H-Diplo Review Essay 271 on Zalc.  Denaturalized.  How Thousands Lost Their Citizenship and Lives in Vichy France

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H-Diplo Review Essay 271

24 September 2020

Claire Zalc.  Denaturalized.  How Thousands Lost Their Citizenship and Lives in Vichy France.  Translated by Catherine Porter.  Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780674988422 (hardcover, $35.00/£28.95/€31.50).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Philip Nord, Princeton University

In the 1920s, the United States clamped down on immigration but not so France, which went in the opposite direction.  France had long worried about slow population growth.  The huge losses incurred in the Great War aggravated demographic anxieties.   And so legislators enacted a citizenship law in 1927, which made it easier for newcomers to become French, so much so that well-nigh 650,000 persons were granted citizen status under its terms in the next thirteen years.  But the regime that enacted the 1927 law, the Third Republic, did not survive the military debacle of May-June 1940.  It was succeeded by Maréchal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy government, which took charge of the nation’s destiny in July.  Politicians often boast of what they will do on Day One in office, a signal to anyone paying attention of what is supposed to matter most to them.  One of the first things the new Pétain government did was to decree into existence a denaturalization commission, the Commission de révision des naturalisations as it was known in French.  Pétain did this on July 22, less than two weeks after taking power.  The Commission was charged with reviewing the dossiers of the myriads of people made citizens under the terms of the 1927 law, and why?  Because Pétain’s new team at Vichy hated the old Republic, execrating it not least of all for its relative generosity to immigrants.  In Vichy eyes, such largesse had eroded the nation’s moral fiber and set it up for catastrophe.   What needed doing and without delay was an undoing.  France’s citizen body had to be cleaned out of unworthy elements, and it was the Commission that was charged with effecting the purge.  In the years of its operation, from 1940-1944, it denaturalized roughly fifteen thousand people.  An estimated forty percent of these were Jews.

The operations of the Commission and the consequences of its work are the subject of Claire Zalc’s Denaturalized: How Thousands Lost Their Citizenship and Lives in Vichy France.  The book was first published in French in 2016.  It was a superior work of scholarship then, rigorous in its handling of sources and deeply sympathetic to the unfortunates caught up in the bureaucratic web of Vichy-era xenophobia.  For an American reader in 2020, however, the book takes on an added layer of meaning.  Large-scale denaturalization is not yesterday’s news but one on the agenda of a presidential administration that might well seem to have taken a cue or two from Vichy.  

The power of Zalc’s book lies not just in its timeliness but also in its method of analysis.  Zalc is a practitioner of micro-history.  A decade ago, she published (with Nicolas Mariot) a close-grained study that tracked the wartime fate of the Jews of Lens, a small industrial town in northern France.[1]  The title, Face à la persécution. 991 Juifs dans la guerre, lets the reader know what awaits, a case-by-case study of individual experiences, the sum of the cases adding up to larger truths.  Zalc proceeds in a similar fashion in Denaturalized.

In the case of the denaturalization Commission’s operations, however, such an approach confronts more than one daunting challenge.  The proceedings of the Commission de révision were either destroyed or lost at the Liberation.  No record of its actual deliberations exists, but the dossiers it passed judgment on do, and these make up the bulk of Zalc’s source base.  The files constitute a vast gold mine of information, so vast, indeed, as to preclude a thorough-going excavation of the entire trove, and so Zalc has narrowed her examination to a sampling from four departments, two located in the Unoccupied Zone, one in the Occupied Zone, and one in the so-called Forbidden Zone.  Zalc might have said more about what’s gained and lost by such a selection, but that point aside, the dossiers themselves are remarkable artefacts, which Zalc mines to great effect. 

