Paris Exhibition on Nazi Collaboration Sheds Light on Dark Past

Time was when an exhibition about French collaboration with its Nazi occupiers during World War II would have set off a raging debate in the country. No longer.

Seventy years after the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, an exhibition at the National Archives in Paris is pulling in large crowds with a dispassionate look at one of the darkest periods in French history.

The first major exhibition on the period, entitled “La Collaboration 1940-1945,” opened late last month with hundreds of letters, audio records, administrative documents, personal items and propaganda posters extracted from archives, some of them never revealed before.

“There are no more taboos,” Denis Peschanski, the curator of the show, said in an interview. “The Collaboration is now fully part of our memory, our heritage. France has a detached view of it. There were those who collaborated or who lived with it. There was resistance and there was resilience.”

The exhibition at the National Archives in Paris, which opened on Nov. 26, endeavors to explain the economic, cultural, military and ideological mix that led many French people to collude with the enemy and the state’s active participation in the process.

While many exhibitions have gone over the well-worn ground of France’s occupation and various aspects of its collaboration, this is the first standalone show on the subject. It has rapidly become the most-visited exhibition for the National Archives.

After the German army overran France in a six-week campaign in 1940, retired Marshal Philippe Petain was appointed premier. His regime in the town of Vichy collaborated with the occupiers. Other groups -- militias, political parties and Nazi admirers -- soon joined hands with the German occupying forces.

‘Broad Phenomenon’

The curators set the tone for the exhibition with a welcoming note asking the question: “All collaborators? No. But it was a broad phenomenon.”

For decades, the official French line was that the Vichy regime was an aberration imposed by the Germans while the “true” France was represented by Charles de Gaulle, who carried out the good fight from exile in London.

That image has eroded over the years.

In July 1995, a newly elected President Jacques Chirac broke with the increasingly discredited view when he recognized the responsibility of the “French state” in the deportation of Jews. About 76,000 Jews were deported from France, only 3,000 of whom returned from concentration camps.

Exhibitions and books have explored some aspects of the period, like the 2011 display that showed the intellectual and artistic life in France during the occupation.

‘Black Years’

The Caen Memorial near the D-Day beaches of Normandy has a room devoted to the “Black Years” inaugurated in 1988.

“The question back in the 80s was ‘All Collaborators? All Resistance Fighters?’ Today we have a more nuanced and comprehensive vision,” said Stephane Grimaldi, the head of the Caen Memorial. “We’ll redo the room, in light of today’s understanding of the Collaboration. Like the Paris exhibition, we want to show what it meant to collaborate in more detail.” The new room will be ready early 2016.

The Paris National Archives’ show aims to leave a trace in French history.

“It’s extremely important for France to examine its past honestly and to restore its integrity,” Robert Paxton, a history professor at Columbia University in New York and author of several books on wartime France, including “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944,” said in an interview.

The Show

Two giant portraits -- one of Adolph Hitler and one of Vichy leader Petain -- stand atop an imposing 40-step staircase. The show opens with a sound bite of Petain’s speech announcing France’s capitulation, and then along a long dark corridor curators have laid out major documents from the period.

One document is a letter from an unnamed French person denouncing Jews. “I know of two of them still living in my building,” the person writes, citing their names and address.

Twenty-six percent of France’s pre-war Jewish population died in the Holocaust. That compares with 75 percent in the Netherlands and 60 percent in Belgium. In Western Europe, only Italy was hurt less, with 20 percent. Over 25,000 French people were executed for being members of the Resistance and another 27,000 died in prison camps in Germany.

Other items on display include a list of French authors sympathetic to the Nazis.

Petain’s Call

The exhibition includes Petain’s call to his countrymen to “enter the path of collaboration.”

Peschanski said he and the other curators wanted to show the “diversity” of collaborators. The ones in Vichy obeyed the German enemy. Those in Paris, dubbed “Les Collaborationistes,” embraced the fascist system of the Nazis and often were ahead of them in rounding up Jews.

Then there was the man in the street who did business with the Germans or just didn’t turn it down. There were also those who joined militias to chase Jews, Communists or Freemasons and many different other profiles.

The exhibition carries objects such as the desk of the hardliner fascist Jacques Doriot and two large maps of the camps for Jews in France in 1940 and 1942, showing the train routes used to move them around.

State Role

The active participation of the state becomes apparent from the telegrams penned by the head of the police, Rene Bousquet, in which he orders his lieutenants to “break” any Jew resisting measures against them and to also denounce their colleagues who may be too “passive.”

Bousquet was shot dead in 1993, a few weeks before the start of his trial for crimes against humanity.

As part of the exhibition, several conferences will explore the theme until March when the display ends. A 320-page book on the subject was also published.

All visitors leave with a 31-page booklet covering the major themes and images of the exhibition.

“This exposition shows why this history is still very much alive in people’s minds,” the pamphlet notes.

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