Crimes against humanity

A trial focuses on French collaboration with Nazi Germany

BRUCE WALLACE April 4 1994

Crimes against humanity

A trial focuses on French collaboration with Nazi Germany

BRUCE WALLACE April 4 1994

Crimes against humanity



A trial focuses on French collaboration with Nazi Germany


The accused is an old man now. He is weakened by cancer, his once-blond hair greyed and thinned.

When he answers questions, it is often in a tremulous voice and with a frustrated clucking of teeth as he searches for words. Sitting stoically in a Versailles courtroom just outside Paris, Paul Touvier looks like everyone’s grandfather, hardly a threat to anyone. Only his eyes—unrepentant, cold, disdainful of his questioners—give any hint that this man could be guilty of the terrible thing he is accused of: a crime against humanity, the first Frenchman ever to face the charge.

It has taken a long time to bring Touvier, now 78, to trial. The accusation against him stems from his role in the June, 1944, murder of seven Jewish hostages in reprisal for the killing of the propaganda minister of the wartime Vichy government, which co-operated with the Nazis. The murders took place near Lyon, where Touvier was an intelligence chief in the Milice, Vichy’s brutal and anti-Semitic militia. The jury will rule on whether Touvier’s act was part of a concerted extermination plan, inspired by racial or religious hatred.

If Touvier is convicted, it will be the first time that a French court ascribes blame to Yichy France for its role in the Nazis’ Final Solution. After the war, thousands of Yichy officials were convicted—and some executed—for treason because of their collaboration with the Nazis. But no French official has ever been convicted of conspiring in the mass murder, despite the fact that the Yichy government rounded up and deported 75,000 Jews—a quarter of France’s wartime Jewish population—to concentration camps in the east. Only now, with the Touvier trial, will the French justice system finally deliver a verdict on the Vichy government’s role in that horror.

Touvier’s trial is one that the French political establishment has long sought to avoid. Since the war, Nazi hunters have pursued more senior Vichy officials through the slow-moving French legal system, only to see charges dismissed or have the accused die before coming to trial. Because many Vichy officials resumed their careers after the war, ascending to high posts in government and

industry, Vichy remained largely a taboo subject in postwar France. Klaus Barbie, the so-called Butcher of Lyon, was tried and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity in 1987. But Barbie was German. The government of President François Mitterrand never pursued cases against French citizens, expressing a desire not to disturb the “social peace.” The one case that appeared likely to result in a conviction was pressed by a civil group founded by Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the Sons and Daughters of the Deported Jews of France. Their quarry was René Bousquet, a business executive who, as a senior Vichy official in 1942, had issued orders to French police to round up Jews for deportation. But that case ended when a vengeful gunman assassinated Bousquet on his doorstep last year.

Bousquet’s murder robbed French Nazi hunters of their best chance to prove that the Yichy government co-operated in the mass

killing of Jews. To pursue that point further meant pressing charges against Touvier, a mid-ranking Milice officer with a distressingly dark life story. A provincial railway clerk, raised to believe in ultraorthodox Catholicism and French nationalism, Touvier evolved into an anti-Semitic ideologue and war profiteer.

“In any trial, it is important to know the life story of the accused,” said Henri Boulard, the presiding judge as he opened the Touvier trial on March 17. And so Touvier’s biography was read into the record: not simply the nuts and bolts of dates and places, but the experiences and influences that shaped his character. His father was a stern Roman Catholic, who imparted I his anti-Semitic, anti-democratic views to Paul, his eldest son of 11 children. “You were very patriotic, then?” asked Boulard. “Like my father,” replied Touvier.

By 1940, Touvier was a widowed father of two young chil■ dren—his wife had died while giving birth. After France’s fall to the Nazis, he left the French army and returned to his native Savoie district in southeastern France, where he took a job with the state railway. But he soon became a follower of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the leader of Vichy France, and Touvier joined a veterans’ association that was actively and openly anti-Semitic in its recruitment. In 1943, the veterans’ group became the Milice, after the Germans convinced Pétain that he needed an internal intelligence force to stamp out the French Resistance.

