PARIS – France’s decision to open up archives from its World War II collaboration with Nazi occupiers is being seen as the breaking of one of the last taboos that has tainted debate over the era for years.
“This brings an end to the fear of scandal. We are taking responsibility and we will have a better understanding of the issues,” said Gilles Morin, a historian who heads the association of users of national archives.
From this week, the government has opened up the police and justice archives from 1940 to 1944 when the Vichy regime, led by Philippe Petain, collaborated with the invading German army.
While the Nazis occupied the north of France, Petain — a hero of World War I — led so-called Vichy France in the center and the south of the country, with its headquarters in the genteel city of the same name.
Despite having autonomy from German policies, Petain passed legislation that saw Jews — around 150,000 of whom had fled to the south, believing it to be safer — subjected to severe discrimination similar to that in the Nazi-occupied north.
Under Petain, the Vichy regime put to death up to 15,000 people and helped deport nearly 80,000.
But at the end of the war, France emerged on the side of the victors thanks to the actions of the Resistance led by General Charles de Gaulle. It was given a seat on the U.N. Security Council and took part in the post-war division of Germany.
The Vichy regime’s role in the deportation of Jews was hushed up for years, portrayed as a “blip” in history. It was not until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac recognized France’s responsibility in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to death camps.
Chirac, born in 1932, was only a child during World War II, unlike his predecessor Francois Mitterrand, who faced scrutiny during his 14 years in power over his controversial role under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand was given an award by the Petain regime in 1943, although he also had a role in the Resistance.
“Time has passed. The generations who were involved in World War II are no longer around. This isn’t a hot political debate anymore, so it can be reopened without any risk,” said historian Annette Wieviorka, who specializes in the Holocaust.
Current president Francois Hollande, who was born after the war, announced on the 70th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Europe on May 8 that the archives would be thrown open, which he said would guard against “these evils which threaten us, of revisionism, the altering of history and forgetfulness.”
Experts note that, while the archives will now be almost fully accessible, they were not totally sealed before and their contents have helped historians to write dozens of books about the period.
Until now, a special request to view the archives had to be submitted, a process that could take “between two weeks and six months,” Wieviorka said.
Now only a small number of files will remain secret.
One of the most explosive books about the Vichy regime was written by American historian Robert Paxton, although he used archives seized from the Nazis by the U.S. army.
When the book came out in 1973, it revealed in detail the extent of the collaboration between the state and the occupiers and exploded the myth of a country united behind the Resistance.
The opening up of the archives now is not expected to produce any new revelations.
However, “history is full of small stories within stories,” said Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer who acts for the deported Jews, who believes the newly accessible archives will help clarify issues such as the still-sensitive issue of possessions seized from Jews.
Denis Peschanski, the director of the CNRS research institute, says that apart from the Vichy officials, between 150,000 and 200,000 French citizens were “collaborators” and hundreds of thousands of others “accommodated” the situation, including cultural figures such as Jean Cocteau, whose plays were put on with German approval.
Many historians are now asking why documents from France’s later wars in Indochina and Algeria cannot also be thrown open.
“The systematic de-classification of archives is the rule in the United States and Britain. In eastern Europe, archives were quickly opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Gilles Morin. “But in France, we’re scared of our own shadow.”