformism’ thesis to belabour their elders, and the book sold in thousands, a rare example of a professional historian reaching beyond the academy to a popular audience.

Paxton’s, book, therefore, was a landmark event. However, he was unsure how his status as a foreigner would influence reactions to his findings. On the one hand, it stirred up anger. Many times he was told that Vichy was a French affair which must be dealt with amongst French people. ‘I received angry mail telling me “you were never defeated – you do not understand.” I would write back and say that the South was defeated and put under Yankee occupation.’ On the other hand, being an outsider was an advantage. Paxton was not neutral – he took a very critical view of the Vichy regime – but he was not implicated with a political party or faction and therefore could not be pigeon-holed or accused of narrow partisanship. ‘I was not part of any of the familiar French quarrels. I think that made people look on it as something that should be taken on board. It was not another piece of party propaganda.’

Rereading his Vichy book in the early 1980s, Paxton was struck by the angry tone. For him this is clearly related to the period in which it was written. The atmosphere whilst he was teaching at Berkeley in California in the 1960s was highly politicised, and although he was not seduced by some of the extremists – he characterised himself as a Kennedy democrat slightly to the left of his parents – he was increasingly opposed to the Vietnam war. The shadow of the conflict sharpened his animosity to national conformities and made him think hard about the morality of political choices. It led him to see the parallel not with French people but with the Germans – ‘the Americans in Vietnam were motivated by the same arrogant blindness’ – and for Paxton this was crucial. It meant that the book was not written in a mood of easy superiority.

Whilst he was completing his research for Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, Roger Errara, an editor at Calmann-Levy, commissioned Paxton to write a book pinning down Vichy’s role in the Holocaust. First published in 1981, Vichy France and the Jews took ten years to complete.  Indeed Paxton found the research so depressing that the Canadian historian Michael Marrus was brought on board as co-author. The archives on the Holocaust were subjected to stringent restrictions and here Errara, as a senior member of the Conseil d'Etat, playing a key role in getting Paxton and Marrus privileged access to this material, notably Pétain’s staff papers and the files of Vichy’s Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs. The result was the first comprehensive account of Vichy’s own anti-Semitic policies in which the two authors showed that the laws of October 1940, whereby Jews were turned into second-class citizens, owed nothing to Nazism. French anti-Semitism had deep roots stretching back to the Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Significantly too, by tracing the racist logic of Vichy legislation Marrus and Paxton showed how these discriminatory measures facilitated the ‘final solution’ in France, particularly when in 1942 the Vichy police became directly involved in the round-up Jews to the East.  It was a level of cooperation, the authors concluded, virtually unparalleled in all of occupied Europe and it led to the deportation of nearly 76,000 Jews. Of these only three per cent returned at the end of the war.

In 1997 Paxton’s standing as a leading authority led him to be called as an expert at the trial of Maurice Papon, the Vichy bureaucrat who had deported Jews from the Gironde region. Because all the jurors, apart from one, were born after 1945 the judge felt that it was vital to have an explanation of the historical context. So the trial began with statements by four historians – Philippe Burrin, Jean-Pierre Azéma and Marc Olivier Baruch as well as Paxton himself.

Though Papon was found guilty and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, Paxton found the trial to be an awkward experience. In the first place, he felt frustrated. Ideally he would have liked the Vichy head of police, René Bousquet, to be in the dock, but he was assassinated in Paris in 1993 just as he was about to be brought to trial. ‘It would have been the trial of the Vichy policy-makers at the top, whereas Papon went to trial because he was the only one they could still find. It was much too late and he was much too junior and he could not be accused of crimes against humanity. He was accused of complicity in crimes against humanity – which was dealing with the issue at one removed. So it was not as satisfying as one of the trials of the senior people ten years earlier would have been.’ One leading French academic, Henry Rousso, refused to testify on the grounds that the truth in the courtroom and truth for the historian are incompatible, the one deforming the other. Paxton did not agree. ‘The trial was trying to establish a truthful narrative based on documentary evidence and eye-witness accounts; so I think that they belong to the same family in terms of truth-telling. I do not think that Rousso was right to say that the two are in conflict.’  Even so, Paxton was also uneasy at how the boundaries of the court curtailed debate.  As an expert witness he was not allowed to read notes.  Thus there was no room to discuss the documents. He merely stated his piece under oath and then stood down.  Nevertheless he feels that, whatever the shortcomings of the trial process, it is to the credit of the French that they finally dealt on a judicial basis with Vichy’s role in the ‘final solution’.

In retirement Paxton is neither tired nor complacent. His most recent book, French Peasant Fascism, published in 1997, examined the role of farmers in the fascist movement during the 1930s. As regards Vichy, he fully recognises that he approached the subject as a political historian interested in power and elites. This means, he feels, that the next paradigm will draw upon the new historical approaches and will analyse Vichy through the prism of culture and gender, as well as the power of languages. Away from French history, Paxton enjoys the music of Bach and still travels the world bird-watching. He also continues to draw intellectual inspiration from New York City. A place, he told me in conclusion to the interview, of unlimited energy and adventure.

Martin Evans is director of the Centre for European Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth. He is the author of The Memory of Resistance (Berg, 1997) and the co-editor, with Martin Alexander and John Keiger, of The French Army and the Algerian War: Image, Experience, Testimony (Macmillan, 2001).

Historical dictionary: Vichy France


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