This is a ghastly story, powerfully well told. Lives of criminals form an accepted part of biography; within it, lives of con men are more difficult, because conmen cover and confuse their tracks so carefully. Carmen Callil triumphs over innumerable difficulties to make clear the career of Louis Darquier, one of the villains of the Vichy regime in France.
His father was a notable at Cahors, doctor, mayor, radical deputy, with a devoutly Catholic wife of superior lineage who bore him three sons; Louis, born in 1897, was the second. He survived the war as an artillery subaltern, and then went to the bad: a tremendous womaniser, a heavy drinker, a sponger and a cad. Wherever he went, he left a trail of debts. He chanced upon a Tasmanian actress, who fell for him and married him, without bothering to divorce her previous husband; they had a daughter, born in England, whom they at once abandoned to a nanny. Nanny Lightfoot brought up Anne Darquier in rural poverty at Great Tew, on a nominal wage of a pound a week, seldom paid at all. Anne Darquier eventually became a leading psychiatrist, and treated the young Carmen Callil, who grew fond of her, got no answer when calling one morning for treatment, and discovered that her healer had just died (possibly by suicide). Only at Anne’s funeral did she discover the full name Louis Darquier had adopted — Darquier de Pellepoix, which she saw a year or two later, in a television film, as the name of a man shaking hands with Reinhard Heydrich. Her curiosity led her to years of research, from which this book results.
Louis Darquier invented a title for himself, as le Baron Darquier de Pellepoix; his supposed wife’s family, wealthy Tasmanian grain-growers, imagined their relative had married into the French aristocracy, and remained unwilling to hear a word against him. He drifted from job to job, among the detritus of the extreme French Right. This led him to be in the vanguard of the right-wing mob, fighting with the police on the Place de la Concorde as they tried to storm the parliament building on 6 February 1934. He was shot in the thigh. While he was recovering, a friend gave him a copy of that notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and he found his life’s work: Jew-baiting.
He believed every word of the Protocols, and founded a newspaper to spread their ideas round France. From 1936 he was — knowingly — receiving money from Nazi Germany, while denying anything of the sort could happen. He fought with some distinction in 1940, earning a Croix de Guerre, was taken prisoner and packed off to Poland, whence he was sent back to France by the Nazis, who reckoned he would be useful to them under their occupation of Paris. Nazi pressure forced Laval (who found him a bore) and Pétain (who despised him) to make him a junior minister, in charge of Jewish affairs. As such, he forced the Sorbonne to appoint — a disgrace to the professorate — a professor of anti-Jewish studies, and helped his friend Bousquet, chief of police, to organise the mass exodus eastward by train of Jews in France. They were held in fearful camps before they left; worse camps awaited them. Most went to Auschwitz, a few thousands to Sobibor. Pitifully few returned.
Even the Nazis found him unbearable, and in 1944 he was sacked, managing to get out into Spain with papers provided by Franco’s ambassador to France, José de Lequerica. He settled quietly into the exile’s community in Madrid, teaching French for a living, and begetting a second daughter on a pretty Basque refugee from south-west France whom he picked up. The Tasmanian actress, by now sodden with drink and drugs, rejoined him, and died on him. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death, but no one got round to extraditing him, and the death sentence lapsed. His second daughter was with him when he died, in his bed, in 1980.
Callil’s account is painfully vivid, based on unimpeachable archive and interview sources, shot through with sympathy for Anne whom she knew and liked and for all the scores of thousands of victims she never met. The Etat Fran