Oped: The sobering banality of evil

Matt Helfrich
Harleysville, PA

On April 9, 2017, French politician Marine Le Pen publicly stated that the French had no responsibility or role in the Holocaust. Is she right? If asked who were the major perpetrators of the Holocaust, most of us would respond by naming Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, or Goering. Yes, Germany was responsible for the Holocaust, a nation that blindly followed Adolf Hitler to rise out of the proverbial ashes of a lost World War into a second world conflagration that systematically claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks on cable news on the North Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Washington. Spicer is apologizing for making an "insensitive" reference to the Holocaust in earlier comments about Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Although it's easier for us to blame amphetamine addict Hitler for the worst genocide in world history, the truth is there were many Holocaust collaborators who lived outside of German control and occupation. In contrast to Le Pen's assertion, one of the most shameless examples of collaboration with the “Final Solution” occurred in one the most modernized, cultured, and democratic countries in the world — France.

In June 1940, the German army routed the French, who quickly surrendered to the Germans and agreed to some humiliating terms, including German occupation of Paris and the northern half of the country. The Germans allowed the French to govern the southern part of their country, otherwise known as the Vichy government. Surprisingly, the Germans only sent 1,500 occupation troops to France.

Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany's security forces, the SS, subjected the occupied Jews to brutal treatment. Millions of Polish Jews were forced into Ghettos in 1939 and most were killed at death camps in the East by 1943. The SS shot and killed over 1.4 million Soviet Jews following the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In late 1941, Hitler decided to authorize his security chief, Heinrich Himmler, to exterminate all of the Jews under German control.

It was easy for the Nazis to capture and deport Jews from areas where they had a significant troop presence, including Poland and the Soviet Union, or countries who shared the Nazis’ enthusiasm for anti-Semitism like Romania. On the other hand, the Nazis had few occupation forces in France and it would be much more difficult to deport them to the death camps. They would have to depend solely on the French authorities to capture and deport their Jews.

In early 1942, the SS sent one of their “Jewish experts” to meet with the French Vichy government requesting the deportation of their Jews. The French delegation, led by their prime minister, Pierre Laval, offered a weak defense for the Jews. Despite the knowledge that the Nazis could not capture any French Jews without his cooperation, Laval agreed to a deal with the SS that would lead to the deaths of over 80,000 Jews.

The deal required the French police to capture and deport their roughly 100,000 Jewish immigrants. In return, Jews who were permanent French citizens would not be deported, even though French authorities would have difficulty finding them anyway.

The Jewish immigrants had courageously fled countries like Germany and Romania, who systematically discriminated against them, to live in a democratic country like France where they believed they would be protected. And yet their fate was sealed by French Vichy officials who were afraid to stand up to the Nazis.

Laval and leading Vichy government officials were not the only ones complicit in this crime. Thousands of French police were needed to pull the foreign Jews from their homes and guard them at transition camps, before deportation to Auschwitz. The SS was not involved in these operations. Raised in a democratic society, the French police had to realize what they were doing was wrong. They also had the ability to warn the foreign Jews that a round-up was imminent so they had time to flee or hide. However, with a few minor exceptions, the French police refused to help and the French foreign Jews were brutally removed from their homes in June of 1942.

One of the most shameless acts by the Vichy government was to agree to separate Jewish children from their parents so that only men and women capable of manual labor would be deported initially. The SS considered the Jewish children “useless eaters” and therefore wanted the French to hold them until the SS had trains available. Some of the children separated from their families were only 2 years old. It was a terrible episode for thousands of innocent Jewish families that the Vichy French refused to protect.

Nearly 100,000 Jewish immigrants were deported from France to Auschwitz in July, and nearly 75,000 were gassed immediately. In August of 1942, the remaining 4,000 children were deported to Auschwitz. All 4,000 were murdered within minutes of arrival.

A comparison of the French and Danish treatment of their Jews indicts Laval and other French authorities for crimes against humanity. The SS also wanted the Danes to round up their Jews and hand them over for deportation in 1942. However, Danish officials gained knowledge of the round-up and subsequently shared this vital information with the entire Jewish community. The Danish government also made the necessary arrangements for their Jews to go into hiding or flee for a neutral country. Their courage and ingenuity saved all but 4 Danish Jews from deportation to Auschwitz. This comparison highlights a proud moment for the Danes and one of the darkest moments in French history.

The French collaboration with the Nazis to exterminate over 80,000 Jews in 1942 is a sobering reminder of the banality of evil. Crime is not only the business of monsters and gangsters. Unfortunately, history shows that even decent people can do horrible things in difficult situations. The French did not hate the Jews and certainly did want to assist in their murder, but the leaders of the Vichy government were afraid to oppose the Nazis. This story highlights that free and democratic societies require strong leaders with great conviction, a good moral compass, and bravery

A real concern for our country is that our president-elect is a weak leader, no moral compass, and boasts of a friendship with the leader of a country who doesn't respect democracy, freedom, and human rights. Hopefully we will never find ourselves in the same predicament that the French found themselves in 1942.

If we were forced into a situation where we had to surrender our principles to save ourselves, what would we do? Who would we become?

— Matt Helfrich is a York Dispatch guest contributor and a resident of Harleysville, Pennsylvania.

Matt Helfrich