Henri Amouroux

Popular historian of Vichy France
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The Independent Online

Henri Amouroux, journalist and historian: born Périgueux, France 1 July 1920; died Mesnil-Mauger, France 5 August 2007.

The journalist and best-selling writer Henri Amouroux was, in the French public mind, one of the leading authorities on the Vichy era. That reputation largely rested on his 10-volume history, La Grande Histoire des Français sous l'Occupation ("History of France under the Occupation"). The first instalment appeared in 1976, and by the time the last was issued in 1993, the series had reputedly sold over two million copies. It was sometimes unkindly said that his success stemmed from Amouroux's many media contacts, who gave his books plenty of exposure, yet there was no doubting their genuine popularity.

This popularity derived partly from an approachable and conversational prose born of journalistic training. Amouroux did not weigh down his readers with masses of factual information but deftly sifted through this, bringing events to life and communicating a feel for the period. He possessed a particularly good eye for anecdotes, some of which sprang from material volunteered by his readers. It is generally acknowledged, however, that the key reason behind his appeal lay in the sympathetic picture Amouroux drew of the French under the Nazi heel.

For a long time after the Second World War, the so-called "dark years" remained a delicate subject in France, yet in the 1970s and 1980s a new generation of historians who had not directly experienced the Vichy period came to the fore. Taking advantage of the gradual release of state archives, they painted Vichy as a nasty, persecutory regime, all too willing to sidle up to Hitler and surrender Jews, Communists, dissidents, workers, resisters and others to the Nazis. Amouroux drew a gentler picture, which led to suggestions that he was an apologist for the regime.

Though Amouroux found fault in the actions of his compatriots, he was reluctant to pass judgement. He recounted instead the detail of the occupation and the mixed motives of the participants who, he argued, were forced to make decisions in the most gruelling of circumstances.

It was a consoling, non-confrontational interpretation which chimed with that favoured by President François Mitterrand, who had an uncomfortable Vichy past. Amouroux, like Mitterrand, was particularly indulgent of Marshal Pétain, recalling the popularity the old soldier had enjoyed in 1940. The second volume of La Grande Histoire was entitled Quarante millions de pétainistes ("Forty Million Petainists") which upset resisters of the first hour.

His sympathetic treatment of the subject stemmed from his sensibilities as a journalist and correspondence with his readership, letters which he archived in his Paris apartment.

Born at Périgueux in the Dordogne in 1920, Amouroux studied at the prestigious Institut supérieur de journalisme at Paris, and then worked for a news agency, before joining in 1939 the Bordeaux-based newspaper La Petite Gironde. Bordeaux was to become the centre for many collaborationist titles, and La Petite Gironde was chastised for its Pétainist views and decision to continue publishing throughout the occupation.

Amouroux, however, claimed that he contributed nothing of a political nature to the paper during this period, and joined the influential Resistance network, Jade Amicol, which fed intelligence to London. At the Liberation, he was awarded the Croix de guerre, 1939-45.

After the war, Amouroux continued his journalistic career, relaunching La Petite Gironde as Sud-Ouest, for which he worked until 1974. That year he took charge of the national daily France Soir, and from 1977 to 1982 was co-director and editor of Rhône-Alpes. A prominent radio and television broadcaster, in 1978, he was elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, becoming president in 1990. He also presided over the jury of the prestigious journalism award the Prix Albert Londres.

Throughout this time Amouroux wrote widely on world affairs, as well as finding time to compose La Grande Histoire. In 1986, he published the first biography of Giscard's prime minister, Raymond Barre (Monsieur Barre, 1986), and earlier this year authored a study of de Gaulle, Mitterrand and Chirac (Trois fins de règne; The End of Three Reigns). Towards the end of his life, he revisited the Vichy period, exploring the deep-seated tensions that had exploded during the war years.

In 1997, he was caught in a public furore when he appeared at the trial of Maurice Papon, the Vichy functionary and Gaullist civil servant, who was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. Controversially, the trial called on historians to testify, including Amouroux, who was summoned for the defence.

In the course of his submission, he was accused of collaborationist sympathies, a charge he bitterly refuted, later winning a case for defamation. At the time, Amouroux also expressed his displeasure at the critical ways in which certain non-French historians had written about his country's wartime past.

Independent-minded and disinclined to judge the behaviour of his compatriots, Amouroux occasionally drew the scorn of academic historians and former resisters, but his formidable abilities as a researcher were not questioned and his writings went some way in reconciling a hesitant French public with an uncomfortable past.

Nicholas Atkin