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Robert Paxton: The Outsider

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.

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