When we think of the 20th century’s big and horrible events—World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, the Cold War and its nightmarish Third World proxy fights—we think of statesmen and business interests and covert operations; we look at major ideological systems like liberalism, communism, and fascism. But we seldom consider religion, and that’s a mistake… (Daniel Denvir on The Dig Podcast, Febrary 21, 2020)Footnote 1
On 10 July 1940, the Vichy regimeFootnote 2 came to power in France and the French Third Republic was dissolved. Almost immediately thereafter, a new authoritarian government, led by Prime Minister Phillipe Pétain, undertook a massive effort to reorganize French society. The “National Revolution” was central to this effort. Its principles of work, family, and fatherland represented a shift from Republicanism and its civic virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity to an ethnic nationalism that privileged ancestry, tradition, and religion as if biologically transmitted.Footnote 3 In turn, the regime’s first targets were those perceived as “others”, primarily foreigners and Jews, who were considered external to the national, and natural, community. The historian Phillipe Burrin explains how, three days after the armistice was signed on 25 June, “Pétain addressed his compatriots to inform them of the implementation of the armistice and in the very same breath, he announced the beginning of a new order and bade them help him to set up a ‘new France’” [1996: 14]. This new order was among Pétain’s chief priorities, and the exclusion and limitation of “non-French” individuals’ rights was central to its philosophy.
Pétain, for his part, never spoke publicly about the “Jewish Problem.” He did, however, help to prepare the Statut des Juifs Footnote 4, even broadening its initial provisions to increase its severity.Footnote 5 Pétain also regularly spoke in coded discourse, framing Jews as national outsiders, such as when he proclaimed in September 1940 that “true fraternity” in France was “possible only in natural groups such as the family, the ancient towns, [and] the nation” [Marrus and Paxton (1981) Reference Marrus and Paxton1995: 17].Footnote 6 Further, according to several historians [e.g., Adler Reference Adler2001; Bédarida Reference Bédarida1998; Burrin Reference Burrin1996; Le Moigne Reference Le Moigne F2005; Marrus and Paxton (1981) Reference Marrus and Paxton1995; Paxton Reference Paxton1972; Rousso Reference Rousso1991; Vinen Reference Vinen2006; Wieviorka Reference Wieviorka and Todd2016], as well as the perspective taken here, whether state anti-Semitism was overtly promulgated or covertly advanced, the National Revolution of Pétain’s Vichy regime was concomitant with violence against Jews from its very inception.Footnote 7
And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the crisis of the summer of 1940, it was not a given that Vichy would be able to reorganize French society as it wished. Pétain became Prime Minister of France under vexed circumstances;Footnote 8 to secure his political agenda, the Vichy regime needed to accrue legitimacy. But how?
Research on authoritarian legitimation suggests that rulers seek support through ideological, personalistic, performance-based, and procedural strategies. Yet these strategies and their outcomes are typically isolated to a dyadic relationship between authoritarian rulers and their subjects. Missing from these analyses is attention to meso-level actors who can help or hinder the rise and legitimation of authoritarianism. Defined as institutions, organizations, and leaders who operate in the space between national-level institutions and individuals, this article demonstrates how attention to meso-level actors brings into relief important dynamics about authoritarian legitimation. I examine the French Catholic Church and its shifting relationships with the authoritarian Vichy regime and Jewish community leaders from 1940-1942, and I probe how attention to the middle ground extends existing research on authoritarianism. The results suggest that meso-level actors can facilitate autocrats’ efforts to gain support through public endorsements, cooperation, the expression of shared values, and common rhetoric. These behaviors were all practiced by French bishops during the relevant time period; had that not been the case, as I argue in the discussion, Pétain’s ability to carry out the National Revolution would have been impeded. Instead, however, Jews were excluded from the French national community as Church and State became increasingly aligned.
I begin with a review of the literature on authoritarian legitimation, after which I introduce the argument that meso-level actors shape how top-down efforts to accrue legitimacy are perceived and received by civilians, below. I then explain how religious organizations, as a particular kind of meso-level actor, can help or hinder the legitimation of authoritarianism through practices of verbal endorsement, cooperation, the expression of shared values, and common rhetoric. Next, I introduce the case and relevant background, explaining how and why the French episcopate’s support for the Vichy regime from 1940-1942 mattered for the government’s efforts to justify its rule and National Revolution, including its violence towards Jews. This section also explains my focus on the first two years of Marshal Pétain’s regime and not the entirety of Vichy’s tenure (July 1940-August 1944). I then describe the archival materials and methodological approach that allow me to specify how the Church bolstered Vichy, as well as uncover the consequences of these actions for Jews in France. The results of the analysis are presented next, followed by a discussion of the results in light of research on Vichy France and authoritarian legitimation more generally. The conclusion considers the broader implications of this study.
A recent proliferation of research on authoritarian legitimation marks a departure from the tendency to examine legitimation in democratic contexts [Burnell Reference Burnell2006; Dukalskis and Patane Reference Dukalskis and Patane2019; Gerschewski Reference Gerschewski2013, Reference Gerschewski2018; Kailitz Reference Kailitz2013; Krastev Reference Krastev2011; Tannenberg, Bernhard, Gerschewski, Lührmann, and Soest Reference Tannenberg, Bernhard, Gerschewski, Lührmann and von Soest2019; Soest and Grauvogel Reference Von Soest and Grauvogel2017].Footnote 9 Crucially, this scholarship emphasizes a distinction between legitimation as the process by which autocracies seek to generate and maintain support and legitimacy as citizens’ normative judgments vis-a-vis a regime [Dukalskis & Gerschewski Reference Dukalskis and Gerschewski2017; Gerschewski Reference Gerschewski2013, Reference Gerschewski2018; Soest and Grauvogel Reference Von Soest and Grauvogel2017].Footnote 10 In research on authoritarianism, this distinction is especially important: given the repressive nature of autocracies, it is difficult to tease out whether citizens’ compliance is premised on conviction rather than coercion or acquiescence. Scholarship on authoritarian legitimation has thus sought to categorize authoritarian rulers’ and governments’ strategies for gaining support, whether or not such efforts succeed in producing legitimacy. These legitimation strategies are ideological, personalistic, performance-based, and procedural.Footnote 11
Research on authoritarian legitimation via ideology emphasizes claims concerning the righteousness of a (prospective) social order [Alagappa Reference Alagappa1995; Easton Reference Easton1975; Holbig Reference Holbig2013; Linz Reference Linz2000]. Authoritarian rulers may mobilize claims about political goals such as building a socialist or communist state, an ethnonationalist or separatist state, a religious-nationalist state or theocracy, or a conservative or modern state to justify their right to rule. The content of the claims may differ, but the purpose is the same: authoritarian rulers who strive to accrue legitimacy based on ideology assert that beliefs and values about how things ought to be justify their ascent to power.