The Milice was a natural home for a man of Touvier’s views. Its 21-point oath was anti-democratic, anti-communist and proCatholic, as well as including a pledge to erase the “Jewish leprosy” and promote “French purity.” But at his trial last week,

Touvier insisted that he never considered himself anti-Semitic.

What about the oath? asked Boulard. “They were just words,” said Touvier. “The author never intended a mean tone. I saw things in the 1—1 oath that interested me, and didn’t pay attention to the rest.”

Touvier’s denials of all that he had ever said or written dominated the trial’s first week. What about the two anti-Jewish statutes enacted by the Pétain government that excluded Jews from public life and most professions?

“I was never aware of them,” he said.

The yellow star that Jews over age 6 were compelled to wear in Vichy France?

“I never saw a yellow star.”

Co-operation between the Milice and the gestapo?

“I never had any contact with the gestapo.”

Testimony from associates that he was violently anti-Semitic? “People would say anything to avoid being shot.”

What is well documented is that Touvier rose quickly to head the intelligence service of the Milice in Lyons. He lived in homes confiscated from Jews, and ran them as bordellos. He has also previously admitted in letters and testimony that he had contact with gestapo officials, including Barbie, although he now denies that, too. And after the war, the French government compiled enough evidence against Touvier to sentence him, in absentia, to death for treason.

By then, Touvier had gone into hiding, beginning an extraordinary flight from justice. Sheltered by right-wing Catholic groups, he cam-

paigned for a pardon, urging church officials to intervene with French politicians on his behalf. Touvier was not a prominent war criminal, and the anonymity allowed him to move about at times, and even to make a recording promoting sex education with the help of Jacques Brel, the well-known French singer, who had become a friend. By 1967, the statute of limitations ran out on his death sentences. The pardon he sought was granted quietly by President Georges Pompidou in 1971. “It was intended as a humanitarian gesture for a man who could no longer be executed,” said René Remond, a Paris historian who produced a report on the complicity of the

French Catholic Church in aiding Touvier. “But when people found out about the pardon, Touvier turned into something larger, a symbol.”

The publicity surrounding the pardon drove Touvier back to his underground network of sympathetic right-wing clerics. He tried to throw his pursuers off by publishing a phoney death notice in 1984, but his foes finally caught up with him in 1989, when a police helicopter swooped into the yard of a Nice monastery to arrest him. To this day, said Remond, ‘Touvier believes he is a victim of the Jews.”

The Touvier trial hardly threatens the French establishment any more. Anyone with links to Vichy crimes is now retired or dead. Nor can it be claimed that the trial threatens social peace; if anything, the peace has already been shattered by high unemployment, rising resentment towards immigrants and a rebelready student population that this month took to the streets to protest changes to the minimum wage. ‘There was amnesia after the war, but French public opinion has been totally ready for a trial like this for a long time,” said Amo Klarsfeld, 27, who is representing his parents’ Jewish organization at the trial. “It is important to get a conviction so that the history books will show that French justice slammed the door just as hard on a Frenchman as they did on Barbie. A conviction is important for the image of France.”

But despite Touvier’s record, a conviction may be elusive. The Supreme Court of Canada showed as much last week when it upheld the acquittal of Toronto-area resident Imre Finta, who faced 8,617 charges of unlawfully confining and murdering Hungarian Jews in 1944. The court said that a conviction would require demonstrating “an added element of inhumanity” beyond simple proof of the crimes. Touvier is being tried specifically on the murder of seven Jews, but to convict him the jury will have to see that act as part of a larger pattem of genocide. And Touvier’s lawyers continually insist that it is wrong for one generation to pass moral judgment on the actions of another. His trial, which is expected to last five weeks, will test the morality of the Vichy regime in much the same way that the Scopes monkey trial of 1925 tested the theory of evolution. Were the Vichy French simply misguided patriots, who tried to preserve a semblance of French sovereignty after a crushing military defeat and who, in fact, spared most of the Jews in France from the Nazi killing machine? Or did Vichy encompass enthusiastic anti-Semites, who committed crimes against Jews in the name of building an antiSemitic state? Whatever the outcome, warned Amo Klarsfeld, “it is all of France that will have to live with the burden.” □