French Railroad Should be on the Track to Reconciliation

The American Thinker article published on April 2, 2014 and titled “The French Trains were on the Wrong Track” occasioned some comments from readers interested in complete historical accuracy that deserve a reply. The article did not discuss the guilt or innocence of the French Société des Chemins de fer (SNCF) in transporting 76,000 Jews, of whom 3,000 returned, from internment camps in France to the border town of Novéant from where they were sent to their deaths in extermination camps.

The article was written after the death of a 93-year-old man living in Maryland who had escaped from a French train deporting him. He had called for compensation to be given the victims or families who had suffered the fate he had escaped.  Surely goodness and mercy should have been shown to this man.

Political and complex legal issues concerning SNCF and the “French State” (the Vichy regime) are still with us. As one French historian has said, Vichy is a past that doesn’t pass. Those issues have been reignited during March 2014 by the testimony of a 75-year-old woman named Rosette Goldstein given to the lawmakers of the state of Virginia. She was testifying on behalf of her father who was transported on December 7, 1943 from the internment camp of Drancy, outside of Paris, to Auschwitz. Her point was that compensation should be paid to the deportation victims before SNCF is allowed to compete for state rail contracts in Virginia.

Specifically at issue is the preventing of SNCF, essentially Keolis America of which SNCF owns 70%, from bidding on the $6 billion public-private project, so called Purple Line, to build and run the 16-mile light rail line in Maryland. The general context is acknowledgment of responsibility and eventual compensation for its part in the French participation in the Holocaust before SNCF is allowed to bid.

The French private rail companies had been nationalized in 1938, with the result that 51% of the stock was owned by the state, and 49% by the formerly private companies. Thus the starting point is whether SNCF should be regarded as an agency of the French state or as a public enterprise under government control. The second more important issue is the role of SNCF in relation to the Vichy Government and to Nazi Germany that, after the defeat of the French Third Republic in June 1940, had occupied the northern half of France and after November 1942 the whole country.

At the heart of the issue are the differences of opinion about degrees of collaboration by the French, and public agencies, and their responsibility for actions committed in a complex situation where the southern half of the country was for two years unoccupied.  President Jacques Chirac on June 16-17, 1992 said that “France had committed an irreparable act,” fifty years earlier at Vel d’Hiv and that it was time to recognize the errors committed by the government at the time.

SNCF defends its actions in deportations by arguing that the German-French Armistice Agreement of June 22, 1940 left it with no option to exercise autonomy.

Did it in fact have any option other than to obey orders and was coerced into deporting the Jews of France, or was there some latitude for independent action? Was it forced to be a cog in the Nazi extermination machine? The SNCF apologists argue, correctly, that German authorities, particularly Theodor Dannecker, the SS representative in Paris of Adolf Eichmann, did issue orders of the details for French transports. But the independent Report of September 1996 written by Christian Bachelier at the request of the SNCF itself presents a much more qualified picture.

The Report makes clear that the transport of Jews was not organized by the German Occupation authorities who would have reserved train cars on pre-existing convoys or commandeered them from the national company. Rather, it was organized by the SNCF under orders given by the administrative services of the Ministry of the Interior of Vichy. The SNCF participated in the formation, direction, and operation of the convoys. The costs of the transport were billed to the Ministry, supposedly at the rate of a third-class ticket per person, though SNCF denies this particular billing.

Also at issue were the conditions of transport in the convoys of deportation. Some of the windowless freight cars holding 52 people had no food or water, and had inadequate sanitary conditions. It is unlikely that Dannecker or any other Nazi official ordered SNCF to transport Jews in this inhumane fashion. But if he did, why did the SNCF obey?

There are legitimate differences of opinion over the ability of SNCF to act in a more autonomous fashion. The Administrative Court of Toulouse in June 2006 in a case that decided in favor of the plaintiff held that the SNCF transports were a “wrongful act” (faute de service) by the French State and the SNCF. It held that SNCF independence from German coercion in the transports was particularly clear. The state was ordered to pay two-thirds and SNCF one-third of the settlement of 62,000 euros. However, the Bordeaux court of appeals reversed the decision, ruling that SNCF was not liable, because it had acted on government authority. In accepting the SNCH defense, the court did this on the basis of a Vichy decree of October 10, 1943 that made SNCF a limited liability company, subject to certain exemptions from common law. SNCF successfully claimed the courts lacked jurisdiction concerning their actions.

Present heads of SNCF have issued regrets over wartime actions of the company. But they have on legal grounds refused reparations to those who were deported or to their families. Executives of SNCF were not villains nor did they approve of the Holocaust, but the fundamental problem is that the railroads were a vital element in the killing process.

It is true that 2100 men who worked for SNCF were executed for acts of resistance, but they acted as did other French citizens and their actions, though courageous, had nothing to do with their employment by SNCF. The understandable reality is that SNCF was not a profile in courage. The Bachelier report showed that not a single protest against the deportation of Jews ever came from SNCF itself, nor was any train sabotaged. Only one engineer refused to drive a deportation train; he was given only a mild reprimand and did not lose his job.   It was the general resistance movement, not the SNCF, that from June 1944 derailed or tried to delay every train from Marseille to Lyons.

The lack of opposition by SNCF is in contrast with the sermons of Monsignor Delay, bishop of Marseilles, who read out and sent a message of sympathy for Jews, and the pastoral letter of Archbishop Saliège of Toulouse on August 3, 1942. Both of these clerics were appalled by the great crime of Vichy, the Vel d’Hiv event (La Grande Rafle) of July 16-17, 1942 in which 13,000 Jews were arrested, 7,000 of whom were put for five days in the ghastly setting of the bicycle arena, sent to Drancy, and then deported, including all the children, by the railroad to their deaths, the first Jews from France to die in Auschwitz.

President François Mitterrand made July 16 a day of national remembrance, but he refused to accept that France should be blamed, because Vichy was “illegal” and not France. The most damning official comment, however, came from François Hollande who on July 16, 2012 spoke of this “crime committed in France by France.” Moreover, the hard and fast truth is that not one German soldier, not one, was mobilized for any of the operation. 

SNCF behavior is also in sharp contrast with brave people, such as those of the Musée de l’Homme who produced anti-German and anti-Vichy posters: most of these people were executed.

An often unnoticed striking difference is evident in SNCF behavior. Irrespective of the supposed control of Dannecker, SNCF did try to resist German demands when its economic interests were at stake. This was the case with the replacement of restaurant cars or the repair of railroads tracks damaged from Allied bombing. But there was no resistance to transports of Jews which were then treated as “Ministry of the Interior transfers.”

Recent reports indicate that the French Government, partial owner of Keolis, has begun negotiations with the U.S. State Department over reparations for those American citizens, about 250,  who do not meet the French criteria for compensation.

The most desirable reasonable conclusion is for SNCF, even if one accepts it was not directly responsible for participation in the Holocaust, to make a fundamental gesture of reconciliation to offer reparations, either by itself or by supporting such an action by the government.  One can understand the desire for complete historical accuracy about behavior in wartime France, and differences of opinion remain on this. But SNCF should not rely on arcane legal arguments, or a directive of the Nazi SS leaders to avoid acts of reconciliation and generosity.

Edmund Burke was right. Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.