Authoritarian rulers may also strive to justify their domination by referring to qualities inherent in their personhood. Scholars working in this vein draw on Weber’s [(1922) Reference Weber, Roth and Wittich1978: 215-216] three types of legitimate authority—specifically, his traditional and charismatic types of authority—to focus on how a leaders’ traits are portrayed to procure support for his or her regime [Brownlee Reference Brownlee2007; Isaacs Reference Isaacs2010]. For example, traditional authority is based on whether the leader can stake a claim to established customs, such as appointment by heredity, to justify her rule [Brownlee Reference Brownlee2007]. Charismatic authority rests on claims about a leader’s “extraordinary, supernatural, or exceptional qualities,” as evidenced by their previous actions (for example, helping to win a war), benevolent paternalism, or a God-given right to rule [Tannenberg et al. Reference Tannenberg, Bernhard, Gerschewski, Lührmann and von Soest2019: 6].
A third approach concerns authoritarians’ performance-based strategies of legitimation. Here, authoritarian rulers assert that they will secure physical, material, and social goods and services for citizens, and legitimacy results if and when they achieve concrete outcomes [Cassani Reference Cassani2017; Dimitrov Reference Dimitrov2009; Hechter Reference Hechter2009; Soest and Grauvogel Reference Von Soest and Grauvogel2017]. This is similar to Easton’s [Reference Easton1965, Reference Easton1975] idea of specific support, defined as a “quid pro quo for the fulfilment of demands” [1965: 278], and Scharpf’s [Reference Scharpf1999] theory of output legitimacy, which hinges on whether governments are able to address the issues their citizens care about. Performance-based processes of legitimation first work on promises, then pragmatic strategies for promise fulfilment. In the absence of fulfilment, leaders must successfully identify barriers to that fulfilment—a sort of scapegoating for their failures.
The final strand of scholarship on authoritarian legitimation concerns authoritarian governments’ use of procedural practices. Such work draws on Weber’s [(1922) Reference Weber, Roth and Wittich1978: 215-216] third type of legitimate authority: rational-legal authority. Though typically associated with democracies, this tactic is increasingly popular in autocracies, particularly post-Cold War. Examples of procedural practices include establishing the apparent infrastructure of non-authoritarian rule. This may include staging sham or quasi-competitive elections, establishing political parties and legislatures, and/or tasking semi-legal and bureaucratic apparatuses with resolving social conflicts [Gandhi Reference Gandhi2008; Gandhi and Lust-Okar Reference Gandhi and Lust-Okar2009; Levitsky and Way Reference Levitsky and Way2010; Lee and Zhang Reference Lee and Zhang2013; Schedler Reference Schedler2002, Reference Schedler2013]. In allowing for procedural practices, however insincere, rulers try to satisfy their populations in order to obtain legitimacy [Schedler Reference Schedler2013].
Each of these approaches offers powerful explanations for how autocracies strive to generate support. Although my review separates these four strategies to organize extant scholarship, any authoritarian regime is likely to employ several legitimation strategies at once [Alagappa Reference Alagappa1995; Cassani Reference Cassani2017; Dukalskis and Patane Reference Dukalskis and Patane2019; Weber [(1919) Reference Weber2004]. Additionally, different kinds of autocracies can start as one type of regime but develop into another, shifting strategies along the way [Levitsky and Way Reference Levitsky and Way2010; Soest and Grauvogel Reference Von Soest and Grauvogel2017]. Further, some of these processes are more common in contemporary autocracies (e.g., interest-based legitimation, procedural legitimation) while others (personalistic legitimation, ideological legitimation) were more common in the past [Levitsky and Way Reference Levitsky and Way2010; Schedler Reference Schedler2002, Reference Schedler2013]. Increasingly, scholars also point to the role of international factors, such as authoritarian regimes’ membership in regional organizations or as exporters of ideological or public goods and resources, that can be mobilized to support claims to legitimacy [Burnell and Schlumberger Reference Burnell and Schlumberger2010; Schatz Reference Schatz2006; Soest and Grauvogel Reference Von Soest and Grauvogel2017].
Yet one challenge for scholars of authoritarianism is the tendency in this research to focus solely on authoritarian rulers and their governments while neglecting the meso-level actors who can facilitate or impede autocrats’ efforts to gain support.Footnote 12 Defined as institutions, organizations, and their leaders who operate in the space between national-level institutions and individuals [Finkel and Straus Reference Finkel and Straus2012], meso-level actors matter for several reasons.
First, although authoritarian rulers may engage in diverse legitimation strategies from above, how civilians interpret these messages depends, in part, on the endorsement of local authorities that they know, trust, or admire. Second, civilians’ responses to autocracies will be influenced by whether such meso-level actors join the established government or refuse to join when asked. The issue here is one of cooperation: authoritarian rulers can capitalize on the recognized legitimacy of meso-level actors by establishing close relations with them, convincing them to join their ranks, and so on. Authoritarians can also bolster their legitimacy to the extent that they, too, are allowed to partake in actions typically reserved for leaders or members of the meso-level organization. If meso-level actors deny access to rulers, this can send a powerful message to constituents that the regime itself is unacceptable. Third, meso-level actors can connect the expressed values and beliefs of rulers to the values of constituents by interpreting them in ways that generate support or resistance. If meso-level actors express authoritarian values as their own, this can increase the rulers’ perceived legitimacy; an antagonistic stance that disagrees with these expressions will have the opposite effect. Finally, authoritarian rulers can directly deploy cultural frames and schemas by drawing on rhetoric they know will resonate with members of meso-level organizations to justify their rule. However, here, too, it is meso-level actors’ responses to these tactics that will shape whether or not authoritarians can do so successfully.Footnote 13 As the focus of this paper is on the Catholic Church in Vichy France, each of these practices is discussed below with reference to religious organizations.
Religious organizations as meso-level actors
Religious organizations are one example of meso-level actors with power to mediate the relationship between “between center and periphery and elites and masses” in authoritarian contexts [Gorski and Türkmen-Dervisoglu Reference Gorski and Türkmen-Dervisoglu2013: 203]. Primarily, this is because religious organizations possess significant influence by virtue of their moral authority [Grzymala-Busse Reference Grzymala-Busse2015, Reference Grzymala-Busse2016]. Whereas the state makes claims to political authority, religious leaders can transcend the state and its leaders by classifying a regime’s policies and practices as virtuous or sinful in the eyes of a supreme being. This “normative ordering power” of religion can in turn help or hinder authoritarian legitimation by tying authoritarians’ claims to legitimacy to sacred ideas about “what is” and “what ought to be” beyond partisan interests [Brubaker Reference Brubaker2015: 5; Geertz Reference Geertz1983in Williams Reference Williams1996: 370; Grzymala-Busse Reference Grzymala-Busse2016: 13]. It can also raise the stakes of subversion where authoritarianism is endorsed by religious authorities, or compliance where it is rejected insofar as each position entails countering the will of God.