They are full of official papers, embellished with stamps and photographs, signatures and annotations in various colored inks.  The Commission, as it went about investigating candidates for denaturalization, collected information from many sources, and these documents are included, sometimes with notes attached.  In the event, the Commission opted to denaturalize someone, the person was afforded a chance to protest.  He or she submitted testimonials and pleas framed in a language calibrated to persuade or to touch the hearts of the Commissioners.  These materials too were filed away.  Zalc makes sure to provide photographic reproductions of all such documents.  The dossiers, as Zalc reconstructs them, come into focus as sites of bureaucratic argument, and it’s the ‘identity’ of the dossiers’ subjects that hangs in the balance.  Are they French enough to warrant holding on to their citizenship?  I put ‘identity’ in quotation marks because who these people really were remains elusive, filtered through the characterizations and bureaucratese of often bigoted officials.   Even when the victims themselves have a chance to speak, they do so in a calculated rhetoric, in a “grammar of Frenchness” as Zalc calls it (244).  The victims are ever present in Zalc’s story, but more as phantoms detectable in the interstices of all the bureaucratic haggling; they have been reduced to paperwork, but something of who they were haunts the margins. 

The novelist Georges Perec’s aunt and uncle lost their citizenship under Vichy, and his mother was murdered at Auschwitz.  Zalc declares herself an admirer of Perec’s fiction.  She writes about the aunt and uncle’s dossier at the beginning of Denaturalized and cites from Perec’s oeuvre at the end.  The ordinary mattered to Perec, for in the folds of everyday, he believed, lay hidden truths, truths about the oppressions that people labored under and that contrived to erase them.  Perec wanted to recover the erased, the lost, and sought out the literary means to do so.  Zalc’s procedure is that of a historian, but she shares in Perec’s ultimate goal:  to salvage the human beings that a pitiless bureaucracy consigned  to misery and sometimes death.

The historiography on the fate of the Jews under Vichy has developed by leaps and bounds in the last forty years.  The points of debate have focused sometimes on the Vichy side of the story, sometime on that of Jews, and sometimes on the comportment and complicities of bystanders.  What policies, it is asked, did Vichy enact, and what were the roots of Vichy anti-Semitism?[2]  Did Jews fight back, and how was it that so many of them, up to three quarters, survived?[3]  What role, for that matter, did the Resistance play in such developments, and in what ways were non-Jews implicated, whether as bigots, spectators, or sympathizers?[4]  It is clear what Zalc’s approach adds to this mix. Hers is a study, not just of policy, but of its implementation.  Vichy made no secret of its anti-Semitism.  Persecution took the form of racist institutions like the Commissiariat général aux questions juives and of round-ups.  But it was also the result, as Zalc shows, of a bureaucracy just going about its quotidian business.  As for the persecuted, they did indeed find ways to stand up.  Heroism and martyrdom, however, are not the focus of Zalc’s narrative, so much as the small gestures—writing a letter, petitioning the authorities—that ordinary people under pressure resorted to.

The word ‘ordinary’ appears many times in Zalc’s text, and that might lead the reader to conclude that Vichy itself was in some aspects an ordinary regime, an avatar of trends in French life, exaggerated or carried to extremes perhaps, but still all too typical.  Zalc is sensitive to this issue and treads a fine line, demonstrating all the ways that the Vichy bureaucracy resembled the republican bureaucracy that preceded it, while at the same time highlighting how a bureaucracy, so seemingly ordinary, came to be so extraordinary in its effects.

