The Jews in France 1919-1939

On June 22, 1940 the French Army was granted an armistice by its German conquerors. The unthinkable had happened and the sole bastion of liberty, equality, and freedom in Europe had fallen to the forces of tyranny, oppression, and racism. France, the nation where thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria had flocked to throughout the 1930s, was now under the heel of the very people from which these thousands fled. With the Nazis came strict anti-Semitic regulations and eventually deportations, but anti-Semitism itself was not new to France. Anti-Semitism always had a home with the French and it was in the two decades before their defeat by the Germans that it began to take hold once again. With a failing economy and what were perceived to be threats to the French culture, anti-Semitism found the prerequisites necessary for its embedment in the consciousness of the population. While the native French Jews did little to try to stop its spread and kept themselves out of the public sphere as much as possible, the sudden influx of immigrants from the 1880s and especially after the end of the First World War and the beginning of Nazism injected a more radical and outspoken Jewish nationalism into the French political sphere. With the ascendancy of L on Blum, a Jew, to Premier in 1936, anti-Semitism became a national debate and not the private one it had been. When the factors of economic hardship and threats to the French culture are coupled with the increasingly noticeable Jewish voice and the election of L on Blum, it becomes clear why anti-Semitism grew in France and that why, after the Premiership of Blum, it became an increasingly widespread national sentiment.
By 1939, the population of France had reached 43,000,000, of which 300,000 to 330,000 were Jewish. Thus, the Jews made up less than 1% of the entire population of France. The majority of these Jews came from recent immigration from across Europe and two-thirds of the entire French Jewish population resided in Paris. In the 1880s, Jews from Russia, Romania, and Poland arrived in France, followed by, after the end of the First World War, Jews from the new states of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Hungary. Most immigrants arrived between 1919 and 1939, when the Jewish population increased by 150,000. When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, France accepted 25,000 immigrants from Germany alone, of which approximately 85% were Jewish. Organizations were soon set up to aid the increasing numbers of refugees but by the mid-1930s these organizations were concerned with ridding France of these foreigners. By 1938 and Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom against the Jews, even the head Rabbi of Paris said that France “had no responsibility for the Jewish refugees bound to come.” The Decree Law of November 12, 1938 placed severe restrictions on aliens and set up internment camps for those refugees who had no place to go. By the start of the war, France was no longer a safe haven for refugees, many of which were Jews escaping Nazi persecution.
The Jews of France could be divided up roughly into two groups. One was made up of Jews who were born in France and who considered themselves Frenchmen as much as Jews. The other group was made up of recent immigrants. The primary goal of the French Jews was the assimilation of the immigrants. According to Paula Hyman, French “Jewish leaders tried to keep Jewishness, especially from immigrants, out of sight and out of politics in order to slow the spread of anti-Semitism.” They were loyal to the government in the form of political neutrality. For this reason, Jewish groups “organized no protest meeting against Nazism...opposed the boycott of German products...issued appeals to Jews not to participate in anti-Nazi street demonstrations.” The French Jews had faith in the government and believed that they would be protected by it if necessary, as the resolution of the Dreyfus affair showed. But with the increasing number of immigrants, many of them outspoken, radical, and opposed to assimilation, the position of the French Jews was in danger. Jacques Bi linky of L’Univers israelite wrote: “the new immigrants, who in their lifestyle, their excitement in the street, their Yiddish...strongly disturb the French population.” The strong Zionism of the immigrants was seen to be in opposition to the French Jewish drive for full emancipation as the establishment of a Jewish homeland would raise “the dangerous notion of dual loyalty.” The Association of French Rabbis issued a statement saying that Zionism “cannot be reconciled with the principles of French Judaism and with the conception which the latter has always had of its duties vis- -vis world Judaism.” This opposition to the immigrants led to the apathy of the French Jews to the needs of the refugees until it was too late.
The immigrants, on the other hand, tried to sustain their distinct culture and Jewishness. Israel Jefroykin, President of the Federation of Jewish Societies, said “the immigrant Jew sees himself as the bearer of authentic Jewish culture and sees the native Jew as neither here nor there.” Whereas the French Jews had trust in their government, the immigrant Jew had arrived from nations that incited pogroms or enacted anti-Semitic legislation. Seeing it necessary to defend themselves, the immigrant Jews were more likely to be involved in political groups than the French Jews. Many of these political groups leaned to the Left which only served to
perpetuate the stereotype of the Jew as a force of disruption in the traditional order.