Religious organizations can also support authoritarian legitimation if their leaders develop cooperative working relationships with authoritarians or take positions in their administrative apparatus. In practice, this means that religious authorities hold office or titles at different levels of government and, in return, the state may support religious education and infrastructure, collect taxes for religious bodies, and pass laws that align with religious values [Phillpot Reference Philpott2007]. This mechanism matters for legitimation because religion is commonly considered a source of communal loyalty. Hence, in joining autocracies’ administrations or linking their organizations’ fate to the regime, religious organizations and their followers inevitably become stakeholders in the regime’s success. As a result, resisting the regime can mean harming one’s own religious community.
To the extent that authoritarian rulers can credibly express the same values as religious authorities, they can also frame themselves as aligned with the fundamental beliefs, concepts, and principles that guide religious organizations. Of course, one way in which credibility is obtained for the expression of shared values relies on whether or not religious authorities mirror these expressions and proclaim these same values as their own. If religious leaders explicitly disagree with rulers’ stated values, declare them to be the opposite of their community’s belief systems, or if they accuse rulers of being disingenuous or inconsistent through their actions, this can harm authoritarians’ attempts to garner support. Hence, whether or not rulers and religious authorities express shared values is yet another way in which legitimation processes can be influenced by meso-level actors.
Relatedly, authoritarian rulers can draw on religious rhetoric including language and symbols to accrue legitimacy, which is then strengthened when supported by religious authorities. Fox [Reference Fox2018] explains, “religious rhetoric is the use of religious language and imagery intended to persuade.” But it is not simply that it is intended to persuade that matters, it is also how it persuades: religious language and symbols comprise religious beliefs and values in material form. The practices may be explicit—utterance of words and prayers, donning particular habits, using ritual objects, or depicting oneself as an icon—but because their meanings are coded into repetitive actions or emblems rather than overtly stated, their impact can be largely unconscious [Guhin Reference Guhin2016: 154]. Where politicians and clergy alike frame authoritarians’ actions using religious rhetoric, and where religious authorities include rulers in rites and rituals, they can tap into followers’ implicit understandings of right and wrong and facilitate the legitimation of authoritarian political arrangements in turn.
Finally, though not the focus of this paper, religious organizations can directly mobilize support or resistance to authoritarianism by supplying followers with ideological justifications for action (or inaction) as well as material resources and social networks. As a wide body of research on social movements shows, religious organizations can provide a physical space for activists to meet and organize, material resources such as newsletters and mailing lists, financial resources, and connections to like-minded peers [McAdam Reference McAdam1982; Morris Reference Morris1984; Smith Reference Smith and Smith1996; Staggenborg Reference Staggenborg1991; Zald and McCarthy Reference Zald, McCarthy, Zald and McCarthy1987]. In authoritarian contexts where the costs of participation are high, public meeting space is rare, material and financial resources are difficult to come by, and identifying trusted others is challenging, religious organizations themselves can be used to organize collective action [e.g., Braun Reference Braun2016, Reference Braun2019].Footnote 14
Of course, whether or not any of these dynamics is unique to religious organizations as a kind of meso-level actor remains to be determined. Following Brubaker [Reference Brubaker2015] and Grzymala-Busse [Reference Grzymala-Busse2015, Reference Grzymala-Busse2016], however, I hypothesize that the normative ordering power of religion provides religious organizations with an especially potent form of moral authority. Still, there is no reason that organizations such as trade unions or student groups (to give two examples of meso-level actors that may or may not operate in authoritarian contexts) cannot function similarly. The following section therefore motivates this article’s focus on the French Catholic Church in Vichy France and during the Vichy regime’s first two years of rule.
Numerous French historians have noted the important role of various organizations in shaping public opinion through their support for the Vichy regime [e.g., Burrin Reference Burrin1996; Sapiro Reference Sapiro2014] The historical record, however, suggests that the French Catholic Church had an especially powerful impact on French civilian’s responses to the war, defeat, and subsequent settlement around a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany, including the decision, three weeks after the armistice, to transfer full constitutional powers to Marshal Pétain. Approximately 85% of France was Catholic in 1940 [Bédarida Reference Bédarida1998: 7], and churches were flooded with civilians seeking guidance in the chaos following France’s defeat [Drapac Reference Drapac1998: 142]. Under the new regime, the Catholic Church became a “central player in the drama of public life” [Nord Reference Nord2003: 11] and Catholicism became “the single most cohesive force in French society after Germany defeated France” [Drapac Reference Drapac1998: 28]. Kselman [2000: 515] explains, “many French who previously had an attenuated relationship with the institutional Church were drawn into Catholic sanctuaries and shrines as a way to deal with the trauma of war and defeat.” Jackson [Reference Jackson2003: 25] corroborates this assertion, “religion was not an epiphenomenal issue: Catholic and lay associations had networks of patronage and social organizations extending into almost every crevice of French associational life.”
Pétain was well aware of the Church’s influence on public opinion and frequently sought guidance from bishops on all matters of policy, including what to do about the Jews [Marrus and Paxton (1981) Reference Marrus and Paxton1995: 202]. The Church responded with praise for the new regime, and it privately lent its support to the Statut des Juifs—the first in a series of exclusionary laws that would eventually facilitate the incarceration, forced deportation, and eventual mass murder of approximately 80,000 Jews from France.Footnote 15 This alignment between Church and State was significant to observers, leading one contemporary to remark on Christmas 1942 that “since 1941, the man in the street, when talking about Vichy, calls it ‘the Regime of Clergy.’”Footnote 16 It is commonly accepted among French historians that in the first two years of its rule, the French Catholic Church underpinned Marshal Pétain’s efforts to legitimize his government and sent signals to its followers that it supported the regime’s policies and practices.
Following this, the Church’s blessing of the regime made resistance more difficult for those who opposed its dictates. This was particularly the case in summer 1941 when Vichy agreed to the Paris Protocols and armed resistance against Germany began in the Occupied Zone. In response, Vichy collaborated with the Nazis in meting out disproportionate punishments: Hitler ordered the execution of 50 French hostages for every German killed and the Vichy authorities hand-selected these hostages themselves. Simultaneously, in Paris, Jews were arrested for the first time by French police in collaboration with German authorities and deported to transit, labor and detention camps throughout the country. These and similar actions led to the creation of Témoignage Chrétien, a clandestine Christian resistance movement formed by lower clergy and laity activists with the aim of disrupting the hierarchy’s support for Vichy. In its first edition, Témoignage Chrétien issued a scathing critique of the Church:
In subscribing to the ideals of Travail, Famille, Patrie… the Church has compromised herself by working indirectly in the installation of a new order dictated by Nazis… COLLABORATION WITH THE GOVERNMENT OF THE MARÉCHAL = COLLABORATION WITH THE NEW ORDER = COLLABORATION WITH THE TRIUMPH OF NAZI PRINCIPLES.Footnote 17
From its members’ perspectives, the episcopate’s alignment with Vichy was unconscionable—yet they were frequently told by their religious leaders that it was “an offense against the Christian spirit” to resist the government “because Catholic morality teaches submission to the legitimate civil power.”Footnote 18 The Church’s support for Vichy thus motivated their clandestine actions, but such actions were risky, to say the least. In addition to the danger of severe punishment by government, participation entailed violating the teachings of the hierarchy, which many Catholics had been trained to obey without question. Hence, given that the episcopate and Vichy were joined together in promoting the National Revolution, which violently discriminated against Jews, participation in resistance required two acts of disobedience: one against the legal government of Vichy, the other against the dictates of the Catholic Church [Bédarida Reference Bédarida1998: 121].
