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The French Catholic Church And Antisemitism During The Second World war

I will rely here on various books on the history of the Vichy regime. All the works I will
mention are serious and honest. However, while putting the stress on such or such angle, it happens
that their conclusions may diverge sensibly.
After the brief introduction on historiography, I will deliver a few historical markers, while
analyzing more specifically the attitude of the French Catholic church facing antisemitism during
the Second World War. I will then conclude with a particular case.

1) Historiography

In the fifties, the stress was put on the German constraints applied on Vichy and on the need for
unity. For example in the lenient book Robert Aron wrote in 1954, La France de Vichy.
In 1972, the American historian, Robert Paxton, wrote another La France de Vichy. A few years
after the movie, The Sorrow and the Pity, he opinion was discovering or rediscovering the French
antisemitism. In 1983, Paxton deepened his thesis that the French antisemite legislation anticipated
the German requirements.
Reacting to certain schematizations of Paxton, several authors such as Jean-Paul Cointet or
François-Georges Dreyfus (books published in 1996), considered useful to show the complexity and
permeability of the sociology and the political tendencies in both Vichy and the Resistance.
During the last twenty years, other historians have been dealing with more focused aspects of the
Vichy regime: the public opinion (Laborie, 1990), or its historiography (Henry Rousso, 1987).
More recently, two books brought up the topic of the salvation of Jews and the role of the church
therein (Sylvie Bernay, 2012; Jacques Semelin, 2013).

As far as events are concerned, Vichy’s antisemitic policy can be divided in two periods, before and
after the great roundabouts in the Summer 1942.

2) 1940-1942: The first and the second « Jewish Status », administrative custody

Dated 3rd of October 1940 and 2nd of June 1941, the two laws on the Jewish Status contained two
main sections, the one defining the population concerned and the other defining the constraints
imposed on them. As far as the constraints are concerned, the first law mainly forbid the public
service high positions and the education sector, as well as several profession of the cultural sector.
The second law extended the ban to the finance and the property sectors, while it also imposed
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(very low) quotas on professionals, craftsmen, and commercial and industry professions. As far as
the definition of the Jew is concerned, the first law imposed a purely racial definition. The second
law added a religious criteria, though not exempting the converted; quite to the contrary, it seems
the adjustment was made for clarity matters. Besides, several cases of exemptions were provided,
targeting mainly the war veterans. The racist factor was indeed counterbalanced by a patriotism.
During this first period, prefects were furthermore allowed to jail foreign Jews in special camps.
As noted by Paxton, « most books wrongly considered that all these steps were imposed by
Germany (1). » Paxton insists, on the contrary, on the autonomy of Vichy, which started
implementing its antisemitic policy earlier than any order coming from Berlin. Thus he brings up
the presence at Vichy of the far right ideas, as they had especially crystallized at the time of the
Affaire Dreyfus at the turn of the century.
Paxton’s works sparked reactions. Historians such as Jean-Paul Cointet showed the
complexity of political commitments in 1940, of the right and of the left, especially among the men
of Vichy. In another spirit, Gérard Noiriel denounced what he called the « republican origins of
Vichy », that is the progressive implementation, well before Vichy, of a special class of foreign
citizens, even when naturalized (2).
In 1940 and 1941, the two first Status did not arouse official reaction from the Church. The
only personality who protested publicly was the pastor Marc Boegner, president of the French
protestant federation. Yet, while being « viscerally philosemite », Boegner was to remain a steadfast
support of Marshall Pétain (3). In his History of the Resistance (1996), François-Georges Dreyfus
defends somehow the Church, stressing that no laic personality either reacted (4). However, the
Church has special duties in terms of moral questions, and also enjoyed relatively unspoiled
authority. It could for example successfully oppose Vichy’s attempt to create a single youth
movement (5). One can ask himself what would have been the attitude of the government, were the
Church to protest against the Jewish Status.
The atmosphère was not to protestation, but to contrition. A general contrition which the
Church willingly joined. As Pétain said himself: « the spirit of enjoyment has (too long) prevailed
over the spirit of sacrifice ». The Church could see in the so-called National Revolution a way to
apply the third way program which it used to dream of, combining corporatism and a vision of
community. This strange blindness was encouraged by the traditional loyalty of the Church toward
the State as well as that of the faithful toward their hierarchy, particularly at a time of crisis.
Furthermore, the support to the Vichy regime might have contained an ambition of self-fulfilling
prophecy, along the line of the Vatican attitude, which favored diplomacy and prudence to any
frontal opposition.

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However, a few catholic raised their voice, particularly in Lyon where the first signs of the
so called « spiritual resistance » were opening up around Father Chaillet. We’ll speak about him
later.