After the First World War, anti-Semitism in France had receded to the background. However, the Stock Market Crash and the worldwide depression soon hit France and its economy began a downward spiral. Before this event, however, the massive loss of life in the First World War meant that France was lacking manpower. Immigrants were needed and by 1931 there were 2,900,000 residing in France. When the depression hit France, there was no better scapegoat than these millions of foreigners. There was a clear shift in anti-Semitism in France during the 1920s and 1930s. In the ‘Roaring Twenties’, anti-Semitism was not a major factor yet by the 1930s it had reared its head once again. The immigrants once needed were later to be seen as a drain, and by 1936, the amount of immigrants had dropped by 500,000. The immigrants posed three threats to France, says Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton. “First, the threat to unemployment...[Second,] a threat to swamp French culture already under the assault...from the mass cultures of America and Russia...created and spread, it was alleged, by Jews...[Third,] the refugees threatened to involve...France in unwanted international complications.” Jews also had a disproportionate amount of influence in the cinema and this was seen as a further threat to the French culture. Hostility to immigrants and, by extension, Jews was growing because of these perceived threats to France. Anti-Semitism was again on the rise.
According to Hyman, “economic depression, mass migration, the emergence of the Popular Front, and the threat of war combined to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.” When anti-Semites managed to establish that the Jews were a problem, it would be easier for them to convince the moderate French politicians and population of anti-Semitism. But to the French Jews, the anti-Semitism of the early 1930s was not of French origin. According to Ren e Poznanski, they “considered the anti-Semitism that would crop up at times to be a German import brought on by temporary social ailments; its nature was thought to be profoundly different from that of Russian or German anti-Semitism, which were considered chronic, traditional, and deeply rooted in society.” They were not prepared for what would be widespread throughout France by the outbreak of war. France suffered from political instability for much of the early 20th century, and anti-Semitism was something the country could rally around. The proximity of Nazi Germany only aided in this spread. By 1936, anti-Semitic publications were produced in higher numbers than ever seen before. It was not long until this anti-Semitism spilled over from ideology into action.
This propaganda “led to sporadic attacks on Jews in immigrant Jewish neighbourhoods and on Jewish business in Alsace-Lorraine.” Mass anti-Semitic demonstrations of 2,000 to 3,000 people took place in immigrant quarters of Paris. The Camelots du Roi, a paramilitary group not unlike the Sturmabteilung of Nazi Germany, took part in demonstrations against the Jews and harassed them at every opportunity. In 1938 widespread violence took place as foreigners were attacked in the streets in Paris, Dijon, Saint-Entienne, Nancy, and in other places in Alsace-Lorraine, the adjacent territory to Germany. While in the 1920s anti-Semitism was dormant, it grew in the early 1930s and, as can be seen with the escalating violence, by the late 1930s anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the French psyche.
The shift to radicalism was chiefly motivated by two events that took place in 1934 and 1936. The Stavisky Affair of 1934, in which parliamentarians were implicated in various schemes to defraud the government of money, brought the issue of anti-Semitism to the national perspective. Stavisky was one of these parliamentarians as well as a Russian Jew. Marrus and Paxton say that “the connection was rapidly made: France’s international weakness, its economic decline, its parliamentary disorder, its diminished sense of national purpose, its declining birthrate, its flagging bourgeois culture - all could be attributed to the Jews.” While French Jewry attempted to stay out of the limelight, men like Stavisky thrust Judaism into the minds of all Frenchmen.
The second event took place in 1936. L on Blum, head of the Popular Front and a Jew, became the head of a government made up mostly of socialists and communists. “At times the French Israelites were worried that L on Blum was put in the limelight, for he did not hesitate to take clear and public positions on Jewish issues,” says Poznanski. With the election of L on Blum to the Premiership, the Jewish Question was now a national debate. The anti-Semitic Action Fran aise, in reference to Blum in 1937, said that “here it is one year since France has fallen under the yoke of a foreign nation.” Because of Blum’s socialist bent, “Jews were deemed responsible for all of the ills of modernity, ranging from capitalist speculation to Marxist revolutionary ferment to Freudian psychology and modernised culture.” Despite the assimilation of Jews like Blum, he was considered un-French. Blum responded by saying that “I was born in France, I was brought up as a Frenchman...I have a perfect command of the French language without the slightest trace of a foreign accent...I have the right to consider myself perfectly assimilated...And yet, none the less I feel that I am a Jew. And I have never felt the slightest contradiction, the slightest conflict between these two areas of my consciousness.” French Jewry tried to support this sentiment. Raymond-Raoul Lambert, editor of L’Univers israelite, wrote that “none of us has the right to engage the responsibility of our fellow Jews by giving a Jewish meaning to a personal attitude.” Nevertheless, anti-Semitism was a major factor in opposition to Blum’s Popular Front. Opposition to the Popular Front originally did not extend to just anti-Semites, but with Blum at its head anti-Semitism began to appear in areas it had not been before. The Blum years “reshaped anti-Jewish sensibility into a political, economic, and social world opposition movement attempting to defend France against revolutionary change.” Jews, already linked with the evils of Bolshevism, Marxism, and communism, were now represented in the person of L on Blum who became, with his fellow Jews, symbols of the hated Left. Had it not been for the national exposure Blum gave to communism and the Jews, often inaccurately linked, the spread of anti-Semitism in France in the late 1930s may not have been so complete, which would have made it more difficult for the Nazis and Vichy France to impose their anti-Semitic rule.