Finally, on 23 August 1942, the Archbishop of Toulouse, Cardinal Jules-Géraud Saliège, publicly defected from the episcopate’s stance of silence toward state anti-Semitism to protest on behalf of Jews. This sudden shattering of silence to help save Jews in France marked a dramatic change from the committed public support that the episcopate previously provided to the regime. “The Jews cannot be abused without limit,” Saliège declared. “They are part of the human species. No Christian dare forget that!”Footnote 19
Following this protest, nine other bishops spoke out on behalf of Jews along with hundreds of lower clergy throughout Vichy France. The protest document was also broadcast for four days on the BBC and Vatican Radio. It even received global media attention. The international Holocaust remembrance organization Yad Vashem describes how, “Overnight, the document became a manifesto; hundreds of thousands of copies were made and were circulated by members of the Resistance throughout France.”Footnote 20 In contrast with their previous positions of support for Vichy, French bishops’ now encouraged civil disobedience in response to the ongoing violence against Jews. Moreover, following the bishops’ protest, monthly deportation rates collapsed and never again rose to the high level of over 40,000 Jews deported and killed in 1942 [Griffioen and Zeller Reference Griffioen and Zeller2006; Seibel Reference Seibel2016]. Bishops helped to prepare false documents for Jews in need, they offered religious institutions as safe havens for Jews to hide in, and they supported the clandestine efforts of resistance groups such as Amitié Chrétienne, in which Catholics, Protestants, and Jews mobilized to rescue as many Jews, especially Jewish children, as possible. Many who worked with Amitié Chrétienne were active with Témoignage Chrétien, as well.Footnote 21
French historians frequently refer to the bishops’ protest as a critical juncture in the trajectory of the Holocaust in France. It transformed public opinion towards Vichy and inflamed Catholics’ sympathy for action to help Jews [Laborie Reference Laborie2001: 282-283]. It can therefore be argued that had French bishops not been supportive of Vichy up to this point, and had they not bolstered the regime’s attempts to accrue legitimacy, their protests would have had less of an impact. Instead, it was because the episcopate rallied to the regime in its first two years of rule that their defections in August 1942 mattered.
Subsequently, the bishops’ alignment with the Vichy regime for its first two years can be considered a “critical antecedent”—what Slater and Simmons [Reference Slater and Simmons2010: 889] define as “factors or conditions preceding a critical juncture that combine with causal forces during a critical juncture to produce long-term divergence in outcomes.” Without bishops’ two years of public support for Vichy and without their silence regarding its anti-Semitic policies, the bishops’ protests would have caused less of a rupture. In fact, had the episcopate resisted Vichy from the beginning, the Church itself might have been shuttered or attacked, as was clearly the case elsewhere in Europe (e.g., Poland, Austria). After the bishops protested in France, Prime Minister Laval threatened to arrest priests who supported the resistance and to search cloisters for Jews in hiding [Hilberg (Reference Hilberg1961) 1985: 641]. Similarly, an official in Toulouse that worked for the Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions called for the punishment of defectors by the nuncio, arguing that bishops had no business protesting because the Church itself counseled obedience to Vichy [Marrus and Paxton (1981) Reference Marrus and Paxton1995: 201]. Understanding precisely how bishops supported the Vichy regime in the first two years of its rule thus helps explain what came next, even though that is not the focus of this article.
Rather, this article explains how the authoritarian Vichy regime recruited leaders in the French episcopate as part of its legitimation strategy, and how French bishops responded. I also examine the consequences of these dynamics for the relationship between the State, Church, and Jews. Although the subject of French bishops’ support for Vichy has received significant attention in the relevant historiography, this article is specifically concerned with systematically detailing what religious authorities did and their consequences for authoritarian legitimation. The focus is on French bishops’ behaviors, recognizing that it was these behaviors that bolstered the government’s efforts to accrue legitimacy and civilians’ perceptions in response. I analyze shifting relationships between the Vichy government, Catholic authorities, and Jewish religious leaders and demonstrate how meso-level actors contribute to legitimation processes in authoritarian settings.
Data and Methods
The article draws on a variety of sources on the French Catholic episcopate, the Vichy government, and Jewish leaders and their organizations. Among these are bishops’ private diaries; notes and communications between bishops; bishops exchanges with the Papal Nuncio Valerio Valeri; and their correspondence with various representatives of the Vichy government, including Marshal Pétain. I also include sermon notes, mass announcements, local publications that gave voice to the Catholic Church in France during this period, and publications in official diocesan weekly newsletters titled Semaine Religieuse, which were specific to each diocese.Footnote 22
Primary documents from chief rabbis in the French Rabbinate and their meeting minutes and correspondence with Catholic and Vichy authorities are also examined. This data was collected from the diocesan archives in Cambrai, Lyon, Paris and Toulouse, the Centre national des archives de l’Église de France, the archives of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and the French National Archives. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted. Secondary sources are specified in parentheses.
In analyzing these documents, I focus chiefly on processes that involve or indicate shifting patterns of relations among Vichy governmental authorities, the Catholic hierarchy, and Jewish leaders. In other words, I take an explicitly relational approach: rather than examining individuals or groups as entities—whether they be “the Church,” “the State,” “the Jews,” and so on—I focus on the relationships between them, particularly on the dynamics of interactions between religious and political authorities in France. Hence, throughout this paper, I do not seek to understand the characteristics of the Church as an organization nor the Vichy government nor “Jews in France.” Rather, I am interested in the changing patterns of relations between religious authorities and political authorities in France during this time period. Pursuing this relational approach to historical analysis allows me to consider the impact of these dynamics for each category of actor as a result of their changing interactions.
There was no shortage of public claims of support from Church authorities for the Vichy government, and vice versa. Claims from the Church regularly expressed support for the regime with reference to God as a moral authority that provided for Pétain’s leadership and endorsed his rule. Additionally, throughout 1940-1942 the episcopate issued regular exhortations to the laity to submit to the regime and adhere to its rule. This was so even after summer 1941, when the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris by the French police took place and the first stirrings of a specifically religious resistance began to rumble. Best-known among these endorsements is Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier’s famous declaration, on 19 November 1940, that “Pétain is France, and France today is Pétain.”Footnote 23
Importantly, this statement by the official spokesperson of the Church was not representative of all individual beliefs in the episcopate during the summer and prior to the bishops’ decisions to support the Statut des Juifs in late August. However, historians have not been wrong to emphasize the significance of this statement since whatever dissension existed in the Church was kept private. Publicly, the episcopate presented a united front of support for the regime. Hence, when Gerlier openly praised Pétain in front of a crowd of hundreds, the episcopate’s position concerning Vichy’s legislated anti-Semitism was already established. Adding to his famous sermon, Gerlier declared: “France needed a chief who would lead her to her eternal destiny, God has allowed for you to be here.” In the months that followed, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard in Paris and Monsignor Jean Delay, the Bishop of Marseille, likewise expressed their support for France’s new leader, with the latter declaring in his cathedral on 2 December 1940, “God is using you, monsieur le maréchal, to awaken France.”Footnote 24 Such religious public endorsements contributed to the regime’s efforts to legitimize itself by framing Pétain’s rule as divinely sanctioned.
