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This Nazi-era archive has brought people to tears. Now, it is open to the public
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. The files had been scheduled for release in five years at the earliest. But officials announced on Sunday that the archives would be open to the public beginning Monday.
Few major revelations are expected, according to French radio station RFI, because authorities and researchers had already been able to read some of the documents. But the Vichy regime remains an extremely sensitive part of French history. In particular, how many French supported the Vichy regime has remained a controversial issue that has interfered with France's understanding of itself as a nation that staunchly and unitedly opposed the Nazis.
Given that historians and some others have had access to the archives for years, it is unlikely that the French will have to rewrite parts of their history. However, the impact on individuals could be enormous.
"I've seen people leaving the archives in tears... Because they'd found out the details of an arrest, an execution, a betrayal, for example. Some came with the idea that their grandfather had been in the resistance but discovered that was not exactly true," RFI and the French newspaper Le Figaro quoted historian Jean-Marc Beliere as saying.
Authorities will theoretically still be able to prevent the public from viewing some 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. But both sides allegedly tortured their enemies, and the French eventually had to withdraw from Algeria as support for the occupiers dropped in Europe as well as in Algeria.
[Source: By Rick Noack, The Washington Post, 29Dec15]
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