3) The turning point in 1942

We’re used to locate the turn of the war in 1942, between the American war industry’s rise and the
battle of Stalingrad. As far as France is concerned, 1942 is also a turning point. On the 8th of
November, the allies landed in North Africa. On the 10th, the German army invaded the Southern
zone of France, which had so far been directly administrated by Vichy. In domestic politics, this
turn followed the great roundabouts of the Summer, that of the Vel’ d’hiv in Paris, on the 16th-17th
July, gathering 22 000 people, and that in the Southern zone, on the 27th-28th August, gathering
7000 people. The French police participated to those operations. It seems Vichy willingly took part
because of its obsession for maintaining its sovereignty over the whole territory of France (6).
However, reasoning sometimes leads to absurdity or cynicism. Thus the chief of the government,
Pierre Laval, was going to claim on his trial after the war that he had ordered children to be arrested
for « human reasons », as he didn’t want to have families parted (7). He said he wished to « avoid
the worse (8). »
On the 29th of May 1942, the Germans had introduced the yellow star in the Northern zone.
Vichy did not. Furthermore, having felt the opinion turn after the roundabouts of the Summer,
Vichy began to slow down, as it appears in the archives of the Wilhelmstrasse (9). However,
deportations from France continued until 1944.
Before studying the question of the opinion and of the reaction of the church, we need to
take stock of the deportations, as it was finalized by Serge Klarsfeld. The number of Jews living in
France before the war is estimated at 330 000, of which 200 000 had the French nationality. The
persecutions made 80 000 victims, of which 24 500 were French and 56 500 were foreigners (10).

4) Reaction of the Church

In his conclusion, Paxton doesn’t mention the church among factors working against persecutions in
France. In his mind, mountains and forests were more relevant (11). However, in the course of his
book, he recognizes that Vichy « considered the opinion of the French people and the opposition of
the church (12). » Moreover, according to him, Vichy’s policy aggravated the fate of Jews in
general, rather than eased it (13). It is difficult to draw univocal conclusions from all this. In fact, it
is sometimes difficult to distinguish opinions on Vichy and those on the church, because we’re used
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to consider Vichy as a clerical regime. Thus, also, authors who are the most sensitive to the positive
role of the church are often those who tend to nuance – not deny ! – responsibilities of Vichy.
Jacques Semelin, who wrote on the mutual aid within the occupied France, asserts that
« maintaining a State apparatus in France (Vichy) had a positive effect on the survival of Jews in
France (15). » Total contradiction with Paxton. While François-Georges Dreyfus emphasized that it
was indeed the Catholics, « who raised the most the attention on the nazi danger. » Conscient that
his affirmation might astound his readers, he goes on : « some will say that I’m overstating: I’m not
sure they’re right (16). » Finally, another historian, Pierre Laborie, recalls the synchronization
between the French opinion and that of the catholic (and protestant) church, whose protests
smashed the « complicity of silence » in 1942 (17).
What were those protests? The one of the Assembly of cardinals and archbishops, delivered
to Pétain on the 22nd of July, was not made public. On the other side, during the Summer, several
high prelates delivered individual declarations which were read on Sunday by their diocese clergy.
Namely, between the 20th August and the 20th September, Mgr Saliège in Toulouse, Mgr Théas in
Montauban, Mgr Delay in Marseille, Mgr Gerlier in Lyon, Mgr Mousseron in Albi. One fourth of
the whole Southern area bishops protested. Jacques Semelin stresses that Mgr Saliège’s declaration,
in particular, « had a multiplying effect » and even « an international dimension », as the New York
Times referred to it (18). Sylvie Bernay states that the catholic church intended to alert the opinion
(19), emphasizing that individual declarations were not individual initiatives, but were the result of
concertations, notably with the nuncio, Valerio Valeri (20). Indeed, those reactions didn’t remain
without consequence. Germans noticed « a lively effervescence among the Catholics and within the
religious cercles (21). » In Vichy, a member of the Marshall’s secretariat wrote in his diary: « if we
now become in the free zone (Southern) accomplices of the German persecutions, the catholic
clergy will give up its loyalty (22). » Even to a Hungarian journalist, György Ottlik, who visited
France at that time, Pétain spontaneously brought up the subject of deportations. « This prouves –
says Ottlik – the extent to which this problem hauts them, touches them and even hurts them
deeply, and finally forms the determinant factor of the current political atmosphere in France. »
Ottlik also reports that Pétain added with temper « I’m acting in the interest of France, and look
how the French clergy turns against me (23)! »
Sylvie Bernay, who wrote a thesis on the reaction of the French catholic church to the
persécutions, proposes the following chronology: first a « time of withdrawal » until the Autumn
1941, then a period of hesitation following the second Status, while the tools for assistance to the
persecuted were also being drafted, then public protestations during the Summer 1942, prepared by
earlier, underground and isolated actions since 1940. Finally comes what she calls the « time of
rescue », that is shelters in monasteries and families or escaping channels.
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One thing, surely, curbed the action of the Church as well as the French opinion, this is the
distinction between the French and the foreign Jews, or the illusion that such distinction shall be
made. This reality, however, was already brought up between the two wars by novelists such as
Joseph Roth (24). Indeed, Vichy’s high officers defended themselves after the war by saying they
had tried to save the French Jews to the detriment of the others (25). Even the Chief of the central
Israelite consistory, Jacques Helbronner, who died in a death camp in 1943, was stuck a long time
in this trap. About the deportations of foreign Jews in 1942, he feared that « if we raised the
question, similar measures could be taken against the “French Israelites” (26). » One can also argue
that distinguishing was not necessarily ranking, but simply taking into account a situation and trying
to make the best of it. Moreover, numbers are eloquent: the survival rate within the foreign Jews is
57%, and it exceeds 90% for French Jews.
The words of the consistory chief are to be found in the book of François-Georges Dreyfus.
They were pronounced in the office of cardinal Gerlier, in presence of father Chaillet who was
precisely asking for official reaction against the first roundabouts of foreign Jews. It brings us back
to those who already in 1940 were working at enlightening the opinion. In particular to this jesuit
priest with whom we’ll end this paper.

