In Germany and the countries it occupied, the Nazis had a knack for dredging up and empowering a host of weaselly charlatans, most of whom were inveterate anti-Semites and not a few of whom were degenerates, pimps, pornographers, thieves, or bully boys. But for their viciously effective patrons, most of this crew would have languished at the bottom of Europe’s demimonde. But vaulted to positions of power (at least over the weak), they helped wreak terrible damage.
Louis Darquier, who served from 1942 to 1944 as the commissioner for Jewish affairs in France’s collaborating Vichy government, epitomized these effluvia of Nazi rule. A mountebank (he bestowed upon himself a noble title), an improvident sponger constantly on the run from his creditors, a wife-beating womanizer, and a braggart, the gallivanting, monocled Darquier cut a ridiculous figure even among the rabble of 1930s French far-right anti-Semites.
He had, however, some powerful benefactors even then, including the Nazis, who clandestinely helped fund his Jew-baiting propaganda before the war. After their conquest of France, they elevated him, though they found him an irksome blowhard, and eventually succeeded in foisting him onto the Vichy government, even though Marshal Pétain, its ultratraditionalist head of state, despised him. As a functionary Darquier was indolent and ineffective (and one of the very few who managed to put on weight during the war). He hated Jews, but essentially left the tedious work of administering the Final Solution to France’s highly competent civil servants—most infamously René Bousquet, Vichy’s head of the police, who was later shielded from prosecution by his friend François Mitterrand, the French president. Still, Darquier spearheaded the hateful portrayal of Jews in the media and academe; he also looted Jewish property with abandon and sold certificates of Aryanization to the highest bidder. On his watch France’s Jews were forced to wear the Yellow Star, and 12,884 of them—including 4,051 children—were hunted down in the notorious roundup of July 1942 and sent to internment camps, from which most were ultimately dispatched to their deaths at Auschwitz. After the war he escaped to Spain, where he lived unmolested and unrepentant (he famously told an interviewer that at Auschwitz the Germans had gassed only lice) until his death, in 1980.
Callil, one of Britain’s most lauded editors and publishers, came to her subject in a terrible fashion: as a young, unhappy woman, she was treated by a leading Jungian psychiatrist who, in 1970, killed herself while Callil was under her care. That woman, Callil learned a few years later, was Darquier’s daughter, whom Darquier and his alcoholic Australian wife had abandoned as an infant in England in 1930 during one of their low-life sprees, and who at adolescence had become acquainted with her father’s repugnant past. Callil arrestingly weaves the sad story of Anne Darquier’s ultimately failed efforts to reconcile herself to her Larkinesque condition with the history of Darquier’s grungy life, the chaos and political passions of the waning years of the Third Republic, and the sleazy intrigue and backbiting of the Vichy regime.