To dispel concerns that these words of praise might have been naive and confined only to the beginnings of Pétain’s reign, one need only to look at similar declarations of support for the Vichy government throughout 1941. In the Association of Cardinals and Archbishops (ACA) meeting of 15 January 1941, bishops in the Occupied Zone professed their “total loyalty to the state and the government in France.”Footnote 25 This position was endorsed by the ACA in Unoccupied France two weeks later.Footnote 26 On 4 May 1941, Bishop Gabriel Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand claimed, “[Pétain] alleviates our misery and seeks to eradicate, through… himself and his glory of yesteryear, the costs of our misery.”Footnote 27 Repeatedly, bishops in the episcopate throughout France declared Pétain a legitimate ruler and urged their followers to rally around him and his regime.
Yet, simultaneously, Jews were losing their right to work and being stripped of their ability to claim allegiance to France and her government. Already on 22 July 1940, the Vichy regime had set up a Commission for the Revision of Naturalizations to review all grants of French Citizenship since 1927. Jews were disproportionately affected by these proceedings: while roughly 15,000 men, women, and children were denaturalized, approximately 7,000 of them were Jewish. The goal was to eradicate the “anti-France”—supposed internal enemies including Communists and freemasons in addition to immigrants and Jews, many of whom were recently arrived immigrants, as well [Zalc Reference Zalc2016].
Then in July 1941, one month after the first major roundup of Jews in Paris had occurred, the ACA in the occupied zone (but with Gerlier in attendance) proclaimed the regime legitimate and called for “a sincere and complete loyalty to the established power. We venerate the head of state and urge the union of all French around him.”Footnote 28 Their statement exhorted Catholics to remain loyal “without enthrallment to the public order,” a phrase several historians have highlighted as evidence of a request for moderation by French bishops [e.g., Clément Reference Clément1999]. Others have critiqued this assessment, arguing, first, that this message was so subtle it could hardly be construed as a meaningful tempering by the episcopate vis-à-vis the government’s anti-Semitic policies and, second, that it did not even stop bishops from continuing to publicly revere the government [Fouilloux Reference Fouilloux2002].Footnote 29 As Jackson [Reference Jackson2003: 268] explains, “in practice the qualification ‘without enthrallment’ did not prevent delirious effusions of devotion to Pétain from individual prelates” throughout the summer and onwards.
Prominent declarations of support for the state from the Church were even evident as late as 1 September 1941, just two weeks after 4,232 French and foreign Jews were arrested in Paris by French municipal police along with German Feldgendarmes Footnote 30 and taken to the Drancy internment camp. Located northeast of the city, Jews were frequently detained in Drancy during the war prior to their deportations to Auschwitz. On the day of this rafle or roundup, the secretary of the Catholic episcopate, Monsignor Jean Chollet, beseeched the faithful to follow the Marshal’s plan for France:
We have no right to criticize the leader himself or his orders. The subordinate obeys without question or inquiry […] in the name of our own religious conscious we will be the most united and the most disciplined of citizens.Footnote 31
One month later, in October 1941, synagogues in Paris, Marseille, and Vichy were attacked and destroyed. In response, the Council of the Association of French Rabbis adopted a declaration for Chief Rabbi Isaïe Schwartz to transmit to Cardinal Gerlier.Footnote 32 The document describes the council’s anguish and desperation for some kind of public support from non-Jewish religious authorities. The rabbis wrote: “As with human victims, the stones, sanctified by piety; the tabernacles, that cover our sacred scrolls; we… are anguished. When will this sacrilegious fury end?”Footnote 33 They concluded with a plea to their “colleagues who stand on guard around the Lord’s sanctuary”Footnote 34:
How comforting for us and for our anguished brothers it would be if we were to hear our sentiments echoed […] invoked in the synagogues, the churches, the mosques, and if the faithful of other religions and their spiritual leaders showed their reprobation of these ungodly crimes?Footnote 35
At the end of the letter, the president of the rabbinical council asked all in attendance to communicate this message to ecclesiastical authorities in their communities.Footnote 36 Gerlier, in response to Schwartz, expressed compassion for the rabbis’ plight and promised to share the letter with the ACA in the free zone during his next meeting with the hierarchy.Footnote 37 It is clear in Gerlier’s reply that he was beginning to feel anxious about the Church’s silence concerning Jews. However, at this time, Gerlier declined to make a public declaration on their behalf.Footnote 38 In fact, at no time from summer 1940 until March 1941 did the episcopate even express its concerns about Vichy's anti-Semitic policies and its consequences to the government; a public statement would not be issued until August 1942. When compared with Autumn 1933, when Jewish buildings were first ransacked and numerous bishops spoke out on behalf of Jews in their communities, the shift in relations is glaring [Luft Reference Luft2016, chapter 1; Bernay Reference Bernay2012: 64-66]. The tide had turned: no longer could Jewish community leaders expect bishops to publicly unite with them. Instead, all public declarations of support—at least until August 1942—would be reserved for the Vichy government.
In addition to public endorsements, another way in which the relationship between Vichy and the episcopate changed, the latter legitimizing the former, is through the incorporation of religious officials and notable Catholics into the structural machinery of the state. Once the new regime consolidated its power, the Vatican officially appointed Archbishop Valerio Valeri to serve as the Papal Nuncio to Vichy. In return, Vichy France appointed its own ambassador, Léon Bérard, to serve as its representative to the Holy See. This confirmation of official positions validated the new regime, as did the introduction of over 200 clerics into communal leadership positions and departmental committees throughout France [Jackson Reference Jackson2003: 268]. In the highest levels of government, prominent Catholics came to serve in powerful roles.Footnote 39 Fouilloux [Reference Fouilloux1997: 194-196] notes that this was the first time since 1879 that so many Catholics had been appointed to high government office.Footnote 40 In contrast, once the first Statut des Juifs was passed, the state council was purged of all Jews that had previously held a seat [Poznanski Reference Poznanski2001: 43].Footnote 41
Additionally, in a telling series of letters between Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon and Archbishop Valeri in late February 1941, the Cardinal considered whether to accept an offer from Joseph Barthélemy, Vichy’s Minister of Justice, to serve on the council of ministers as an advisor.Footnote 42 Gerlier ultimately declined the invitation, but not because of any hesitation over whether the Church should partake in political affairs. In fact, Gerlier even offered the name of a bishop who might serve in his place, the Archbishop of Cambrai and Secretary of the ACA, Émile-Maurice Guerry.Footnote 43 Jackson [Reference Jackson2003: 268] summarizes this aspect of the Catholic religious and French political relationship neatly: “prelates were present on most official occasions and bishops were frequent guests at Pétain’s table.” Rather quickly, the Vichy government was able to bolster its legitimation attempts by embedding religious authorities into the state’s administrative apparatus.
