Obituary: Paul Touvier

Nicholas Atkin
Friday 19 July 1996 23:02 BST

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.

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