As of this week, the French government released more than 200,000 documents from one of the country's darkest periods. The declassified papers from Vichy France could reveal new details about the World War II-era regime’s collaborations with Nazi Germany, the BBC reports.
After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, the countries signed the Franco-German Armistice, an agreement that split the country into two zones: the German-occupied northern and western France, and the "unoccupied" southern and eastern France. In the unoccupied zone, the Germans installed a puppet government in Vichy, led by World War I hero Philippe Pétain. He acted on behalf of the Nazi invaders, arresting members of the French Resistance fighters and deporting almost 80,000 Jews. When the Allied forces liberated France following the D-Day landings in Normandy, French Resistance members and Allied troops overthrew the Vichy occupation, establishing a provisional government that would usher in France's Fourth Republic. Trials against members of the Vichy regime continued in France up until the 1990s.
Prior to this latest news, the Vichy documents held in the French archives were only available to researchers and journalists under strict conditions. Under French law, declassified government documents must become available to the public after a period of 75 years, as is the case with papers from the beginning of the regime. However, the French government decided to make all Vichy related documents “freely accessible” to those hoping to review in person the physical archives, even if it’s a few years early for some, the French radio station RFI reports.
Documents created as late as December 31, 1960, will be made available, as long as they relate to matters under Vichy rule (September 1939 to May 1945) or to the prosecution of war criminals in France, Germany and Austria after the end of World War II, according to Agence France-Presse.
"I've seen people leaving the archives in tears," historian Jean-Marc Bélière told Thomas Vampouille for the French newspaper, Le Figaro, in 2010. "Because they'd found out the details of an arrest, an execution, a betrayal, for example. Some came with the idea that their grandfather had been in the resistance but discovered that was not exactly true."
While historians don’t expect any major revelations from the newly accessible documents, the archives could shed new details on events such as the arrest of French Resistance leader Jean Moulin, historian Gilles Morin told French TF1 television news. The Vichy regime remains a charged subject in France; the government refused to acknowledge any role in the Holocaust by the Vichy regime for decades. France only officially recognized the state’s complicity in the deportations in 1995, and in 2014 the state-run rail network was forced to pay compensation to the families of Jews who were deported on its trains, RFI reports.
While the city of Vichy in central France has spent decades trying to reclaim its image, many people around the world still associate the former capital with Pétain’s regime. Local officials, however, hope that the newly released documents might cast a favorable light on the city’s residents, or at least take some of the blame off of their own shoulders, Jessica Burstein reports for the New York Times.
“The Vichy regime was situated here, in the free zone, but the records clearly show that the greatest numbers of collaborationists were, in fact, in the occupied zone, including Paris,” Vichy historian Thierry Wirth tells Burstein. “Moreover, the region in which we are situated, the Auvergne, had France’s largest force of Resistance fighters, ‘Maquis du Mont Mouchet.’”
The documents are still governed by national defense secrecy rules, meaning that officials can still reject applications to view them. Meanwhile, documents from another sensitive period in recent history, the French occupation of Algeria that took place between 1830 and 1962, will remain sealed, RFI reports.