Historians in war trial row

November 14, 1997

FUNDAMENTAL differences of opinion on the role of historians in the court room have emerged among academics called to testify at the trial in Bordeaux of Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity during the second world war.

Leading German historian Eberhard Jockel of Stuttgart University refused to be a witness, saying he had carried out his research on the occupation "too long ago". No historian has received a summons to appear.

Henry Rousso, director of the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Present at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, refused to testify "for ethical reasons", adding that this in no way implied criticism of fellow academics who speak in court because there was no written code of conduct on this issue.

A number of historians have been named as witnesses either by the defence, the public prosecutor or civil participants to explain the context in which Papon, a senior aide to an interior ministry official of the Vichy government, is alleged to have played a role in deporting more than 1,500 Jews to Nazi death camps.

First to testify was Vichy specialist Robert Paxton of Columbia University. He said the Vichy regime made the Jewish population much more vulnerable and explained there were very few similar examples in occupied Europe. He remained within his specialist area and never referred to Papon directly. Afterwards he said that he had testified to help set the record straight.

But questions have been raised about the situation of several French historian witnesses who were drawn into making specific deductions about Papon's role.

Dr Rossou said: "One is asked to do the opposite of normal historic deduction, which is to work by analogy from specific documents and cases to build up a general picture. In court, the historian is asked to analyse one individual from what can be said in general about people at that time. There can be no perfect analogy, any individual could be an exception.

"The assize court is no place to develop an historical argument freely. It's striking that the historians have no access to the documents on which the public prosecutor bases the case. So they speak of the general context with no knowledge of its link to the case, yet this is all in the framework of the question: guilty or not guilty."

Witnesses can only submit oral evidence and without notes. "This gives huge weight to performance and rhetorical skills," he added.

Historical evidence is exploited by both sides. Prosecution witness historian Marc-Olivier Baruch, who stressed that Vichy civil servants at the time could find means to disobey, found himself being complimented by Papon for "showing the part played by circumstances, by the environmentI" The civil participants' lawyers have been criticised for trying to force statements out of historians beyond their specialised area.

All this, together with the testimony of defence lawyers such as Henri Amouroux, who insisted that people were totally ignorant of what the Nazis were doing, paints a confusing picture of the period.

More confusion for the public is likely to come, with the testimony of Bordeaux historian Michel Berg s who was at the origin of the prosecution in 1981 when he found archives allegedly implicating Papon. The archives were leaked to the press and triggered the 14-year investigation by magistrates.

Mr Berges, a lecturer at Bordeaux-IV University, supported the positions of Jewish anti-Vichy groups at that time and was a consultant for the civil participants. He split with them when they opposed a second lengthy judicial inquiry into the historical evidence in 1988.

He conducted extensive interviews with Papon earlier this year and now, as a witness for the defence, rubbishes the public prosecution's conclusions about the archives in their possession and claims he will bring new historical evidence that exonerates Papon.

"At the school of magistrates they don't learn how to read archives. Only a historical critique can do that," he said. Berg s, who has been criticised for stepping beyond a strictly academic role, stresses the responsibility of the German occupiers rather than their French collaborators.

Dr Rousso said: "The investigation lasted 14 years. If you'd put three or four historians on to the case to establish the truth, they could have published a dozen books in less time."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments