top of page

Learning from history - facing our darkest hours

A poignant handmade card from a detainee in the French camp of Pithiviers wishing his family a happy new year at the end of 1941

Over the last 10 years, I developed a particular interest for a specific part of history, to which I dedicated a lot of reading. It is an interest I have mostly kept to myself, for reasons I have never been too sure of, a mix of fear of getting into conversations about such a dark topic, and perhaps a feeling of lacking any legitimacy for getting involved in any way. And maybe the fact that it still remains somewhat taboo within French history. However, studying over the past year helped me understand two things: why this part of history is attracting me to want to read more, and just how much we can learn from history, to try and understand what our ways of thinking and being have evolved from.

Having never been a big consumer of books (other than art and architecture books) for a large part of my life, around the start of my 30s, I got into the habit of reading before bed, and quickly turned into a "chain-reader". For the vast majority, I read books in French, as a rare opportunity to remain in touch with my mother tongue. I choose my books quite arbitrarily, literally judging them by their back cover, and picking books from authors whose other work I had already enjoyed. This is how I got to read a book called "Elle s'appelait Sarah" by a writer called Tatiana de Rosnay - later turned into a filmed called "Sarah's key". It was this book, a fictional story based on very real events, which brought my attention (and was the first of many books, personal accounts, diaries, etc. I subsequently read) to an event President Chirac admitted in 1995 to be "dark hours, forever defiling our history", acknowledging for the first time in over 50 years, even if not to the full, France's role in the deportation and massacre of Jews during the second world war. While this did not just happen as a single event, the largest, and probably most shocking, has come to be known as the "rafle du Vel d'Hiv", or Vel d'Hiv roundup, which took place on the 16 and 17 July 1942.

These two days saw the mass arrest of 13,152 Jews across Paris. Among those, around 6,000, mostly single people or young couples, were directly transported to the French camp of Drancy near Paris, before being deported for the most part to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The remaining 7,000 were taken to the winter velodrome, "Velodrome d'Hiver", of "Vel d'Hiv" in short, in central Paris, a stone throw away from the majestic Eiffel Tower. These people, families and children would be kept in there for days, in a completely unsuitable place, crammed either onto the track or the benches, with limited to no access to food or water, very few toilets which got blocked very early on, leaving people to relieve themselves against the walls, a small number of overwhelmed medical staff allowed in to help, all in all totally inhuman conditions. This quickly created an unsanitary environment in which people were getting ill, while also taking an immediate toll on their mental health. Some people died while in the Vel d'Hiv succumbing to these horrid conditions, or killing themselves in desperation, seeing the way they were treated and knowing all too well what was coming next.

All that is left from the Pithiviers transition camp, a small portion of one of the rudimental barracks, reconstructed in a museum

What was coming next, after 5 days of horror, was the move of all detainees into what were called "transition camps", in the towns of Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, an hour south east of Paris. In these camps, they find themselves crammed, again, this time in wooden barracks. These barracks were first designed during the first world war, to house temporarily 80 to 100 soldiers in each of them for a matter of days. This amount more than doubled for detainees, including children, leading some to have to sleep on the floor, on a bit of straw, during a which could have lasted for several weeks. Tragically, their stay in these camps would then lead to detainees being put onto train convoys (including freight wagons), often separating children from their parents, towards Auschwitz, where their ordeal would continue and they would ultimately be executed - out of those who transited via Pithiviers, less than 2% survived, primarily children who managed to escape.

What makes this tragic story even more unfathomable is the fact that all the way through, the planning and execution of the roundup, the treatment of detainees, their transportation into the camps, all of this wasn't done by the Nazis, but by French officials and civil servants, under the Vichy collaboration regime. Of course, it was triggered by expectations from the Germans. However, reports of official documents have shown that the size of the roundup, targets for numbers of detainees, and decisions on who to target, such as the inclusion of women and children, were all decisions which were made by the French authorities, going beyond what was expected from the Germans. These accounts of overzealousness rather than resistance remain to this day reported by historians, however the French official narrative, through the speech given by then President Chirac in 1995, only goes as far as France executing German orders, rather than accepting playing a more active role in some of these fatal decisions.