Similarly, in Occupied France, Suhard, who had already been nominated to the national council in January,Footnote 44 would eventually decline the nomination in March 1941Footnote 45, but not without sending his chief aide, Monsignor Roger Beaussart, in his stead. A devoted collaborationist,Footnote 46 Beaussart represented Suhard at the formal welcoming reception when Hermann Göring visited Paris in December [Burrin Reference Burrin1996: 221]. In the same month, Cardinal Suhard assured German Ambassador Otto Abetz that “the clergy is fully disposed to make its influence felt in favor of collaboration.”Footnote 47
By contrast, during the same period, French rabbinical authorities unsuccessfully sought to affirm their pre-war relationships with Catholic authorities by solidifying institutional alliances. In October 1940, Rabbi Julian Weill called on Cardinal Suhard with the hope of joining both religious organizations together in solidarity––as had been the case before the German invasion––and against what Weill perceived as German pressures that could strike them both.Footnote 48 Less than a decade earlier, the Grand Rabbi Israël Levi invited all Christians to form a “front of defense for the bible,” and bishops from France’s largest cities, including Paris, Nice, Marseille, and Toulouse, responded, while those in Lyon, Bordeaux, Lille, and Tours sent ecclesiastics as representatives [Bernay Reference Bernay2012: 64-66]. Cardinal Suhard, who was previously the Archbishop of Reims, followed France and Britain’s declaration of war with Germany in September 1939 with a letter to his congregation that explained:
Many times, following the sovereign Pope Pie XI, we exposed to you Hitler’s racist doctrines […] we have seen how, in these last few years, this doctrine has imposed destruction and terror […] we know, along with our allies, that we are defending not only ourselves but all that exists in the world of human value and true Christian values.Footnote 49
Prior to the start of the war, many French bishops publicly and privately aligned with rabbis against Hitler’s Nazi ideology in a shared commitment to resist it. Yet all this changed following France's defeat by Germany.
To be sure, Suhard initially expressed in his diary how concerned and disturbed he felt by all that was unfolding around him and he also described feeling uncomfortable with collaboration, but he rapidly overcame this discomfort and was confident by as early as mid-September 1940 that making common cause with the Germans would bolster the Church.Footnote 50 In an entry recorded between 16 and 19 September 1940, Suhard wrote:
The occupying power proves correct, and even very correct, with me. What will it be tomorrow? I think the Catholic Church can emerge from this ordeal magnified and glorified by the position she held during this ordeal.Footnote 51
Subsequently, when Rabbi Weill met with Cardinal Suhard in Paris two weeks later, Weill expressed his concerns about rising anti-Semitism and his desire for the Church and the rabbinate to continue fighting Nazism together. However, Suhard had no interest in working alongside him. Suhard was already convinced the Church could benefit from its alliance with the Nazi occupation authorities. Weill was playing a fool’s game.
As for the benefits the Church received from the State, perhaps no single issue was of greater importance to the Catholic hierarchy than the republic’s institutionalized secularism of state education. Within the first month after the armistice was signed, Bishops Gerlier, Suhard, and Achille Liénart in Lille had met twice to prepare a list of demands from the Church to Pétain, a list that was headed by the issue of Catholic education.Footnote 52 The regime addressed this priority early on: in a famous editorial dated 15 August 1940, the Marshal explained that France’s national regeneration would hinge on improving youth education.Footnote 53 Pétain wrote that he anticipated re-introducing France’s traditional values of “god, work, and family” into state schools.Footnote 54 In the fall of 1940, General Weygand declared that “France deserved her defeat; she was beaten because her governments for half a century have chased god from school” [Duquesne Reference Duquesne1966: 27]. Putting words into action, on 3 September 1940, the Vichy government rescinded the 1901 Law on Associations that had banned religious orders from teaching.Footnote 55 In October, the écoles normales were abolished, and Suhard remarked in his diary how pleased he was about the changing laws on education.Footnote 56 In December, a law was passed that instructed “duties toward God” to be taught in public schools.Footnote 57 From its very beginnings, Vichy was prepared to work with the Church in a mutual relationship, increasing bishops’ willingness to send prelates to political affairs and to ally with Pétain’s regime at the highest levels of government.
A third finding to emerge from the analysis is how the Vichy government sought to accrue legitimacy by framing its philosophy and its practices as aligned with Catholic values. Bishops responded in kind, not only in expressing common beliefs about what was desirable but also in identifying shared perceived threats. For example, on 19 November 1940, Cardinal Gerlier declared in his famous speech, “Work, family, fatherland—these words are ours.”Footnote 58 A month later, Gerlier praised Pétain’s National Revolution philosophy in the Journal des Débats, a French weekly, stating: “The Marshal said one day: ‘our fatherland must recover the beauty of its roots.’ What is then the most beautiful of all the roots if not Christianity, which gave it birth?”Footnote 59 In so doing, Gerlier echoed not only Pétain’s speeches but also the Marshal’s essays that described a worldview in which Jews were not a part of the natural French community.
Similarly, many in the hierarchy were also quick to express how the Church shared ideological enemies with the Vichy regime [Bartov 1998; Burrin Reference Burrin1996; Jackson Reference Jackson2003]. Not least among these was the laïcité or secularity of the past. In September 1940, Monsignor Florent Du Bois de Villerabel, Archbishop of Aix, described the old republic’s secularism as a “cancer” that had disfigured France.Footnote 60 The Bishop of Viviers, Monsignor Alfred Couderc, similarly exclaimed that among all the reasons for France’s defeat, the greatest, perhaps, was the former republic’s “official ignorance of religion.”Footnote 61 A belief that God was punishing France for her abandonment of Christian values dominated many bishops’ speeches and appeared regularly in La Croix—“the semi-official organ of [French] Catholicism” [Halls Reference Halls1995: 170]:
La Croix offered readers a full menu of dissipating factors that had helped lead La Belle France down the road to perdition. These included the obvious Catholic complains of laïcité and dénatalité, as well as an unsparing critique of “Modernism’s other errors,” from women’s liberation to rural flight, as well as the overconsumption of alcohol [Crane Reference Crane2004: 51-52].
The message could not be clearer: Catholics must wholeheartedly support Pétain who promised to reverse the trends that the Church blamed for France’s ruin. Redemption for past sins could only be achieved by establishing a political system that promised to reverse them.
Significantly, not only did Catholic authorities encourage the laity to support the government due to their shared values and common enemies; the Vichy government also regularly articulated that it shared this worldview by chastising France for her moral decline and calling for a return to the social values of the Church. For example, a lengthy memo on Church-State relations authored by Pierre Sauret, the Director of Religions and Associations at the Ministry of the Interior, argued it was necessary for the state to work with the Church in rebuilding France, because an absence or abandonment of spiritual values had been an important factor in her defeat.Footnote 62 In addition, although Pétain himself was not religious, he regularly spoke of the need for self-chastisement—another value of the Catholic Church.