Let us start with the ‘ordinary’ side of the story Zalc has to tell.  The Commission de révision was a Vichy creation but not so its staff, who were recruited in the main from France’s corps of magistrates.  These were men who had seen years of service working for the old Republic’s Ministry of Justice.  A number belonged to the prestigious Conseil d’État.  Vichy spiced the mix with a far-right ideologue or two, yet overall it was career civil servants who predominated.  The Commission’s work was not conducted in a vacuum.  It invited departmental prefects to flag interesting cases, and the prefects complied, funneling information up the chain of command.  Over time, however, the Commission more and more took upon itself the responsibility for digging up cases…and for investigating them.  In pursuit of such inquiries—which might touch on a subject’s record of military service, education level, or employment history—it had to address itself to other bureaucratic instances, all of which pitched in.  The Commission may have been something new, but when it came to staffing and working methods, it fit all too well into the existing apparatus of state.  It made a point, moreover, of manifesting the depth of its state loyalties.  The Germans pressured Vichy to denaturalize France’s entire Jewish population, and the regime balked.  The business of denaturalization was Vichy’s own, and it meant to address the issue, not en masse, but one case at a time.  This was very much the Commission’s own understanding of its remit:  to compile dossiers to be assessed in all objectivity and free from outside (read German) influences.  This bureaucratic façade served the Commissioners well at the Liberation.  Just one was brought up on charges, the Commission president, Jean-Marie Roussel; he was discharged from state service; and that was that.  The Commissioners, after all, were mere officials, dedicated, non-partisan men committed to executing the state’s orders sine ira et studio.

One of the great strengths of Zalc’s book is its deconstruction of this façade of objectivity.  When looked at more closely, Vichy’s Commission de révision was not in all respects a bureaucracy like any other, and insofar as it wasn’t, Vichy really did constitute, in Zalc’s phrasing, a “break with the past” (31).  Yes, the Third Republic had conducted denaturalization procedures of its own, but in toto, between 1927 and 1940, just sixteen people ended up forfeiting their citizenship, a pittance compared to the fifteen thousand who were denaturalized under Vichy.  The Republic, moreover, was working from a clear-cut and stated set of criteria.  Criminals, draft-dodgers, and threats to national security:  these were the kinds of people susceptible to loss of citizenship.  Vichy’s law of July 1940, however, stipulated no explicit criteria, leaving it to the discretion of the Commission de révision to determine who was worthy to remain French and who was not.  The enshrinement of such arbitrary power signaled a dramatic departure from democratic norms of old.

So, how did the Commission go about exercising the all but unbounded authority invested in its hands?  Over time, Commission members did invent criteria to guide their decision-making, and Zalc ferrets them out, homing in on three:  moral value, loyalty, and national interest.  The deserving led upstanding lives.  They were hard-working people who married, had babies, and made sure the children received a proper, French education.  On the matter of loyalty, signs of political activism, above all of a left-wing variety, counted as so many strikes against a candidate for denaturalization.  In the case of male candidates, the Commissioners evaluated the record of military service, scrutinizing in particular how subjects of investigation had performed during the military campaign of 1939-40.   The “national interest” category was the slipperiest of them all.  A good Frenchman was someone who originated in a civilized country, like Belgium, that was already half-French.  Or he did honest work.  For a regime like Vichy, which set such store by the land, agricultural laborers were looked on with favor.  Vichy rejected the Third Republic’s motto—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—substituting a motto of its own:  Family, Work, Fatherland.  There was a political agenda built into the new slogan, and when the Commission de révision got down to the examination of cases, this was the agenda it was implementing. 

At issue, of course, was not just recognizing the deserving but punishing the rest, for behind the profile of the good Frenchman—his shadow and, from the Commissioners’ point of view, malignant doppelgänger—lurked the bad one.  Such persons were unattached, homosexual, work-shy, alcoholic.  They did not profess loyalty to France but were anti-French.  When the Commission first set down to work, it gave priority to revisiting cases that involved people who had been naturalized during the Popular Front era.  It singled out for close examination dossiers that contained letters of recommendation from Third Republic politicians.  It almost goes without saying that the Commission targeted Communists, trade unionists, and political trouble-makers for unsympathetic review.  Vichy had a political score to settle with the Third Republic and with the Left, and the Commission de révision abetted in the project.

