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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Maths Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an enthusiastic Maths Tea...

Urgently looking for Qualified Teachers and NQT's

£110 - £120 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Urgently looking for Qua...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you that teacher who c...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you that teacher who c...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform