Wednesday, 3 December 2008

International colloquium sheds new light on denunciation in France during the Second World War

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. See Copyright.
by Kathryn Hadley

On November 27th and 28th, an international colloquium was organised at the Caen memorial in Normandy to discuss, for the first time, denunciation, known in French as délation, in France during the Second World War. Approximately twenty historians from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United States presented their various studies in an attempt to dispel common popular myths and gain a deeper understanding of denunciation in occupied France. The discussions aimed, above all, to define the phenomenon, highlight geopolitical and institutional characteristics specific to occupied France and to compare denunciation in France with similar cases in fascist Italy, for example. Did the specific political situation in France during the Second World War, where French and German ruling authorities coexisted, encourage acts of denunciation by multiplying the number of potential recipients of letters of denunciation?

In contrast to Germany, Italy and the ex-Soviet Union, where research began twenty years ago, there is a considerable lack of historiography on denunciation in France. In fascist Italy or the USSR, where denouncement was an integral part of state policy, specific bodies and institutions existed to deal with letters of denunciation. The existence of such institutions with their own archive bases consequently made historical research considerably easier than in France, where a multiplicity of bodies existed. This multiplicity of different authorities that received letters of denunciation
(the French and German police, the Gestapo, as well as the various authorities which specifically dealt with the Jewish population) was one considerable obstacle to historical research in France. Laurent Joly, a French historian at the Centre de Recherche d’Histoire Quantitative and the organiser of the colloquium, also stressed the restricted access to archives as a further explanation for the lack of French historiography. He further argued that there was a necessary time lapse before the topic could be studied from a more distanced and scientific point of view.

Délation is often, and has for a long time, been perceived as a mass phenomenon which primarily targeted the Jewish population. Until recently, the main authority on the subject was the journalist
and author of La délation sous l’Occupation (1983), André Halimi. Recent research has, however, brought to light a far more complex reality. Whilst André Halimi estimated that there existed between three and five million letters of denunciation; recent figures have been reduced to between 150,000 and 500,000 letters. Moreover, denunciations were, above all, family affairs and the result of family disputes, rather than motivated by anti-Semitism and racial hatred. In a local study of the Calvados region in Normandy, Julie Chassin thus revealed that one quarter of letters were written by family members denouncing one another.

Her study, based on 1302 cases of délation which were brought to courts in Calvados at the time of the liberation, also revealed that ‘offenders’ were, for the most part, accused of hiding weapons or of anti-German behaviour. In Calvados, the denunciation of Jews represented only 2.1% of all cases. Although statistically the majority of informers were women, women were overrepresented because many young men were absent at the time. Thus, amongst the population over the age of 36, the majority of informers were men. Further local studies of the Maine-et-Loire region and Belgium revealed similar trends.

There remains, however, considerable work to be done. In an interview for the French newspaper Libération, Laurent Joly stressed the need for further local and specific studies of denunciation in the ‘free zone’ and of the denunciation of communists and the black market, for example. It is also necessary to consider sources other than legal complaints at the liberation, which are not entirely representative, notably because the Jews who were denounced never returned to file their complaints. Sources should not be restricted to the archives of the French Commission aux Questions Juives, which focus solely on denunciations of Jews, and cases of oral denunciation should also be considered.

A report on the colloquium is due to be published by CNRS Editions in 2010.

For more information on collaboration on Vichy France, read our article Spying for Germany in Vichy France

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