Latest update: May 30th, 2013
Many readers have probably seen the film “Sarah’s Key,” a powerful 2010 movie that reminds its viewers of overwhelming French collaboration with the Nazis. Even today it seems widely believed that France carried on more or less heroically under the German occupation, and that the 1942 roundups of Jews in occupied France must have been carried out by the SS or Gestapo directly. In fact, however, as “Sarah’s Key” instructs in understated yet utterly hideous detail, these roundups were executed, more or less enthusiastically, by the regular French police.
What is even less well known is that France, after the war, only rarely prosecuted Nazi war criminals for crimes committed during the occupation, and that these prosecutions often dishonored the Jewish victims – victims of the insidious French collaboration in deportation and mass murder – as much as of France’s wartime German masters. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the French trial of Klaus Barbie, the notorious “Butcher of Lyons.” The Barbie trial took place between May 11 and July 4 1987.
Though found guilty and sentenced to life in prison (there was no death penalty in France), Barbie succeeded, with undisguised prosecutorial complicity, in blurring the Nuremberg-based charge of “crimes against humanity.” This distortion continues to defile the very memory of justice.
Believing that crimes of war have a statute of limitations, and that crimes against humanity contain no such statute, the French authorities decided to indict Barbie only on the latter charge. This was a big mistake, however, and their elementary factual error led them to treat all of the defendant’s cruelties – deportation-related crimes, and crimes against the Resistance – as qualitatively indistinguishable. According to the authoritative Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity: “…there is no period of limitation for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity.”
There is an irreducible specificity to crimes against humanity; hence, France’s fusion of such crimes with crimes of war had the effect of diminishing the terribly unique fate of French Jews during the Holocaust. After the war, France received survivors and victims of the Resistance as heroes, but generally tried to ignore those who had been known simply as the “racially deported.” These were the ones in “zebra” clothes, the Jews.
This stark dichotomy had substantial consequences. Indeed, on November 11, 1945, Jewish victims were excluded from the mortal remains symbolically reunited around the flame of the Unknown Soldier. It was not until 1954 that a national day was even declared to memorialize “The Deportation.”
An implicit hierarchy of pertinent criminality arose in post-war France, one that elevated the victims of war crimes, i.e., the Resistance, to substantially higher status than that accorded to victims of crimes against humanity. In this vaguely obscene competition of memories, the Barbie trial reinvigorated the hierarchy. Because the French prosecutor believed, erroneously, that crimes of war were bounded by a statute of limitations while crimes against humanity were not so constrained, the magistrate in charge retained only the crimes inflicted upon the Jews.
As for Nazi actions against the fighters of the Resistance, against France’s “authentic heroes,” these were declared off limits to criminal prosecution. Never mind that in 1943, in German-occupied Poland, a tiny handful of beleaguered Jews had held off the extinction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and for an even longer period of time than it had taken France to surrender its entire armies.
First, the grand jury in Lyons confirmed the magistrate’s opinion. But when certain Resistance organizations objected strenuously, the criminal court of appeals, on December 20, 1985, accepted an interpretation of crimes against humanity that was less restrictive. This interpretation, it was agreed, would include crimes committed against the Resistance.
Thereafter, the French definition of crimes against humanity included “inhuman acts and persecutions that, in the name of a state practicing a politics of ideological hegemony, have been committed in a systematic way not only against people by reason of their belonging to a racial or religious group, but also against the opponents of this political system, whatever the form of their opposition.”
This greatly expanded definition of crimes against humanity was very troubling. The French authorities could have avoided blurring the lines between crimes of war and crimes against humanity by recognizing that both penal categories had been unaffected by those statutory limitations pertinent under international law. Failing such recognition, however, they came to sully the memory of the deported French Jews, and trivialized the indisputably core meanings of “humanity.”
There was also something paradoxical in the spectacle of Resistance organizations demanding the broadened view of crimes against humanity. After all, having previously accepted the hierarchic superiority of war crimes, they were now asserting their right to a status that had formerly been rejected as unheroic. “We the victims have never asked to be considered as heroes,” Simone Veil intoned on behalf of the deported, “so why do the heroes now want to be treated as victims?”
The answer was plain. On account of the incorrect presumption that only crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations, the hierarchic ranking of war crimes and crimes against humanity had been surreptitiously inverted by the French criminal justice system. There were palpable consequences.
A result of this inversion, in addition to demeaning the Holocaust and enabling Holocaust denial, was Barbie’s own reversal of the role between defender and accused. If one had listened to Jacques Verges, Barbie’s defense lawyer, not only was the Holocaust a trifling matter of minor significance, but French colonial crimes were even more serious than those of the Nazis. This argument was intended to highlight France’s alleged lack of moral authority to even try Klaus Barbie. Known in law as tu quoque, this corollary defense strategy focused attention on all post-war crimes that had remained unpunished, especially the broadly generic crimes of “imperialism” and “racism” in which France had allegedly been so deeply involved.
In essence, the three lawyers for Barbie – the Congolese M’Bemba, the Algerian Bouaita, and the French-Vietnamese Verges – spoke as delegates of a despised nonwhite humanity, transferring the racism of the crime itself onto the memory of the crime. The six million Jews condemned by the Final Solution, therefore, had no right to any universal commiseration. After all, the Final Solution was simply a family affair, with white prisoners and white executioners. Here, counsel instructed, one could not properly expect sympathies of any kind from the “genuinely oppressed” peoples of the Third World.
More than a quarter-century ago, France’s 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie was notable for the manipulation of convenient Third World rhetoric to defend a notorious Nazi criminal. Rather than allow France, in a very small way, to finally “make up” for its abysmal wartime behavior, it ended up as just one more glaring expression of that country’s documented unconcern for Jewish memory and Jewish justice.
Looking ahead, we can only hope that France will somehow choose not to sacrifice Israel, now arguably, the individual Jew in macrocosm, to the genocide planners in Iran and “Palestine.” Any such glaring sacrifice could represent the ultimate triumph of what the Germans called realpolitik, or power politics, over justice.
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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