France to unlock war archives

August 1, 1997

HISTORIANS will finally gain freer access to French archives on the second world war period during which the Vichy government collaborated with the occupying Nazi authorities.

Prime minister Lionel Jospin promised to ease regulations restricting access to the occupation archives during a ceremony to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the round-up and deportation of thousands of French Jews in Paris.

"The work of historians is essential ... they carry out a fundamental fight for truth against 'the assassins of memory'. Access to archives constitutes an irreplaceable source for their research," Mr Jospin said.

The prime minister announced that a 1979 law on archives would be modified to make access to war-time documents easier.

The issue of access to the Vichy archives has provoked academic discord over recent years. The present system of special authorisations given to individual historians was regularly denounced by eastern Europe specialist Sonia Combe of Nanterre University as a "carrot and stick" method creating an "official version" of history.

Many second world war historians were defensive of existing practices, but when Mrs Combe published Archives Interdites in 1994, there was a growing call for action.

In response, a government inquiry was set up in 1995, which last year recommended shortening the period of confidentiality.

Much of the Vichy archives is held under a special 60-year secrecy period, twice the normal length. That would release some documents in 2004, but many items fall under 100 or 120-year periods of confidentiality for personal data.

The inquiry recommended releasing all documents held under the 60-year period immediately and reducing the normal 30-year delay to 25 years.

Access to archives is only one aspect of the perennially sensitive issue of France's history under occupation. A row between historians has been pursued in the press in recent weeks after war historians questioned former resistance members Lucie and Raymond Aubrac for Liberation newspaper.

The questions focused on challenges to the couple's resistance record in a book, Aubrac: Lyon 1943. Without making specific allegations, the book's linkage of Raymond Aubrac's two escapes from Gestapo custody to the arrest of resistance leader Jean Moulin stirred deep feelings in France.

Other historians protested in Le Monde about what they believed was the unethical nature of the interrogation. "They crossed the yellow line. The historian ... does not have the right to formulate entirely unfounded hypotheses," protested Antoine Prost of the Paris-I Sorbonne University.

The Aubrac furore has revived interest in the resistance and occupation. When students at Lyon III Jean Moulin University organised a talk by Lucie Aubrac and other veterans this summer, more than 400 people attended, forcing a move to a bigger venue. But it took a student protest to force the university, notorious for its far-right links, to allocate a lecture hall.

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