Other indicators of conflation between the Church and Vichy’s stated values include the many statements made by Church authorities in fall 1940 and throughout 1941, expressing their agreement with State officials that there was a “Jewish Problem” that needed to be solved. Political leaders would then use the Church’s support as well as their rationale to justify their anti-Semitic policies. For example, when the government asked the episcopate to determine the permissibility of the Statut des Juifs, the episcopate decided to endorse the law, arguing that Jews were “not your ordinary foreigner welcomed in a country, but an unassimilable one.”Footnote 63 On 25 October 1940, three weeks after the Statut was promulgated, Baudouin parroted this rationale in response to a group of American newsmen: “we have decided to limit the action of a spiritual community that, whatever its qualities, has always remained outside the French intellectual community… [no longer could the Jews] constitute an empire within an empire.”Footnote 64 The modern “soundbite” was on display.
Later, as persecution against Jews in France intensified, Gerlier would remind ministers in the Vichy government of the episcopate’s position toward Jews. In October 1941, while approximately 8,000 Jews were suffering in concentration camps throughout France, Gerlier told the Commissioner General for Jewish Questions, Xavier Vallat, that the “law is not unjust… but it lacks justice and charity in its enforcement.”Footnote 65 According to Marrus and Paxton [(1981) Reference Marrus and Paxton1995: 200], Vallat also reported that Gerlier had told him, “the Jewish problem exists […] it is indeed inescapable, and I approve [of the anti-Jewish measures] within the framework of justice and freedom.” Thus even when religious authorities were becoming concerned by state anti-Semitism,Footnote 66 they still maintained that they were ideologically aligned with the belief that there was a Jewish problem. In other words, the issue was how to address the “Jewish Problem,” not whether it existed.Footnote 67
This harmonization of the episcopate and the state’s worldviews is striking given the repeated attempts by Jewish leaders to establish an alliance with the Church by highlighting their presumed-to-be-common values. For example, after the first Statut des Juifs was passed, on 22 October, Rabbi Schwartz denounced the new laws in both occupied and unoccupied France in a letter to Pétain, writing with fervor that they were a form of “racial legislation, [with] principles born outside our borders, repudiated by Judaism, denied by consciousness and sentenced ex cathedra by the head of the Catholic Church and other Christian churches.”Footnote 68 Rabbi Weill followed suit one day later.Footnote 69 Here, both Schwartz and Weill were referencing Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”), which explicitly condemned Nazi racist ideology.Footnote 70 That the rabbis could write such letters indicates how misguided they were on the Church’s “new” worldview. Rabbis Schwartz and Weill tried to appeal to Catholic values to sway the Marshal’s stance. Sadly, their letters instead revealed a growing schism between the episcopate with the rabbinate: neither rabbi knew the statute had been passed with the justification of the Catholic authorities.
In a later attempt to remind the Church of their religions’ shared values, Rabbi Schwartz’s October 1941 letter to Gerlier included a comparison between attacks on synagogues in France and the ruins of Galilee, where Jesus prayed and preached.Footnote 71 According to scripture, Galilee was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Revolt. In referencing this site, Schwartz aimed to remind Gerlier of the customary and ancient connection between Catholics and Jews. Gerlier, in response, sought to comfort Schwartz. However, given that Gerlier told Vallat in the same month that he agreed on the existence of a “Jewish Problem,” this comfort could only go so far.
Last but not least, the change in how religious and political authorities related to each other in France from 1940 to 1942 was manifest in the discourse and symbols commonly expressed or displayed by both. This shared rhetoric between Church and State contributed to the regime’s legitimation process from 1940-1942 nowhere perhaps more profoundly than with Pétain’s classification as a savior. The Marshal identified himself with Christ’s sacrifice and regularly framed his leadership position as that of a redeemer, prepared to deliver France from her sinful past into a glorious present and future. Remarking on how Pétain used religious symbolism to establish his authority and attract the support of the Church, Le Moigne [Reference Le Moigne F2005: 92] explains:
In his own manner, Pétain could also be considered as the first bishop of the nation, who built his “acceptance speech” on a personal identification with Christ’s sacrifice […] This appeal was understood by the Catholic hierarchy.
It was not only understood by them, however; rather, bishops actively endorsed this personalistic strategy, bolstering Pétain’s attempts to legitimize his rule by making charismatic claims.
Hence, in a radio message to the French people three days after signing the armistice with Germany, Pétain declared that he was prepared to give France “the gift of my person.” Gerlier, welcoming Pétain to Lyon, exclaimed, “France needed a chief who would lead her to her eternal destiny. God has allowed for you to be here.”Footnote 72 Nearly one year later, on 12 August 1941, the Marshal declared to the French people, “In 1940, I put an end to the rout. Today, it is from yourselves that I wish to save you.”Footnote 73 On 3 November 1941, Cardinal Suhard in Paris sent a letter to Pétain in which he wrote of his “profound conviction, that God in your person, will always protect France and renew her.”Footnote 74 In December, during Christmas Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, Suhard similarly spoke of the present as a “time of joy and hope” despite suffering; a time of “salvation,” brought to France by a “unique savior.” He then turned to extend his Christmas greetings—in front of a crowd of hundreds—to Pétain.Footnote 75
This “Pétain as savior” symbolism was profound. However, it was also through the co-optation of religious symbols that the Vichy regime attempted to legitimize its authority. For example, the regime frequently adopted religious emblems in calling for the public to support its political agenda. One such figure was Joan of Arc, often enlisted to propagate anti-British, anti-Republican, and even anti-Semitic national values. Pinto [Reference Pinto2012: 18] describes a propaganda poster used by the Vichy government that borrowed vocabulary and imagery from Joan of Arc to make a direct connection between her image and Pétain’s. In the poster, Pétain is seen in the likeness of Joan of Arc and is described as fighting a “crusade” against “the Bolshevik peril.” The poster links contemporary France to religious crusaders of the past, solidifying the connection between Vichy France and the Catholic Church while at the same time promoting anti-Semitism.
Likewise, a propagandist stained-glass window in Orléans showed an image of Joan of Arc alongside an image of Orléans aux Juifs. The latter depicts Jews dominating French civil society—the army, the legal professions, and parliament––stating that, “[the Jews] wrote the first page in the decadence of our history.” The Joan of Arc window, in contrast, “proclaims that the figure that would embody France would be the one who would rid the country of foreigners such as the English and, especially, the Jews” [ibid.: 16-17]. Frequent comparisons between Joan of Arc and Pétain were to be heard on Vichy radio, as well. For example, in May 1941, on the 510th anniversary of Joan of Arc’s death, a broadcast described Pétain as being “cast (like Joan of Arc) in the role to lead France” [Drapac Reference Drapac1998: 265]. The use of Joan of Arc as both religious and national symbolism was but one of the ways in which the state co-opted religious emblems to legitimize its goals.
