Arguably the two periods of French history that have inspired the most lasting interest (and debate) are the Revolution that began in 1789 and what the French call les années noires, the "dark years" of 1940-44.
During this latter period, the French experienced a humiliating defeat at German hands; the Third Republic voted into existence a new regime (forever identified as "Vichy" after the spa town where it was based); the words "occupation," "collaborator," and "resistance" assumed painful and complex meanings; and, most historians agree, about 75,000 Jews were deported from France, mostly to Auschwitz. Only 2,500 ever returned.
For readers well read in French history, the name Louis Darquier – or Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, as he styled himself – may be familiar. From May 1942 to February 1944 Darquier headed Vichy's General Office for Jewish Affairs (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, or CGQJ).
He fled to Spain in 1944; two years before his death in 1980 he returned to public awareness when he gave an interview to the weekly L'Express, asserting that the concept of 6 million dead Jews was " 'an invention, pure and simple. A Jewish invention' ."
Beyond these broad outlines, Darquier is little remembered today. But Carmen Callil's magisterial Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland, and Vichy France may change that.
With astonishing detail and documentation (not to mention skill and style) Callil offers a biography of the man who took charge of "the Jewish problem" for the Nazis in France ("one of the few men to put on weight during the Second World War").
It also happens to be a story in which Callil has a personal stake. She became aware of Darquier through his daughter, Anne. Born in England in 1930, Anne Darquier seems to have spent only her first three months living with her parents; she was then "given away for a fee of £1 a week," placed in a nanny's care while Louis Darquier and Anne's Australian-born mother, Myrtle – who, along with Darquier, comes across as selfish, dishonest, and otherwise deeply flawed – sought fame and fortune, first in London and then in France.
Thus Anne grew up in England. She became a psychiatrist and the 20-something Callil was her patient for seven years. On Monday morning, Sept. 7, 1970, Callil arrived for her appointment and rang the doorbell, "but there was no response."
Later that day Anne was found dead on her bathroom floor. Although her death was ruled accidental, "the amount and the mixture of barbiturates and alcohol in her body were poisonous."
Perhaps somewhat unprofessionally, Anne had let slip to Callil some details about her own unhappy life. It was enough to intrigue Callil, although at that point she could not possibly have envisioned the full picture her book provides.
It's not easy for the reader to absorb, either. And yet, the book's length notwithstanding, the stories – the tangled personal histories of Louis, Myrtle, and Anne as well as the equally complex history of France in the 1930s and 1940s – will keep readers gripped from beginning to end.
The "facts" alone are compelling enough, but it's the deft way Callil has assembled them that works so well. Divided into five key parts, the book begins with the family histories and childhoods of both Louis and Myrtle. Part 2 details the beginning of the Darquiers' marriage and Anne's birth and babyhood.
The next section, titled "Hitler's Parrot," takes us to France in the 1930s and traces Louis Darquier's growing prominence as a French anti-Semite, while repeatedly reminding us of his daughter growing up in an England "hiccup[ing] towards another world war."
Part 4 covers the 1940-44 period, including Louis's CGQJ activities. In the book's last segment, Callil follows Louis, Myrtle, and Anne after the war.
Blending these personal and public stories, Callil offers an unparalleled window into Louis Darquier and the extraordinary confluence of historical circumstances and personal character (or, more accurately, lack of character) that allowed this small man – a barroom brawler who battered and his wife and cheated on her; who only irregularly and incompletely paid the woman hired to care for the child he had abandoned; and who claimed that "Germany has simply been the first country in the modern era to provide a governmental solution to the [Jewish] problem ... the French government [must] do the same" – to obtain a big title. Ultimately, Darquier irritated even the Germans who'd promoted him; he never had many fans among the French at Vichy.
Unfortunately, after so painstakingly researching and portraying Darquier – as well as the French regime in which he lived and worked – Callil concludes her book with a two-sentence indictment of "the Jews of Israel": "What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people. Like the rest of humanity, the Jews of Israel 'forget' the Palestinians."
It left this reader hoping that others impressed by Callil's thoroughness in telling one complex story will remember the value of a complete record when addressing other complicated subjects as well.
• Erika Dreifus holds a PhD in modern French history from Harvard University.