The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Nazi-era archive has brought people to tears. Now, it is open to the public.

Adolf Hitler (right) shakes hands with Head of State of Vichy France Marshall Philippe Petain in occupied France on Oct. 24, 1940. (AP Photo, File)
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It has been more than 70 years since the end of the war, but emotions have been running high in France since the government announced it would open the archives of the so-called Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany.

"There will be no scoop, no extraordinary revelation, but rather a realistic view of a complex period,” said historian  Jean-Marc Berliere. Having studied some of the records before they were made available to the public this week, he said the documents will provide insights into the complexity of human behavior – and the transition between evil and good in times of war.

It is unlikely that the French will have to rewrite parts of their history -- authorities and researchers had already been allowed to read some of the documents. But the impact on individuals could be enormous. The role of the French government under Nazi occupation remains an extremely sensitive part of French history. But the question of how many French supported the regime is particularly controversial and has interfered with France's understanding of itself as a nation that staunchly opposed the Nazis.

“How many times did I show the archives to people who left in tears – overwhelmed by what they had just learned?" Berliere said. “Some who supposedly were heroic members of the resistance movement had in fact denounced ... neighbors, rivals or competitors.”

“To dive into the archives also means to take the risk of being confronted with a truth that does not correspond to the assumed reality one has always lived with,” he said. However, some who have viewed the records have had a different experience. “I remember a woman convinced that her father, a police officer, had been a horrible collaborator [with the Nazis], and who discovered, that in fact, her father had been tortured, robbed, and finally killed in a revenge punishment.”

Authorities will theoretically still be able to prevent the public from viewing documents that are considered of importance to the country's national security.

In more than 200,000 documents, the Vichy archives provide insights into court trials, the regime's battle against resistance fighters, details of the surveillance apparatus as well as denunciations by French citizens -- the latter being perhaps the most shocking part of the archives.

The sensitivity of everything related to the country's Vichy regime, which is named after the city it was based in, was again highlighted last year when its state railway company was forced to pay compensations. It had long been accused of having transported Jews from France to Nazi concentration camps but had denied those allegations for decades.

The Vichy regime ruled over a "free zone" in southeastern France between 1940 and 1944 and collaborated with Nazi Germany, which occupied much of the rest of the country -- including Paris -- at that time. Led by Philippe Petain, who was considered a hero of World War I, the regime helped the Nazis deport more than 70,000 Jews.

Some French historians have urged caution in dealing with the documents. “There’s an obligation – that applies not just to historians – but to everyone who has the privilege of accessing these documents, to respect the honor of individuals," historian Jean-Pierre Azema told France24 a TV channel.

“When we use these archival documents to understand the past, we need to exercise caution about the kind of conclusions we draw,” he was quoted as saying.

The country's archives of another controversial historical period, the Algerian war for independence, will continue to be closed to the public. At first, the French led a fierce fight against the independence movements. The French eventually had to withdraw from Algeria as support for the occupiers dropped in Europe as well as in Algeria.

This post has been updated.