Yet another was the incorporation of religious rituals into the Vichy regime’s ceremonies, and Pétain’s frequent attendance at religious services throughout the country. When he attended these services, religious authorities often included him in practices typically reserved for their followers. For example, when Pétain went on his tour of the south of France in November 1940, his visit to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) included a service in which he walked “like a youth” up the steps of the stage, decorated with a simple military medal and matched by none other than the bishop, Monsignor G. Piguet, who likewise wore a military medal and the Croix de Guerre [Le Moigne Reference Le Moigne F2005: 96].
The Church also regularly prayed for Pétain and even wrote new songs of worship that were then taught to followers. In Le Puy, the prayer for Pétain read:
There was also the “prayer to Le Maréchal” that the Vichy government itself exhorted the public to declare—a twist on the Catholic “Our Father” that ended with the injunction, “and deliver us from evil, oh Marshal!” Though not a prayer, at the small church outside Vichy where Pétain attended mass, children had to sing the “unofficial” national anthem of Vichy, Maréchal nous voila:
By contrast, Grand Rabbi Isaïe Schwartz was excluded from an official ceremony for those killed in the war between 1939 and 1940, and patriotic commemorations of 14 July 1940 that took place in the Vichy synagogue were shunned by Vichy government representatives. No one would pray for Jews, and Jewish authorities were not allowed to partake in joint political and religious ceremonies. There was no common rhetoric for Jews and the Vichy government; Jews were excluded entirely.
Discussion and Conclusion
This article examines how meso-level actors shape authoritarian legitimation processes by examining the case of the Catholic Church in Vichy France during the first two years of Marshal Pétain’s rule. Research on authoritarian legitimation identifies four strategies—ideological, personalistic, performance-based, and procedural—that authoritarian leaders and their governments pursue to gain support. Each of these strategies was present in France from 1940-1942: Chief of State Marshal Pétain declared within the first few days of signing the armistice that his goal was to reorganize French society according to his National Revolution philosophy. This included targeting perceived “others” such as foreigners and Jews whom he considered external to the national (and natural) French community. Pétain also made frequent claims to himself as a savior, characterizing himself as a Christ-like figure, willing and able to save France from what would otherwise be her downfall. He also sought to secure French civilians’ physical security by negotiating with Nazi Germany once it was clear, from his perspective, that continuing to fight would lead to the destruction of the country.Footnote 77 The regime likewise sought to develop a “planned economy” that emphasized a strong state role in modernizing production as well as a corporatist economic structure to resolve class conflict—though the practical demands of German occupation authorities led to its spectacular failure. Procedurally, Pétain was democratically voted into office through the vexed process of “collective abdication” but, once this occurred, he obtained full constitutional authority [Ermakoff Reference Ermakoff2008].
From the perspective of the literature on authoritarian legitimation, the presence of these tactics is sufficient to explain the rise of the authoritarian Vichy regime. Yet this article, while recognizing these tactics were necessary, argues they were not, in fact, sufficient. In order to succeed, they required support from meso-level actors, in particular the French Catholic Church, as the Church gained overwhelming significance for shaping public opinion in the crisis and chaos following France's defeat by Germany. In Vichy France, the Church bolstered Pétain’s claims to rule through four practices, each with a concomitant impact on the hierarchy’s relationship with the rabbinate. This suggests that had the Church made different decisions during this time period, Vichy’s trajectory might have been quite different, including of course in its consequences for Jews.
For example, concerning the first practice, public endorsements, while bishops publicly praised Pétain and encouraged the laity’s loyalty to the regime, Jews were being stripped of their right to work, stripped of their citizenship, and arrested and detained in concentration camps throughout France. French rabbis begged for a public word of support from the episcopate but, until 1942, none came. All public acclaim was reserved for the regime.
Similarly, as the French Catholic Church embedded itself in the state’s administrative apparatus and received concessions in return, Jews were being purged from the French political sphere and forced to resign from their posts. Again, rabbis appealed to the Church and sought to remind them of their pre-war relationships. This included the “front for defense for the bible” formed in 1933 by Grand Rabbi Israël Levi and which included bishops and their representatives from France’s largest cities [Bernay Reference Bernay2012: 64-66]. The episcopate had no interest in pursuing this alliance.
Concerning the expression of shared values, it would appear that—publicly, at least—Jews were considered an afterthought. French bishops regularly expressed the National Revolution philosophy as their own and mirrored Pétain’s beliefs that Jews did not comprise a natural part of the national community. Privately, Catholic authorities justified the first Statut des Juifs by describing Jews as unassimilable foreigners. They thus provided the government with a soundbite that it then parroted when explaining the rationale for its discrimination.
Finally, the common rhetoric expressed by both Pétain and French bishops further excluded Jews insofar as Pétain cast himself as a Christ-like savior. This was reflected in Catholic discourse which the rabbinate could not share. Pétain also frequently drew on symbols such as the image of Joan of Arc to justify his political crusade; in one stained-glass window of Joan of Arc in Orléans, this imagery was accompanied by explicit anti-Semitism. While Pétain rarely held a political ceremony without the presence of a Catholic leader, Jews were excluded from the political events in which they had previously taken part.
When combined, these practices reveal precisely how the French Catholic Church became “one of the main actors and arbiters” in the Vichy government’s “constant struggle for legitimacy” [Peschanski Reference Peschanski2004: 409]. Simultaneously, the results show how the outcomes of these struggles from 1940-1942 impacted the fate of Jews as the alignment between Church and State led to a concomitant decline in the Catholic leadership’s relationship with the rabbinate. Although further research is required to fully assess the impact of these changing dynamics on the Vichy government’s ability to secure support, in focusing on the behaviors of Church and State authorities, this article provides an outline for future work to consider how a third actor—the individual—responded to these changes from above.
Likewise, it remains to be seen whether religious organizations as a particular kind of meso-level actor are uniquely able to influence authoritarian legitimation processes or if the practices identified here change depending on the organization being examined. That said, the results reveal how attention to meso-level actors illuminate important dynamics about authoritarian legitimation. As institutions, organizations, and leaders situated in the space between national-level institutions and individuals, meso-level actors shape how rulers’ tactics are perceived and received from below. These dynamics are missed when legitimation is treated simply as the product of a relationship between rulers and civilians.
Finally, authoritarians may desire to legitimize their rule and their exclusionary visions of society much like Pétain sought to legitimize himself as France’s savior and the National Revolution as the proper course for France. Yet this article argues that without the support of meso-level actors, authoritarians may, in fact, fail to gain widespread acquiescence. In France, once the bishops protested Vichy’s treatment of Jews in August 1942, there was a sea-change in public opinion vis-a-vis the regime’s anti-Semitic violence and a surge in clandestine activism on Jew’s behalf, causing deportation rates of Jews to dramatically decline. Hence, what the Church did—how it praised the regime, cooperated with its administration, claimed to share the same values, and mirrored its rhetoric—mattered. Likewise, in any context in which authoritarianism is on the rise, meso-level organizations and leaders’ choices to speak out or cooperate are consequential. By attending to the crucial role of these mediators between state and society, we can gain a fuller grasp on the processes at play in the emergence and legitimation of authoritarianism.