Obituary: Paul Touvier

Recent attempts by Jewish and resistance organisations in France to bring war criminals such as Klaus Barbie, Rene Bousquet and Maurice Papon to justice have served to highlight the Vichy government's complicity in the Holocaust. The death of the former Vichy official Paul Touvier in a Paris prison will inevitably reopen the debates about the Nazi occupation of France, especially the ambivalent role played by the Catholic Church.

Surveying his pre-1940 career, there is little surprise that Touvier should have been drawn to Vichy. Born near Nice in 1915, he was part of a fiercely Catholic and anti-Republican family. Already displaying anti- Semitic prejudice, in 1936 he joined the extreme right-wing Parti Social Francais. In 1939 he was enlisted into the army, and saw service in Norway where he was wounded. Disorientated by shell-shock, he was suspected of desertion and only narrowly escaped prosecution, his first brush with French justice.

On returning to France, he joined the newly created Legion Francais des Combattants, a servicemen's organisation which was designed to propagate Vichy's National Revolution values of "travail, famille, patrie", and keep a close watch on subversive behaviour. As public disenchantment with Vichy grew and resistance became more widespread, the Legion moved in a more sinister direction and established a paramilitary wing, the Service d'Ordre Legionnaire. In 1943, under the guidance of the distinguished First World War hero Joseph Darnand, the SOL became the infamous Milice Francaise. In its brief existence, it recruited some 30,000 young toughs whose job it was to help the Germans root out resisters, Jews and those fleeing Vichy's compulsory work service in the Reich.

Dedicated to the Nazi cause and imbued with a hatred of Bolshevism, Touvier had no compunction in serving both the SOL and the Milice. He became head of the intelligence and operations sections of the Milice in Savoy, and then in the Rhone, where he worked alongside Klaus Barbie, "the butcher of Lyons". Touvier soon earned a similar sobriquet, "the hangman of Lyons", and in January 1944 was involved in the murder of Victor Basch, the former president of the Human Rights League which in the 1890s had rallied to the defence of Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain falsely accused of treason.

For this and other crimes, in 1946 and 1947 courts in Lyons and Chambery sentenced Touvier to death in absentia. Like many other former collaborators, he was able to escape justice by going underground. What made his case unusual was the assistance he received from the Catholic Church. Up to 1989 he took refuge in a series of monasteries run by fundamentalist Catholics; it is alleged he even received support from officials within the archbishop's palace at Lyons. When in 1983 the satirical journal Le Canard Enchainee alluded to "an ecclesiastical connection", the Church was overcome with embarrassment and eventually conducted its own inquiry into the affair. For a long time, French Catholics had been sensitive to suggestions that they had actively collaborated during the war. In truth, only a small number, including Touvier, ever threw their lot in with the Germans, and several members of the laity and lower clergy played a part in both spiritual and armed resistance. Yet a sizeable proportion of the hierarchy, notably Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons, never entirely relinquished their initial enthusiasm for Petainism.

It was, in part, thanks to clerical pressure that in 1971 President Pompidou granted Touvier a pardon. It had been hoped that this act would go unnoticed, yet Pompidou had misjudged the public mood. The pardon came hard on the heels of Marcel Ophuls' film The Sorrow and the Pity which documented the wartime experiences of Clermont- Ferrand. Confronted by public demonstrations, Pompidou meekly responded by pointing out that the statute of limitations on Touvier's death penalty had expired in 1967 and that he was still subject to a "civil death" in that he had lost a number of civil rights.

This was small comfort to resistance and Jewish organisations which, throughout the 1970s, campaigned to prosecute Touvier for "crimes against humanity", a charge unaffected by presidential pardons. With the successful prosecution of Klaus Barbie in 1987, the writing was on the wall, and two years later Touvier was arrested at a Catholic priory near Nice. After much legal wrangling, some of it engendered by President Mitterrand, himself a former Vichy official, Touvier appeared in the dock in 1994. Among other things, he was charged with an attack on a Jewish synagogue and the execution of seven Jews at Rillieux-la-Pape. In his defence, he claimed that he had only been acting under orders and, by permitting the execution of seven people, had saved the lives of others. Whatever the truth of this, there was no doubting that Touvier remained an anti-Semite of conviction, and in the 1980s he gave a series of interviews in which he did not disguise his racism. Admittedly he was only a small cog in the Holocaust in France, but without the ready compliance of officials like himself it is unlikely that as many as 75,000 Jews would have been deported from France to the death camps in the East. Of this figure, barely 2 per cent returned alive.

When Touvier was sentenced to life imprisonment, his children requested a pardon from President Chirac on the grounds that he was dying from cancer; their request was refused. One of Touvier's last acts was to wed, by a civil ceremony, the woman he had first married in church while on the run in 1947, Monique Berthet. His first wife had died in 1938.

It is a grim irony that Paul Touvier should have died in the prison hospital at Fresnes, the same prison which during the Occupation witnessed the torture and execution of resisters.

Nicholas Atkin

Paul Touvier, political activist and militia man: born Chambery, France 3 April 1915; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Paris 17 July 1996.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam