The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Jewish World Review / April 5, 1998 / 9 Nissan, 5758 

William Pfaff 

Great crimes don't require great villians 

PARIS -- The verdict in France's trial of Maurice Papon for complicity
in crimes against humanity -- "guilty," but with a sentence of only ten
years -- was apologetic rather than Solomonic. It followed from the
realization by the jury and by much of the public that they had the
wrong man. 

They wanted a man of recognizable evil, defiant in his crimes or
contemptible in his evasions. What they got was an arrogant old man whose
crime was to have been a careerist. 

While the jury convicted him of the charge that had been brought, they
did not impose the full possible sentence, life imprisonment, nor even
the sentence the prosecutor demanded, 20 years in prison. 

They gave him half that -- although the
distinction is probably without a difference, since the convicted is
87 and his heart is bad. He will not go
to prison until the case has been appealed, which
means that he may never serve the sentence. 

The trial was meant to educate the young about
Vichy and France's implication in the deportation of Jews to the death
camps. It may be questioned whether the education was necessary.
The French by now know all about Vichy. The lesson actually taught was
how complicated history is. 

Maurice Papon's principal defender asked how he
could be the accomplice of a genocide he did not know was being
committed. The defendant himself asked how the prosecution could demand a
penalty of only 20 years when it held him responsible for a crime
against humanity. "Can there be 10, 15, 30, or 60 percent of a crime
against humanity? ... It is all or nothing. Either I am guilty or

Knowledge of genocide thus became an important but misleading issue in
the trial. Some witnesses insisted that Mr. Papon had to have known
what would happen to the deported Jews -- or known enough. 

Some of his contemporaries, who were in the resistance, testified that
they had not known, and that the Gaullist authorities in London did
not know. On the evidence of its conduct, the American embassy to 
Vichy did not know. (The United States recognized the Vichy regime 
as France's legitimate government from the start, and did not formally 
renounce relations until January 1944.) 

The most telling evidence about not knowing was quoted from the late
Raymond Aron, one of the most distinguished modern political thinkers,
himself a Jew, who was in London with de Gaulle. 

He said that, at the time, extermination by the Germans of a whole
category of humanity was unimaginable. Simply because it could not be
imagined, no one imagined it -- not until the Allied armies began to 
overrun the camps in 1945. 

Mr. Papon did not have to know about death camps to know that
something terrible was happening. He knew that these men, women, and
children were selected on ``racial'' grounds to be taken away 
toward something unknown and certainly bad. What was his 
justification for continuing to take part in Vichy's collaboration 
with the Nazis, when what he was doing resulted in self-evident evil? 

He claimed to have been a resister. He said that he was able to do
more for the Nazis' victims, and for the resistance, by staying in
office, than he could have
accomplished by leaving. Some witnesses agreed; some objected. 

When the war was over and the Free French took control, he was
summarily assessed to be fit to remain in the civil service. From that
point, he never looked back,
except once. Many years later, when he had become a candidate for
ministerial office, but rumors of collaboration persisted, he
submitted himself to an informal
"court of honor" of resistance leaders and was passed, but rather

At his trial he claimed to be the victim of a conspiracy, dominated by
the Communists. He had been head of the Paris police late in the war
in Algeria, when Paris
experienced terrorism and riots protesting French policy. He said the
Communists have hated him ever since because as head of the police he
was their most effective enemy. 

He also implied that Jewish organizations are part of the conspiracy,
making a symbol of him, so that in Bordeaux over the past six months
it was not the man who
was being tried but "the myth, elaborated over many years, and by
expert hands!" 

It nonetheless was one of the lawyers for the civil parties associated
with the prosecution, Arno Klarsfeld, himself a Jew, who surprised the
court in his summing-up
by proposing the ten-year sentence, saying that Mr. Papon did not
deserve more. 

This was an implicit acknowledgement that they had the wrong man. They
had an ambitious functionary. Mr. Papon administered a despicable
collaboration with the
Nazis, implementing a self-evidently evil policy of arresting and
deporting people guilty of no crimes, to a fate which, whatever it
was, would certainly be harsh. 

He demonstrated the same amoral detachment and bureaucratic rigor
which all across Europe in the 1940s made the organization and
execution of great crimes
possible. That was the crime proven here, and the lesson taught. It is
a crime that continues to be committed today. The great crimes do not
require great villains.

They are committed by those who do not question.  

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