Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland By Carmen Callil

The price paid for Hitler's Parrot
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The Independent Culture

Attending Anne's cremation, Callil was surprised to see that the coffin was labelled "Anne Darquier de Pellepoix". She thought little more about it until, a year or so later, watching Marcel Ophuls' documentary of life in France under German Occupation, Le Chagrin et la Pitié, she saw an official of the Vichy government, Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, shaking hands with Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy, and a leading Nazi charged with putting the Final Solution into effect.

Louis Darquier - the rest of the name formed part of an attempt at aristocratic reinvention - was Anne's father. He was also notorious as a leading French anti-semite, a vicious fascist known as the "French Eichmann" who, while Commissioner for Jewish Affairs from 1942 to 1944, was responsible for the rounding up of French Jews for deportation to death in the camps: to Drancy, the northeastern suburb of Paris, where Jews from all over France were filtered, and then transported - usually to Auschwitz.

Darquier, who escaped to Spain after the war, and died there in 1980, avoided trial and execution for his crimes against humanity. Carmen Callil has set herself the task of dealing out retroactive justice, not only for Darquier's heinous actions as a Nazi collaborator, but also for the dark, immovable shadow he cast over his daughter's life.

Born in 1930 in the English village of Old Windsor where her parents were on holiday, Anne Darquier was almost immediately abandoned by her father, and by her mother, Myrtle, a failed actress and singer from Tasmania with equivalent delusions of grandeur to her husband's and a lifelong dependence on the bottle. Instead, she was brought up in Oxfordshire by an English nanny, often in conditions of considerable hardship as the Darquiers were habitually in debt and resistant to pleas that they should send money for their daughter's maintenance. Anne had her own romantic illusions about her French aristocratic father.

When she met him in Madrid in the late 1940s, she returned full of hatred for him. Against all the odds, given her straitened circumstances (though she had the support of her surrogate English family), Anne read medicine at Oxford and became a respected Jungian psychiatrist, in the classic tradition of the wounded healer. For the rest of her life, though, she carried the crimes of her father in silence and in shame. It's Anne's story, skilfully interwoven with that of her father, which provides the beating pulse of Callil's book.

Louis Darquier supported the replacement, by Marshal Pétain's Vichy government, of the traditional maxim of the Revolution, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, with a more nationalistic slogan, Travail, Famille, Patrie. But he was a failure on all three counts: a lazy roughneck who preferred seducing women and enjoying the high life to carrying out his duties; a father, who gave a whole new meaning to the concept of parental neglect; and a Frenchman who sold out on patriotism to become "Hitler's Parrot". From the mid-Thirties, Darquier was firmly in the Nazis' pocket, financed by them and regarded as having "the correct conception of the Jewish question". Darquier's anti-semitism stretches back to his early reading of the late 19th century Jew-hating novels of Alphonse Daudet, and it absorbs a rich seam of warped, rabble-rousing notions from the likes of Charles Maurras and Henry Coston, whose Protocols of the Elders of Zion resounds with the message of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

The Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi described Darquier as "a cowardly and foolish man"; and Callil's account endorses this view of his weakness, and of Darquier's own peculiar banality of evil. Superficially, he is like some Wodehousian buffoon, with a monocle perpetually slotted in his eye, and an absurd conviction of his baronial blood. However, Callil's extensive research, carried out on several continents, confirms once again how the greatest evil can so often originate in the mind of the weak fantasist.

Some readers may baulk at the extent of the annotation and supporting material, in the form of several appendices, that Callil presents, but she is undoubtedly right to include all of it. For, in 1978, Darquier was one of the first so-called "negationists" of the Holocaust. In an interview in L'Express magazine, Darquier showed not only no remorse for the victims of the Final Solution and claimed that the six million dead were "a Jewish invention", he also insisted - bizarrely - that only lice were gassed at Auschwitz.

His remarks caused a national outcry in France and, as Callil says, "the only worthwhile result of Louis Darquier's life", triggered the process by which France joined Germany as the only major belligerent of the war to try its own citizens for crimes against humanity. The Vichy government deported around 75,000 of the 850,000 Jews they believed to be living in France. Over 70,000 were sent to Auschwitz, where well over half of them were gassed on arrival; only 2,564 survivors returned to France. To make up the shortfall in their target numbers, Vichy officials, led by Darquier, separated thousands of children from their parents and exterminated them as well. "The murder of children, like the eating of flesh," writes Callil, "is not easily done." Yet Vichy France managed it.

Bad Faith is a book of passion and anger which, nonetheless, manages to keep its head as a significant work of history. Like most neophyte authors, Callil sometimes throws in more detail than is necessary; occasionally, outside her main focus, she rushes to generalisations that don't bear close scrutiny (in particular, her remarks about France in the Great War). But this is a book of devastating power, written with a novelist's eye for character and with an acute delineation of secrets, loss and grief. I can't remember the last time I read such a moving piece of non-fiction. This week Bad Faith was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. It deserves to win hands down.