“éviter le pire”
This page was created as part of a final project for an introductory course at UCSB on the history of the Holocaust. It examines the French claim that by cooperating with the Nazis, the Vichy government was able to save the average French person from a worse fate. It argues, based on evidence drawn from Robert Paxton’s book Vichy France : Old Guard New Order, 1940-1944, that the aforementioned claim was in fact false and that the condition of France was subject not to the acts passed by the Vichy government but rather by the whims of the Germans.
The Vichy government might have been redeemed in a small part for their actions in collaboration by the claim made by Pétain that “’I used my power as a shield to protect the French people’” (Paxton, Vichy France : Old Guard New Order, 1940-1944, 358). He claims that the Vichy government despite the fact that it was a morally wrong position to take was one that allowed the French to retain some degree of control over themselves and in so doing it allowed them to help the everyday French person. Despite Pétain’s claims and hopes this was not really the case. The condition of France relied almost completely on the whims of the Germans rather than the actions taken by the Vichy government.
The first instance of Vichy failure can be seen in their ineffectiveness in providing food for their people. The Germans had decided that the French must absolutely not have better living conditions than Germans and for that matter that no other occupied country should either. Thus the Germans made occupied or puppet nations deliver certain amounts of food and produce to the Germans that would then be shipped back to Germany for use by ethnic Germans. According to Paxton “Vichy was quite incapable of preventing France, the richest agricultural producer of the occupied nations from experiencing malnutrition” (Paxton, Vichy France : Old Guard New Order, 1940-1944, 361). Thus, it was less the actions of the Vichy government that would affect the condition of the French but more the will of the Germans, which in this case was motivated out of ethnic racism.
Furthermore, Vichy’s intention was to ensure the survival of France, as it had been known. There are several problems with this goal. The first is that France was never in actual danger of actual absolution. In the preliminary plans that were drawn up for an eventual peace, France was never to be one of the countries either dissolved and turned into another or annexed and absorbed by Germany itself. Secondly, whatever the Germans did decide they wanted, Vichy was powerless to prevent it. For example the provinces of Alsace and Loraine, which the French had won back at the end of World War I, were once again taken by the Germans and put under the control of gauleiters or governors despite intense Vichy protest. However, in all fairness, this eventuality would have been extremely difficult to prevent given the nature of the feud, which had been raging since the Franco-Prussian war, over those small pieces of territory.
Finally, and most condemning failure was the Vichy inability to stop the increasing deportation of French people to Germany to serve in German factories. It is clear that the Germans did not give the Vichy better treatment or less harsh demands because of Vichy collaboration thus forced labor seemed inevitable. The Vichy were able to actually slow down this eventuality but at a serious cost. Nevertheless, despite whatever efforts were made to stop forced labor “France became the largest single supplier to Germany of foreign male labor in all occupied Europe in 1943” (Paxton, Vichy France : Old Guard New Order, 1940-1944, 366). Thus we see that resistance was in fact futile. To make matters worse, the Vichy came up with the releve, which was a deal made with the Germans that for every three French laborers, one POW would be returned. Thus the Vichy just ended up sending more of their people to Germany for forced labor.