The villain of Vichy France
A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland
by Carmen Callil
Jonathan Cape / Random House
Paperback: 444 pages
There are few people, in the experience of this reviewer, who are truly evil or who have few, if any, positive qualities. One such person, however, is Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Nazi collaborator and Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in the French wartime Vichy regime.
The author Carmen Callil first became interested in Darquier’s life story when she discovered the family background of her psychiatrist Anne Darquier (Louis and Myrtle’s only child) who died from an overdose of pills.
Louis Darquier, the son of a provincial doctor, was born in Cahors, in south-west France, in 1897, one of three brothers. After completing his education, he served in the French Army, earned a commission, but was dishonourably discharged from the Army at the end of World War I.
As a young man, he already manifested some of his notorious traits. Entering the business world, he engaged in fraud and eventually found himself without any stable employment.
He moved to London and tried to eke out a living writing articles and soliciting money from family members. During this period, he met and formed a liaison with Myrtle Workman (neé Jones), a failed actress and singer from Tasmania. Whether the pair ever married is uncertain, as there is no evidence of a marriage, nor did Louis nominate Myrtle as his next-of-kin when he re-enlisted in the French Army in World War II.
Louis impressed Myrtle with his claim to be a French baron, adding “de Pellepoix” to his surname, thus claiming to be a descendant of an aristocratic family – a pretence both he and Myrtle retained to the end.
Moving back to Paris in the early 1930s, Louis became actively involved in extreme right-wing French politics. He became an associate of Charles Maurras, the leader of Action Française and took part in far right-wing demonstrations against the republic on February 6, 1934.
Louis was to establish and assist with a number of publications, all of which peddled a similar, mind-boggling and abhorrent ideology: France had been financially and socially ruined by Jews, who worked through groups such as freemasons and communists to achieve their ends.
The Third Republic was supposedly controlled by these groups which needed to be removed. However, some of Darquier’s associates on the extreme right were wary of him when it became known that he was receiving secret funds from Nazi Germany to promote his ideas.
Although the Darquier couple outwardly maintained their relationship, it seems Myrtle did not live with Louis for lengthy periods, as his family disapproved of her (most likely on account of her previous marriage and her alcoholism), and made Louis’s living apart from her a condition of financial assistance.
The couple’s return to Paris involved abandoning their daughter Anne, who was raised in England by her nanny Elsie, with funds intermittently being received from the Darquiers. While Anne was to establish a successful career as a psychiatrist, the trauma of her upbringing was to contribute to her early death at the age of 40.
Upon the German defeat of France and the establishment of the Vichy regime, Darquier was appointed Commissioner of Jewish Affairs. In this capacity, he was responsible for rounding up 13,000 Jews, then living in France, and sending them to Nazi extermination camps. A third of the victims were children.
Paradoxically, neither Vichy officials nor the Nazis thought highly of Darquier as he quarrelled with other officials, was work-shy and liked instead to spend his time living the high life with money he had stolen from victims.
Louis was never to be brought to justice. When France was liberated, he escaped to Spain where he and Myrtle lived for the rest of their lives. He lived to a ripe old age, denying to his dying day both the Holocaust and his role in it.
Carmen Callil’s book provides a fascinating portrait of Vichy France, whose legitimacy, under the autocratic rule of the elderly Marshal Pétain, was accepted by many of the French people, at least for the first two years.
The process of rounding up Jews is also examined. It is a complex issue because, despite virulent anti-Semitism, many French officials were unwilling to surrender French-born Jews to the Nazis.
In the end, 30 per cent of Jews in France were deported, a significant proportion of these being refugees and foreign-born. Significant numbers were saved through the efforts of ordinary people, church groups and the resistance.
However, some would argue that Callil’s treatment of the Catholic Church is unduly harsh. Callil, however, acknowledges that, while a number of the hierarchy were pro-Vichy – and some had even made anti-Semitic statements – some bishops opposed the deportations and took active steps to hide and protect Jews.
She is also highly critical of Pope Pius XII’s so-called “silence” on the Holocaust. This charge, though, has been sufficiently answered by historians such as Pierre Blet and, more recently, Ralph McInerny, who argue that making a public denunciation would have served only to put the Jews at even greater risk of Nazi reprisals, as the round-up of Jews following the Dutch bishops’ protestation demonstrated.