Interviews October 2006

Sorrow Without Pity

Carmen Callil discusses Bad Faith, her unflinching portrait of a fascist Frenchman.

I've lived in Paris for several years now and while reading Bad Faith, I would sometimes put the book down and go outside to see the buildings where events took place—where some of these sinister organizations would meet in the 1930s, and where infamous offices were located during the Occupation. It seems to me that the world looks at the Occupation of France in a kind of historical vacuum, as if 1940 to 1944 were the extent of what they call the Dark Years. But you go to great lengths to document how anti-Semitism was deeply rooted already, and that the 1930s were a sinister time with neo-royalist, anti-republican and fascist zeal. There's not much discussion of that time elsewhere.

I think the 1930s were a crucial period. I did what you did when I was in Paris two or three times; I walked around. That was the only thing I found gruesome. Particularly the avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement, where the Gestapo made its headquarters. I made a map of every place on it, so I know what you mean. You walk around now and you see that there was this office here and that office over there.

Why do you think that in France, where there is a national dialogue about the Vichy years, there is so little discussion of the 1930s and its nationalist and fascist tumult?

I've found it quite tedious to talk about this subject in Britain because they are convinced that the French haven't faced up to their past. I say to them that the Vichy years have been explored in so many books that I can't even think of how many. But what they don't do—or didn't do–was look at it from the underbelly. When you look at it from the point of view of someone like Louis Darquier, you're looking at it as it really was—not from the top down. Secondly, something that really gets me angry is that because we are obsessed with religion, there's a fundamentalist aspect to how we can't accept that we have evil popes. I'm not saying that Pius XII was evil, but you can't even suggest it without people getting hysterical. He was not a good man. He felt he was, but he wasn't. And that's what I say about the French cardinals of the time. What they said was shocking, but nobody will talk about it. I find it baffling.

It seems an accident of history that, due to how World War I ended, it was Germany that allowed for its form of fascism to flourish leading to Hitler, when it seems clear that France, with all of its notorious anti-democratic figures like Francois de la Roque, Charles Trochu, Francois Coty, and organizations like Jeunesse Patriotes, Croix de Feu and Action Francaise among others, could have become a fascist state.

Most people from the 1930s haven't been written about. The French don't write about their scum. In fact, when I went to interview the Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, he told me, "Why are you writing about this awful man Darquier? He doesn't merit anything. It was the Germans that did it." It’s true that the French wouldn't have done as much if the Germans hadn't been around, but the impulse was there.

 What also struck me was that many of these nationalists in the 1930s were openly anti-democratic and even believed that the French revolution shouldn't have taken place. I find it hard to understand how these "leaders" could advocate for a political system contrary to the republic. That's like an American today swearing allegiance to the Confederacy. It would likely be considered treasonous by most Americans. How could these folks still be considered patriots in France?

I think that the French paid an enormous price for the French Revolution. The ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité were a great gift to the world.  But the price the French paid for them was a rift that was never resolved. That's one factor. But then there’s also the excessive reverence the French have for the intellectual. I think it's a flaw in their culture. Take someone like the anti-Semitic and monarchist writer Charles Maurras in the first part of the twentieth century. If you read him, you can't believe the civilized world would take one word of him seriously. But they did, because he was an intellectual.

I think it has something to do with a very complex concatenation of things that probably only applies to France, where the value system of the society blinded them to what hate it gave them toward some their fellow citizens. How could Vichy police chief René Bousquet have killed so many of his own people? It wasn’t just Jews; he was also extremely hostile to communists, as all the Vichy officials were. Now I think there is every reason to be hostile to Stalin—if he came into the room, I'd shoot him. But a French communist, whom these nationalist folks, due to their ignorance, also likely considered as automatically Jewish …the idea that they could kill their own people that way, simply because they were communist, it's really extraordinary.

Though it began in the 1930s with nationalists and fascists, the reality is that the republicans participated as well. Bousquet and Mitterrand were republicans. Bousquet was republican France’s greatest war criminal.

Darquier seems very much a figure like Hitler; a World War I veteran, disgruntled, a failure at his various endeavors, who begins to see the Jews as a scapegoat for social failings and finds success as a rabble rouser spewing hate and attracting ruffians to his cause.

I really tried to explain how everything came from the First World War. When you went into some of those places in the 1930s, in those tiny rooms where people gathered to talk and quarrel, a lot of those men had only one arm or one leg or one eye, or they were orphaned. I think the First World War was particularly cataclysmic for France. They suffered more than anybody and it had a tremendous effect on that generation.

From the archives:

"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church" (October 1999)
A review by James Carroll of Hitler's Pope.

I think that if people had thought more about Spain than Germany, what happened in Vichy would have been more understandable. That whole business of opening your mouth and criticizing the Catholic Church for its role in the last war would have happened. But it didn't. They all thought of Franco as someone living out in the middle of the Mediterranean and never connected him to people like Pétain. This was really Catholic fascism, very much supported by the Church, right up until Franco died. It's never really been condemned. People write books like Hitler's Pope but they don't really get the whole measure of it. The Pope had millions of cardinals following his line.

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Grant Rosenberg lives in Paris where he writes for TIME and other publications.

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