Recent allegations that high-ranking ecclesiastics shielded Paul Touvier, Vichy's famous milicien, have reawakened interest in the role played by the churches during the annees noires of French history. This magnificent book, the first in either French or English to provide an overall assessment of the attitudes and activities of Christians during the occupation, presents a more measured picture.
Initial Catholic enthusiasm for Vichy is indisputable. After years of declining religious attendances and state laicite, Henri Philippe Petain offered a return to traditional values. Thus Catholic leaders, although wary of the German presence, readily committed themselves to his regime. Few remarked that France's new leader, the "homme providentiel", was an 84-year-old roue, married to a divorcee, who preferred organ concerts on the radio to mass. Protestants, too, were enthusiastic about Petain, but a history of religious persecution made them apprehensive about his government. Rightly so. Clerical interests benefited little. By 1941 Christians were already troubled that the etat francais was fast becoming the etat policier.
The decisive turning-point in Christian attitudes came in 1942 when Vichy intensified its anti-Semitic legislation. Soon after, French labour was deported to Germany. Blinded by their adulation of Petain, overly respectful of civil authority, ever fearful of Bolshevism and lacking a clear lead from the Vatican, members of the Catholic hierarchy - with some notable exceptions - failed to denounce these reactionary measures outright. It was thus left to Protestants and elements of the Catholic laity and lower clergy to make a stand. In 1944 this opposition, which occasionally took the form of armed resistance, facilitated a reconciliation between Catholics and de Gaulle, and discouraged the provisional government from attempting a wholesale epuration of Catholic prelates.
As the sole French institutions to have emerged from the collapse of 1940 virtually intact, both the Catholic and Protestant churches could have been more active in combating Nazism. But, as Halls argues, French Christians formed a key interest group in resisting the totalitarian tendencies sweeping their country. Maybe such conclusions will persuade the French Catholic Church to open fully its wartime archives. Even when these sources are available, it will be difficult to better the thorough and dispassionate scholarship presented here.
Nicholas Atkin is lecturer in history, University of Reading.
Politics, Society and Christianity in Vichy France
Author - W. D. Halls
ISBN - 1 85973 071 X and 081 7
Publisher - Berg
Price - £49.95 and £17.95
Pages - 419