When it became clear that Adolf Hitler was set upon a programme of expansion the French populace supported appeasement such as that of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Jews were seen as in opposition of this policy as it was widely believed that the Jews wanted a war of revenge against the Nazis. The Jews, on the other hand, claimed they wanted peace. But in a growing climate of hostility against the Jews, it did not take long for a spark. That came on November 17, 1938 when Herschel Grynszpan, a Jew who’s family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, shot Ernst vom Rath at the German Embassy in Paris. This act was a clear sign, according to the anti-Semites, that the Jews were set on war with the Nazis. However, by the declaration of war on September 3, 1939, the “Jews had the chance to show their loyalty to France and would strike a blow against the Nazis.” The Jews were now finally united. Nevertheless, with war came paranoia. Fear of ‘fifth columnists’ such as German and Austrian refugees, drove the French government into rounding up these recent immigrants, many of whom were Jewish, and placing them in special internment camps. Many French Jews lobbied the government to release the German and Austrian Jews, who were unlikely to breed sedition in favour of the country which had set out to persecute them.
By mid-June 1940, the back of the French Army had been broken. The British Expeditionary Force had been knocked off of the continent at Dunkirk and the Germans were moving all across the French countryside. There would be no Marne in 1940 and no stalemate as in 1914. The Germans occupied northern France while they left southern France under the control of a pro-Nazi government which had its seat at Vichy. Vichy, prodded on by its German masters, introduced anti-Semitic legislation as early as 1940. The property of Jews was confiscated, their movements restricted, and many of them were interned. Vichy France “became in August 1942 the only European country except Bulgaria to hand Jews over to the Nazis...from areas not directly subject to German military occupation.” Undoubtedly, the roots of this willingness originated well before 1942. In fact, it is estimated that 3,000 Jews died in the internment camps of Vichy France.
When the dust had settled over the European continent in May of 1945, 6,500,000 Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. In France, 75,000 had been deported to the east. Out of these, only 2,700 returned. Including the deaths of Jews in France and outside of France, the total number is at least 80,000. The deaths of these 80,000 men, women, and children is the legacy of what happened in France during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Obviously, without the invasion by Germany of France and subsequent Nazi rule over half, and later all, of the country these 80,000 people would not have lost their lives. However, in every European nation the Nazis relied heavily on the local population to find, round up, and in some cases, kill their fellow Jewish countrymen. France was not an exception. As noted, France was one of only two nations to willingly hand Jews over to the Nazis and certain death. If anti-Semitism hadn’t been implanted in the psyche of the French, would Vichy France have collaborated as much as it did? Would 3,000 Jews have died while in Vichy custody? It is impossible to know for sure, but in all likelihood had France not been infected with anti-Semitism there would have been many more French Jewish survivors.
The roots of anti-Semitism in France date back to the time of the Romans and before. However, by the end of the First World War it was on the decline. It only reared its ugly head in the years immediately before and after the Great Depression and the subsequent economic difficulties in France. This extra burden placed on the French, in addition to the prevailing fear of the swamping of their culture by Jewish-spread Americanism and communism, prepared them to accept anti-Semitism again. The Nazis, for example, only found success in times of economic failure, such as the early 1930s. In fact, in times of economic success, such as in the late 1920s, their popularity dwindled. In both countries, anti-Semitism found a welcome home in the disenchanted. Similarly, in both countries anti-Semitism hit the national sphere upon its introduction into politics. The coming to power of the anti-Semitic Nazis brought the Jewish question to the entire nation. Likewise, the coming to power of the Jew, L on Blum, had the same effect in France. However, unlike the Jews in Germany who had no power, the Jews in France still had much influence during the 1930s. Set in their traditional ways of assimilation and neutrality, they did not act when they had the chance and when they could have been listened to, unlike the radical immigrant Jews who were seen as a drain and a threat to the French nation. The story of French anti-Semitism in the period of 1919 to 1939 is one of a gradual progression. Economic hardships, the election of Blum, and the threat of war all factored into the growth of anti-Semitism in France, and it is in these elements that the antecedents of the crimes of the Vichy French regime can be found.

Works Cited
Hyman, Paula E. The Jews of Modern France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
—. From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry 1906-1939. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Josephs, Jeremy. Swastika Over Paris: The Fate of the French Jews. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, 1989.
Marrus, Michael R. and Robert O. Paxton. Vichy France and the Jews. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
Poznanski, Ren e. Jews in France During World War II. Trans. Nathan Bracher. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2001.
Ryan, Donna E. The Holocaust and the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.