Zalc’s story takes an even darker turn when it comes to the Commission’s identification and handling of people deemed of little or no interest to the nation.  How, it might well be asked, was it even possible to know what such a person looked like?  The Commission found ways.  For starters, such persons came from undesirable countries, not Latin lands, but East European or “Levantine” locales.  These were places far away in fact and in spirit, their inhabitants so alien that France, its genius for assimilation notwithstanding, would choke on an excess of them.  The unworthy also had a professional profile.  They were tailors or shopkeepers, and they were doctors.  Doctors?  France already had a surplus of medical men and didn’t need or want more of them, all the more so if they came from somewhere like Romania or if they had strange-sounding names.  One of the thorny issues Zalc deals with is the Commission’s onomastic practices.  Commissioners were inclined to fasten on people who bore names that the Commissioners assumed to be Jewish.  Readers may be tempted to make the same kind of assumption themselves.  After all, someone called Raphaël Podchlebnik must be Jewish, musn’t he?  Zalc, however, warns against the pitfalls of such onomastic game-playing, for it feeds, as she shows, into the kind of ethnic stereotyping that the Commission de révision applied to such fatal effect.  

There is no doubt who the Commission members were hunting for—Jews—and like bloodhounds on the scent, Commissioners sniffed out names, professions, and places of origin to track down their quarry.  Here, Zalc tells us, is what “ordinary anti-Semitism” (15) looks like in practice.  Yet make no mistake, however ordinary the prejudice, the results of its application were anything but.

The final chapters of Denaturalized deal with the consequences of the Commission’s labors, and they make for painful reading.   Targets of denaturalization were summoned to the police station or the mayor’s office or the prefecture and informed of what lay in store.  They had to turn in their citizenship papers, and this without any explanation as to what, if anything, they had done to merit such misfortune.  It is easy to imagine how dumbfounded some were, how crushed and humiliated.  More than that, the loss of papers meant the loss of political rights and maybe even the loss of employment.  For Jews, the denaturalization process brought the attention of not always benevolent authorities, and stripped of citizenship, they were that much more vulnerable to deportation, which for them amounted to a sentence of death.  It should not be thought that people suffered in silence.  Protests were lodged and explanations demanded.  In ninety-five percent of cases, however, the Commission refused to reverse its decision to denaturalize, and the victims got the message.  They remonstrated less and less as time went by, coming to understand, one presumes, that it was wiser policy to lay low or to take steps to disappear from public view.

Zalc’s book is a study of how a bureaucracy, pushing papers and fetishizing procedure as bureaucracies will do, ended up killing people.  The breakdown of democratic norms lies at the heart of the process.  Vichy invested the Commission de révision with vast discretionary powers.  The regime roughed out a nationalist vision of citizenship, which the Commissioners, guided by prejudices that they articulated in dog whistles and coded language, set about implementing.  At a time when there were few restraints on what might be done to vulnerable people, the result was mortification, misery, and murder.   Reading Zalc’s book today, I am reminded of the final words of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol’s documentary on Nazi concentration camps, Nuit et Brouillard (1955).  As Resnais’s camera pans over the remains of a camp, the voice-over commentary adjures viewers not to take comfort in the thought that the spectacle before them is a thing of the past:  

Here we are, sincere of heart, looking at these ruins, as if the old concentrationary monster lay buried among the rubble, …as if the concentrationary plague admitted of a cure, we who pretend to believe that all this has to do with one time and one place, and who don’t think to look around us, and who don’t hear the unending cry.

Philip Nord is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1981.  He is the author of several works on the history of modern France, including most recently: France’s New Deal: From the Thirties to the Postwar Era (Princeton University Press, 2010) and France 1940: Defending the Republic (Yale University Press, 2015).



[1] Nicolas Mariot and Claire Zalc, Face à la persécution. 991 Juifs dans la guerre (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010).

[2] Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

[3] Jacques Semelin, Persécutions et entraides dans la France occupée. Comment 75% des Juifs en France ont échappé à la mort (Paris: Le Seuil, 2013).

[4] Renée Poznanski, Propagandes et persécutions. La Résistance et le “problème juif” 1940-1944 (Paris: Fayard, 2008).

Keywords: Keywords: Citizenship, Vichy France