28 February 2008

France after Liberation: Revenge

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 343-345:
The trials, executions and imprisonments that followed the liberation came to play a large part in the mythology of the right. The very fact that many victims of the legal purge were men from bourgeois backgrounds made their punishment seem all the more striking: the chaplain of Fresnes prison talked of the time when 'le tout Paris' was in the cells. Pétainists made much of their status as victims. Pierre-Antoine Cousteau, a collaborationist and brother of the undersea explorer, began one of his books with the memorable words: 'On 23 November, a large, smooth man, wearing a splendid red robe, trimmed with white rabbit fur, told me rather coldly, that I was condemned to death.' Cousteau's sentence was subsequently commuted....

Many defendants were acquitted, many death sentences were commuted and most of those convicted were released within a few years (there were two large-scale amnesties in 1951 and 1953). Some men who had come very close to the firing squad served little time in prison. A thirty-nine-year-old member of the Milice, who had sat on an illegal court martial that condemned Resistance activists on 2 August 1944, was then himself sentenced to death. However, the sentence was overturned on a technicality (he had been prosecuted in both the civilian court and a court martial). A retrial in March 1945 reduced his sentence to twenty years. In 1951 he was released and in 1966 he was officially 'rehabilitated'. Those who could afford good lawyers were particularly likely to survive. Defence lawyers became the new heroes of the right, which had often in the past been rather disdainful of the pays légal....

The relations between the various forms of formal and informal purges varied with time and place. Generally, the épuration sauvage was most extensive in the south of France. The south was, to a great extent, liberated by French forces, and sometimes by the Resistance, rather than by the Allies. It was also the area where the Maquis had been most extensive and where the Franco-French struggles that pitted Milice against Resistance had been most severe. More generally, the purge was most restrained in areas where conflict during the occupation had been lightest; it was most violent in areas with a history of massacre and reprisal. However, legal and extra-legal punishment did not function independently of each other. Often popular violence pressured the authorities into taking more vigorous action. Sometimes victims were dragged from prison by lynch mobs. Popular violence sometimes increased as it seemed that central government was becoming too lenient. Public anger flared in 1945, at the end of the war, when three different processes coincided. First, de Gaulle seemed ever more inclined to pardon collaborators or to commute death sentences. Secondly, internment camps were closed so that suspected collaborators who had been put in protective custody were released. Thirdly, concentration camp victims, including some Resistance activists who owed their imprisonment to denunciation by their compatriots, began to return to France. Attacks on suspected collaborators, often involving the placing of explosives near their houses, continued into at least 1946 and such illegal and clandestine attacks seem to have increased as the state was seen as less effective in punishing collaboration.

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