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The Politics of Apoliticism

Political Trials in Vichy France, 1940-1942

In 1942, the dictatorial regime of occupied France held a show trial that didn‘t work. In a society from which democratic checks and balances had been eliminated, under a regime that made its own laws to try its opponents, the government‘s signature legal initiative – a court packed with sympathetic magistrates and soldiers whose investigation of the defunct republic‘s leaders was supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the new regime – somehow not only failed to result in a conviction, but, in spite of the fact that only government-selected journalists were allowed to attend, turned into a podium for the regime‘s most bitter opponents. The public relations disaster was so great that the government was ultimately forced to cancel the trial. This catastrophic would-be show trial was not forced upon the regime by Germans unfamiliar with the state of domestic opinion; rather, it was a home-grown initiative whose results disgusted not only the French, but also the occupiers.

This book offers a new explanation for the failure of the Riom Trial: that it was the result of ideas about the law that were deeply imbedded in the culture of the regime’s supporters. They genuinely believed that their opponents had been playing politics with the nation’s interests, whereas their own concerns were apolitical. The ultimate lesson of the Riom Trial is that the abnegation of politics can produce results almost as bad as a deliberate commitment to stamping out the beliefs of others. Today, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum denounce excessive polarization as the cause of political gridlock; but this may simply be what real democracy looks like when it seeks to express the wishes of a divided people.


»The Vichy government of France (1940-1944) tried to bolster its legitimacy, despite German occupation of two thirds of the national territory, by putting on trial the leaders of the previous regime, the Third Republic. James Herbst’s study of Vichy’s political trials, the first in English based on full access to the archives, is illuminating about that regime’s intentions and values.«

Robert O. Paxton, professor emeritus, Columbia University

»This is the first authoritative study of the Riom trials of 1942-43, those travesties of justice intended to show how different Vichy was from the Third Republic it replaced. With wit and impressive documentation Herbst has illuminated one of the most celebrated but least successful show trials of the twentieth century.«

Jay Winter, professor emeritus, Yale University

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