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Sacred Treason

Race, Religion, and The Holocaust in France

On August 15, 1942, ten French bishops met secretly behind the sanctuary of the Notre-Dame church in Le Puy. Their plan was to coordinate a protest on behalf of Jews in France. One month prior, French police arrested 12,884 Jews in Paris and its suburbs and confined them to the Vélodrome d’hiver indoor cycling stadium before deporting them to Auschwitz, where less than a handful survived. Despite the fact that Jews in France had been arrested and detained in internment camps throughout the country since May 1941, French bishops had until this moment remained silent concerning the state’s violence against Jews and even, at times, endorsed it. In December 1941, for instance, Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier proclaimed, “no one more than I recognizes the evil that Jews have done to France.” Yet merely ten months later he walked to his pulpit in coordination with four other bishops and declared, “The Jews are our brothers. They belong to mankind…. No Christian dare forget that!”


A mass of Parisians gathered at the Basilica Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre to attend a religious service and pray for peace. (AP Photo, August 27, 1939)

Sacred Treason tells the story of French bishops’ defections from the episcopate’s support for the Vichy regime on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust. When the authoritarian Vichy regime came to power, it replaced France’s republican virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity with the principles of work, family, and fatherland. This resulted in a shift in conceptions of citizenship from democratic pluralism to ethnic nationalism and the violent targeting of foreigners and Jews. Subsequently, among the Vichy regime’s first decrees was the Statut des Juifs, a legislative measure intended to exclude Jews from public life. Before it was passed, the French government consulted the Church on whether state discrimination against Jews would violate Christian principles. Not only did bishops provide their consent, they publicly venerated the new regime and encouraged the laity to follow in its footsteps.

Two years later, a subset of bishops covertly organized a public protest to save Jews, a tremendously high-risk effort: clandestine coordination required people, money, materials, and transportation, and it carried the risk of death. Nevertheless, on August 23, 1942, five bishops publicly pronounced the unity of Catholics and Jews and the moral duty of Christians to save them. Five others later followed in their stead. Members of the hierarchy, along with hundreds of priests, nuns, and monks, prepared false documents for Jews in hiding and offered religious institutions as safe havens for Jews in need. Catholic citizens as well mobilized on behalf of persecuted Jews, hiding them in religious boarding schools and with their families. Following the bishops’ protest, monthly deportation rates of Jews collapsed and never returned to the high level of 40,000 Jews deported in 1942. By the war’s end, French civilians saved the second-largest number of Jews in any occupied country during the Holocaust.

The French bishops’ protest is well-known: nearly every book on the Holocaust in France asserts that it was a turning point in the trajectory of violence against Jews. Yet, given the French Catholic Church’s unanimous public support for the regime immediately prior, and the significant risks involved in defection, it remains unexplained how and why the bishops decided to defect. Sacred Treason uses primary sources collected from diocesan archives throughout France, as well as French national archives, Jewish community archives, and archives from the Vatican, to trace French bishops’ defections. Many of these archives have never been accessed before, including the documents belonging to Pope Pius XII pertaining to the Holocaust and World War II, which have be made available to a small number of researchers for the first time in March 2020 (though temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic). In drawing together these materials in four languages from four countries and eighteen archives, Sacred Treason promises to significantly advance our understanding of the Holocaust in France.

Yet I approach this history as a social scientist who studies, more generally, the causes and consequences of violence. In particular, Sacred Treason probes the link between moral judgments and moral actions, in order to identify when we can expect people to act on their moral beliefs. It explains why some bishops, despite feeling profoundly unsettled by French State and Nazi violence from the earliest days of the occupation, chose to remain silent in the face of increasing antisemitic repression and why they eventually chose to speak out. Additionally, Sacred Treason challenges the easy categorizations of individuals as perpetrators and rescuers, as it demonstrates that during a genocide, people who initially supported state violence are able to organize resistance against it. The bishops who eventually defected were able to draw on the clandestine movement of lower clergy and laity— organized initially to protest their very silence—in order to help rescue thousands of Jews. Finally, Sacred Treason demonstrates how public defections by prominent authorities can shape how genocides unfold. The events in Vichy France reveal that when prominent figures defect from support for the state in violent contexts, they can undermine the legitimacy of state violence. Hence, political leaders may organize violence against civilians but popular participation hinges on the endorsement of authorities they know, trust, or admire—in this case, the moral authorities of the French Catholic Church.

In telling the story of these French bishops, Sacred Treason generalizes from the specifics of the case to impart lessons for the present. With authoritarianism on the rise in democratic societies, I argue that the decisions of moral leaders can legitimize or delegitimize politicians bent on harming their own citizens. They can also inspire and lend credence to existing resistance, and thus help to save the most vulnerable. I draw on the examples of French bishops as well as the complicit government, resistant laity, and struggling Jews to argue that people can do good in a world gone bad, and they can surmount steep odds stacked against them. The French bishops’ actions were shaped by their time and context, but Sacred Treason will have important contemporary relevance far beyond the confines of this one case.

Archives, France

Archives diocésaines de Cambrai (Nord-Pas-de-Calais)
Archives diocésaines d’Annecy (Annecy)
Archives historiques du diocèse de Lille (Lille)
Archives diocésaines de Lyon (Lyon)
Archives historiques du diocèse de Marseille (Marseille)
Archives diocésaines de Montauban (Toulouse)
Archives historiques du diocèse de Nice (Nice)
Archives historiques du diocèse de Paris (Paris)
Archives diocésaines de Toulouse (Toulouse)
Archives Diplomatiques (Paris)
Archives de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle (Paris)
Archives Nationales (Paris)
Centre National des Archives de l’Eglise de France (Paris)
Mémorial de la Shoah, Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (Paris)
Site-Mémorial du Camp des Milles (Aix-en-Provence)

Archives, USA 

Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants
Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives
Vatican Secret Archives 
International Tracing Service Records 
(All the above from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) 

Archives, Israel

Yad Vashem, World Center for Holocaust Research

Archives, Italy

Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Papa Pio XII e la Seconda Guerra Mondiale

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Primary Sources on "Jewish Questions Under Occupation and After Liberation" from the diocesan archive of Lyon, France. 

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