Nearly 70 years to the day since the passage of a pivotal anti-Semitic law in Vichy-occupied France, new evidence about who drafted the law is transforming some historians’ views of France’s wartime head of state, Philippe Petain.
Until now the Oct. 3, 1940 law—dubbed the Statute of Jews and legislating anti-Jewish discrimination that went above and beyond the demands of France’s Nazi occupiers—was believed widely to have been the brainchild of at least two French ministers and their collaborators.
But the discovery of an early draft of the law, donated anonymously to the Paris Holocaust Memorial, has shed some new light on the matter. The draft is a marked-up, undated five-page document with modifications to the law scribbled in red and black ink that call for more stringent measures against Jews than contained in the original, typed draft.
Historians do not contest the authenticity of the document, but experts disagree on who authored the edits.
Did Petain himself handwrite the corrections, providing unprecedented confirmation and new clues about the Vichy leader’s personal anti-Semitic zeal? Or did technocrats simply jot down demands from one or several other leaders bent on toughening the text during a Cabinet meeting devoted to the law two days before its enactment?
Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer who brought former Nazis and collaborators to trial, as well as the president of an association for children of deported French Jews, maintains that the edits are in the hand of Petain.
Klarsfeld calls the finding a “historic” confirmation that Petain, then 84, was not a senile puppet of Nazi Germany, as some have argued, but an active promoter of Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism.
“The general defense of Petain makes him out as an aging man, dominated by his entourage, without possessing all his mental capacity,” Klarsfeld told JTA. “Now we see very well that it was his desire to make these remarks.”
Petain “aligns himself with Nazi, racial ideology because he esteems it’s in the interest of France,” Klarsfeld said. “And he himself is ultimately anti-Semitic.”
Klarsfeld was charged with determining the authenticity of the document for the Paris Holocaust Memorial after its anonymous donation. He said each of the handwritten letters on the document were compared to other writings by Petain, and that handwriting experts would continue to examine the document.
Yet days after the announced discovery, other historians in France remain divided over the document’s origins and significance.
“Even if it was the hand of Petain, we don’t have information on the conditions in which he made these corrections to the statute,” said Annette Wieviorka, a leading French historian on the era. “We don’t know if he was alone, or if it’s his own work.”
Wieviorka said younger historians debating “the degree of the German influence on this statute” question whether Nazis pressured French leaders during the creation of the law, contradicting established views that Vichy leaders acted alone in formulating the anti-Jewish measure.
The handwritten edits on the newly discovered document expanded the category of jobs forbidden to Jews, ensuring that Jews no longer could be elected to public office or work in public education. The original draft only barred them from certain top level administrative and educational posts.
The changes also cross out with a series of quick strokes a loophole that would have exempted from the law “descendants of Jews born French or naturalized before 1860.”
In the past, some have argued that Petain occasionally and passively tried to protect native-born French Jews. Mounting evidence, however, has changed the historical view of Petain.
Testimony from a Cabinet minister from the period suggested that Petain played a particularly severe role in the making of the Statute of Jews, pushing in particular for Jews to be prevented from teaching in public schools.
He believed in “a traditional form of anti-Semitism in the sense that for him, the Jews are not really French,” said Laurent Joly, associated with France’s National Scientific Research Center and a French historian on the Vichy era.
Joly said it’s not clear to him whether the edits on the document actually are in Petain’s hand. The detailed corrections seem too focused on minutiae to have come from the nation’s leader, Joly said, asserting that Petain likely would only have given “general directions.”
Yet Joly said he believes that Petain helped make the law more anti-Jewish.
“The reality here seems to me that instructions by Petain were given and were written by a technocrat,” he said, adding that “It doesn’t matter whether it is his handwriting or not, we can see his state of mind.”
In any case, Joly said, few French today defend Petain.
“The thesis of Petain as a scapegoat is out of style,” he said. “Today the French feel that Petain was an evil for France.”