Accounts of survivors and witnesses bring to life just how inconceivable the experience of those being arrested and deported has been. For a long time, I have tried to find testimonies from those who found themselves executing orders, such as the "gendarmes", the French Police, or even the train drivers, with very little success. The way I was positioning their role in my head was one of individuals who went from serving the French population's interests up until the war, to suddenly having to act against some of them. My assumption for a long time has been that these people would have been coerced into taking those actions, or simply justifying them by thinking that they were responding to orders. Some more recent reading however has also brought up much more troubling cases where language used by some individuals executing these plans were unequivocally aligned to the views held by the Nazis. Whether these were long held beliefs, or ones that had been internalised as a result of the occupation is of course difficult to determine.

In recent years, and up to the point of signing up for my MSc in organisational psychology, I also developed an interest in morality in the context of organisations. In particular, working in the oil and gas sector, and later on in the defence sector, I have always felt the tension which exists between doing a job which supports others, and working in a context which can be seen as having detrimental effects on some - indeed I plan to conduct more research on this specific topic. It may seem obvious, but it is only recently that I have connected this interest from an academic perspective with the interest and reading I had conducted in relation to the Holocaust, and Vel d'Hiv roundup more specifically. Of course, drawing parallels is extremely risky here, and I am mindful of the need to tread very carefully. Where I see a clear connection however, is in the way all of this involves questions of morality and ethics, how do we come to build a frame of reference and values for morality, and how do we act and respond when these values are being challenged, and we are expected to act against them. How do we make sense of our own actions in this context, and what mechanisms do we activate to make it bearable? How would a police officer who has come to arrest Jewish families in the middle of the night to send them to a certain death process their action to make it bearable? And , arguably at a very different level, how does an employee working for an organisation whose products can endanger life or be detrimental of the environment make sense of the role they play in that outcome? I will not pretend to find definitive answers to these questions, however very much wish to be able to extract various perspectives from my research.

One thing that has already become much clearer, is the richness and critical importance of history in helping us to understand today's reality. For example, when dealing with matters relating to diversity and inclusion, and the treatment of particular minorities, the history of these minorities, how they have been considered and treated overtime, how they might have organised themselves as a result either in resistance or simply for survival, all of this should form a necessary part of any investigation for anyone looking to understand or support them. Going back to the second world war, I have also read a fascinating book by a French historian named Johann Chapoutot, called "Libres d'obeir" (free to obey), which highlights the management principles put in place by the Nazis, and how some of these have found their way into more modern management practices - a chilling yet eye opening perspective. It shows how the development of a sense of "community" rather than "nation" has enabled the adoption of certain ideologies, and how, through this, it managed to create an environment where decisions were made by individuals, perceiving to use their free will, when in fact they were serving this broader ideology - hence people felt free, but their own decisions would always lead them to obey to the prescribed position. Echoing this in an almost concerning fashion, I recently read a research paper by McCabe (2016) on a large-scale organisational change process, where one key angle was to highlight the dehumanisation of the strategists and managers, who were seen to define and implement strategies to enact the intent of the top executive leadership, and followed this top-level direction knowing that it would be detrimental to individuals, when they would have been in a position to recommend different approaches.

Looking back at my school years, history lessons were mostly about facts, dates, and events, with little appreciation of the consequences that all these might have had on our present ways of living and thinking. I have come to consider history in a much different way in recent years, as a bank of experiences which is there for all of us to access, in order to learn more about how all of us have come to be who we are. It is a bank which is full of richness, waiting to be used in the most positive way.

Enjoyed reading this article? Click here and enter your email address on the homepage to be notified of my future posts.


bottom of page