Maurice Papon died on February 17th, 2007. Papon achieved infamy as the man who sent over 1000 French people to the death camps of Nazi Germany during World War Two. Yet Papon became a government minister after the war.
Maurice Papon became a high-ranking official in Vichy France – the puppet regime set up under Marshall Petain after the surrender of France. Papon, then aged 31, served as an administrative officer for the Bordeaux prefecture. This was the second highest position he could have had in the Gironde region. The Nazis ordered Vichy officials to become more pro-active in the roundup of Jews. Papon followed this order and put convents, children’s homes and schools under police surveillance – anywhere that might be hiding Jews. When local Catholic leaders complained about what Papon was doing, he replied that at that time the Vatican had remained silent over the issue, and that there was no reason why local religious leaders should not do the same.
In the summer of 1942, Papon ordered the arrest of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children. From the Gironde they were sent to the transit camp at Drancy in the suburbs of Paris. They were then sent to Auschwitz. Of the first thousand sent to Auschwitz, only one survived. It is known that Papon personally organised four out of the twelve convoys that took Jews from the Gironde to Drancy. Documents at Papon’s trial showed that he wanted the system speeded up so that few Jews had the chance to escape – thereby totally discrediting his defence that Papon did his utmost to help those arrested.
Papon’s dedication to what he was doing even led him to charge the Jews for their transportation to Drancy – the General Union of the Israelites of France, based in Paris, was sent the bills and in the circumstances of the occupation had to pay them. Papon’s work received positive reports from his Nazi overlords.
When the full horrors of the death camps became known after the war, it would have been assumed that Papon would have been arrested and charged with his crimes. He was not. Instead Papon climbed the political ladder at a national level. After the liberation of Paris, Papon became a Gaullist.
The newly liberated France found it hard to accept that anyone was a Nazi collaborator outside of the women who befriended German soldiers and who were publicly humiliated as ‘horizontals’. The public was fed stories of the heroics of the French Resistance and the unbending patriotism of Charles De Gaulle. Therefore, anyone associated with De Gaulle could not be a ‘collaborator’. The people of France had to dress their national wounds – and that included effectively meant turning a blind eye to those at a senior level who by any definition of the word, did collaborate. Papon’s Vichy career was airbrushed. De Gaulle thanked Papon for his work in the French Resistance and to all intents he was a national hero – as all members of the Resistance were. He was awarded the Legion of Honour and the Cross of the Resistance Fighter
Papon served as Prefect of Police in Paris and he was all-but protected until De Gaulle’s death in 1970.
He served as Minister for the Budget under Prime Minister Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Papon’s crimes were only exposed in 1981 when he served as Budget Minister. But it was to be another 17 years before he was brought to court.
Papon was undone by a Jew called Michel Slitinsky. He had evaded arrest in 1942 but in memory of his father who was arrested and murdered in Auschwitz, Slitinsky made it his task to bring collaborators to justice.
After the war, many relevant documents had been destroyed which made tracking down collaborators very difficult. However, while going through surviving wartime documents in Bordeaux, Slitinsky came across his own arrest warrant signed by Papon. Other documents signed by Papon were also found by Michel Berges, a historian.
When the documents were published, they ended the political career of Papon. However, there were still many attempts to stop the past being dragged up and it took until 1998 for Papon to face the courts when he was 86.
Papon’s defence was that he had no control over what happened to the Jews. He also argued that he secretly worked for the French Resistance and that the Resistance leaders told him to stay on in his position in Bordeaux when he wanted to resign over what was going on with regards to the Jews. Papon claimed that the documents presented to the court were false.
Papon was found not guilty of murder as it could not be proved that he knew that those Jews heading for Drancy from the Gironde would be murdered. However, he was found guilty of organising the transportation of Jews to Drancy and sentenced to ten years in prison. Papon appealed and during the time of his appeal, he fled to Switzerland. He was found and returned to France to start his sentence in 1999. Papon was released from prison in 2002 due to his poor health