"The Past Doesn't Pass" - A German Look At France's Nazi Collaboration

French President François Hollande (center) at the Drancy Memorial inauguration
French President François Hollande (center) at the Drancy Memorial inauguration
Johannes Wetzel

Contemporary French historian Henri Rousso’s seminal book Syndrome de Vichy (The Vichy Syndrome) came out in 1987. Its subject was the way the French dealt with the Nazi occupation, and it in Rousso coined an iconic phrase: “The past that does not pass...”

Now, however, Rousso says, "The past is past. It’s not forgotten, but it has finally found its place."

As late as President François Mitterrand’s administration (1981-1995) this part of France’s national story was being denied, and Gaullist doctrine, born of the wish for reconciliation – "Pétain’s Vichy was not France" -- prevailed. France had moved to London with Charles de Gaulle and was not responsible for what happened back home.

It was not until 1995 that there was finally an official admission from Mitterrand’s successor Jacques Chirac of French complicity in what is known as the "rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv" (the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup) in Drancy. On July 16, 1942, the French, complying with German orders, rounded up 13,152 Jews in Paris and locked them up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver indoor bicycle race track and nearby Drancy internment camp, before the detainees were transported by rail for extermination at Auschwitz. Referring to that shocking day, Chirac said, “France, on that very day, committed the irreparable.”

Now, 70 years after the fact, François Hollande, angering some neo-Gaullists, repeated Chirac’s admission when he said at the 2012 memorial:

“The truth is that French police -- on the basis of the lists they had themselves drawn up --undertook the arrest of thousands of innocent people, who were trapped on July 16, 1942. The French gendarmerie escorted them to the internment camps. The truth is that no German soldiers -- not a single one -- were mobilized at any stage of the operation. The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France.”

Some two months later, Hollande inaugurated the Mémorial de la Shoah à Drancy, as the memorial center overlooking the former camp north of Paris is known. It was a recognition that this past had finally found its place in the collective French consciousness.

The center, designed by Swiss architect Roger Diener, overlooks the huge, horseshoe-shaped housing project called the Cité de la Muette, which was requisitioned by the Nazis from 1941 until 1944 as an internment, then transit camp for Jewish prisoners. Of the 76,000 Jews deported to extermination camps from March 1942, 63,000 passed through here. The facility was under French control until June 1943, when Alois Brunner, a German SS officer, took over as head of the camp.

The Cité de la Muette was reconverted to public housing not long after the end of the war, and no memorial of any sort existed until 1976. In 1980, a cattle car was installed to serve as a reminder of the way the prisoners were transported from the two nearby train stations to their deaths in concentration camps.

In September, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also dedicated the new Mémorial du camp des Milles (Milles Camp Memorial) near Aix-en-Provence. The Milles camp is the only internment and deportation camp still standing in France today, of the over 200 of them that existed between 1938 and 1946.

The Milles camp was in use from the declaration of war until a few weeks before German troops invaded the unoccupied southern half of France, then known as the “free zone.” As the Prime Minister put it, it was "under French orders from September 1939 to September 1942."

Altogether, 10,000 people are said to have transited the former brick factory of the Milles camp. Many German refugees were interned here as “enemy aliens,” including historian Golo Mann, writers Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Hessel and Alfred Kantorowicz, and artists Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer. Expressionist poet Walter Hasenclever took his own life here in 1940.

Later the site served the Vichy regime as an internment camp, and in July 1942, the the 2,000 Jewish men, women and children delivered to Drancy by the Laval government passed through the Milles camp.

The impetus for the President Chirac’s 1995 speech came from an American, Robert Paxton, a political scientist and historian whose specialty was Vichy France. His1972 book Vichy France, Old Guard and New Order: 1940-1944 was translated into French in 1973. That began a reconsideration that accelerated in the 1980s, when younger historians started to take a closer look at the generally accepted French view, rose-tinted by the cult of Gaullist and Communist resistance heroes, that had prevailed since the amnesty of Nazi collaborators in the 1950s.

Private initiatives

It was also in the 1980s, as historians became interested in the Holocaust and the public learned more about it, that private initiatives were launched to preserve "Les Milles," which had reverted to being a brick factory; it remained in use as one until 2006.

Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974) was one of the first French movies to touch on French collaboration with the Nazis. French movies dealing with the subject since then include Claude Lanzmann’s epoch-making documentary movie Shoah (1985) and Roselyne Bosch’s 2010 feature film La Rafle, starring Mélanie Laurent, Jean Reno and Gad Elmaleh.

After Chirac’s "admission of guilt" in the name of France came a stream of apologies, including from French churches. More memorials, commemorations and research were to follow, thanks to private initiatives like that of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who founded the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported From France.

The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, founded in 2000 with a capital of 393 million euros, was funded from assets confiscated from Jews by the French state and unclaimed Jewish bank accounts. This made it possible to continue and expand on the work of an existing Parisian memorial called the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial).

It is this foundation that, with the victims' own money, financed the Drancy memorial center.

Seventeen years after Chirac’s speech, historian Annette Wieviorka says, "Accounts have been settled." They have been settled legally, with the 1998 conviction of Maurice Papon, head of the Paris police during the Nazi occupation, for crimes against humanity. And they have been settled financially since 1999, when the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Through Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation (CIVS) -- known as the Drai Commission -- came into being. This was followed in 2000 by a decree stipulating that anyone whose parents were deported from France as part of the anti-Semitic persecutions during the Occupation and who died during the deportation is entitled to reparations. French archives for the period 1940-1945 were made fully available for public consultation in 1997.

All this commemoration work is bearing fruit. According to a poll, about half of the French under the age of 35 have heard of the "Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’," a result historians say is respectable.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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