The Anatomy of Fascism
Robert O. Paxton
321 pages; $26.
Robert Paxton is no ordinary historian. When Maurice Papon, an official responsible for deporting Jews from the Gironde during the German occupation of France, was put on trial in 1997, the Bordeaux judge called on four historians to explain the background to members of the jury, all but one of whom were born after the end of the second world war. Mr Paxton, a professor from Columbia University in New York, was one of those experts.
Though mild in manner, his presence in court was electric. Here was an American telling French people about shameful events in their nation's recent past. Imagine a French expert in an American court describing racial segregation, or a German historian giving evidence to a British jury on Northern Ireland, and you have an idea of the emotions at work.
Mr Paxton is used to the role of outsider voicing awkward truths. Years ago he became the first post-war historian to turn comfortable French myths about Vichy upside down. His classic "Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order" (1972) argued that Vichy was less a shield for republican France against Nazism than a repressive and anti-democratic regime that begged Hitler to accept its co-operation.
His research seriously damaged the image of nation-wide resistance shared by Gaullists and Communists. Instead it showed the breadth of French collaboration. Though vilified when his book came out in French a year later, Mr Paxton's years in the provincial archives were hard to argue with. A view of France as participant, not purely victim, gained ground. To younger French historians, Mr Paxton became something of a hero.
Read the entire article on the The Economist website.