5) Father Chaillet between Hungary and France

Father Chaillet is the symbol of the so called spiritual resistance. He was admitted within the
Righteous among the nations. With te pasteur Boegner, he founded in 1941 the Amitiés chrétiennes
(Christian Friendship) which supported refugees. He was also the founder of the Cahier du
témoignage chrétien, underground journal which circulation reached 120 000. The first issue,
published in December 1941, titled: « France, beware of loosing your soul! » Further issues dealt
with racisme, antisemitism.
Father Chaillet had had a direct experience of nazism in Germany and in Austria after the
Anschluss. In 1939, he wrote L’Autriche souffrante (Suffering Austria). When the war broke out, he
enlisted in the secret services and was dispatched in Hungary with the mission to contact Hungarian
antinazi milieus.
As soon as he arrived in Budapest, in October 1939, he met a key personality of the
Hungarian propaganda sensitive to the dialogue with the Western powers, Joseph Balogh, redactor
in chief of the Nouvelle revue de Hongrie and of the Hungarian Quarterly (27). The main target of
Chaillet, as it appears in articles he published under a pseudonym in the French press, was to
maintain the neutrality of Hungary (28). In December 1939 (that is: after the second Hungarian
antisemite law), he praised count Teleki, whose gravitas was in contrast with the general cowardice.
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Even Imrédy, for him, was « a sincere catholic and a dedicated Hungarian. » Chaillet, it seems, was
at that time ready to go far in the compromise in order to save what was to be saved.
The turn in his mind seems to have happened during the Summer, after the French collapse.
In September, he refused to endorse the second Vienna award in the columns of the Nouvelle revue
de Hongrie (29). He was soon after recalled in France by his superior in the Society of Jesuits (30).
A testimony from a companion, in the train and the boat from Belgrade to Marseille via
Constantinople, shows him as: « having decided to stand against all injustice and ready to act for the
sole truth, […] be it that he appears intolerant (31). » This new attitude contradicted his whole
strategy in Hungary. We know what happened then. Father Chaillet entered the resistance and
contributed significantly to the awareness of the French catholic opinion.
What father Chaillet hold from his experience in Hungary? I’m tempted to think it was for
him the end of illusion. He went to the end of his Hungarian dream, a mysterious dream, because it
is difficult to insert in his own intellectual and ideological course, between the denunciation of
nazism in the thirties and resistance in the forties.
Finally, one can say that in Hungary – proportion wise, of course, because deportations in
Hungary started only two years later – one can say father Chaillet saw Vichy before Vichy, he saw
in advance and in real terms what was the meaning of segregating a part of the population.
Yet only the concussion of the French defeat achieved to raise his awareness. His own
patriotism made him react. As would say his companion on the journey back to Marseille, end
1940, he intended now to obey the « purest patriotism (32). » From his experience, one can learn
that compassion toward the foreigners does not contradict patriotism. Another thing to learn is that
the search for true and genuine information are at the origin of awareness.

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