historian, author, film producer

French Railroads, The Holocaust, and American Slavery Reparations

In 2010 France’s state-run railroad, SNCF (Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais), apologized for its role in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II. Expressing “sorrow and regret,” the company’s apology came only after it emerged as a leading bidder in a $2.6 billion high speed rail project in Florida. Jewish citizens in Florida, no doubt, might see the company’s apology as nothing more than self-serving, and too little too late. SNCF America is also a potential bidder in a similarly large project in California. At first, the company issued its apology only on its English-language web site.

Then, last week (late January 2011), SNCF announced that it would create a Holocaust memorial outside Paris at its long-abandoned Bobigny depot, from which over 76,000 Jews were transported to the concentration camps. The company has long maintained that it merely cooperated with the Nazis, that it did so under duress, and that many of its trainmen found in the French Resistance and were themselves deported and killed for their actions. The case brings up complicated histories of occupation, resistance, war, and the “banality of evil.” It raises questions about how one can assess the crime of deportation and the responsibility of a corporation for such violence.

Nevertheless, as Sarah Wildman’s Politics Daily report on “The Railroad to Hell” makes clear, numerous scholars have found reason to challenge the company’s view of its role in the Holocaust. Both Harriet Tamen, an American lawyer representing 600 survivors who filed suit against the company in 2006, and Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a historian at the University of Manchester, have compiled detailed evidence that the company’s officials were complicit in the deportation. Tamen has led the effort to claim reparations for the survivors.

The question that the French and SNCF are wrestling with is now focused, at least in part, on whether reparations should be paid to the survivors, and this is one that American historians of slavery should pay attention to. Ironically, Florida’s railroads were nearly all initially constructed with slave labor before 1865 when the Civil War ended slavery. Indeed, the major railroad companies in the U.S. today, including C.S.X., Norfolk Southern, and B.N.S.F., among many others, are the successors to the slave-built railroads of the Old South. Over 10,000 miles of southern railroad track was built with slave labor. Politics certainly has shaped the French case–as Florida’s representative Ron Klein sought to require potential high-speed rail contractors to disclose any participation in deportation (see New York Times, January 25, 2011). But in the U.S. the same questions could be raised about descendant companies which bought and sold slave labor to such a degree that they were some of the most heavily committed to the institution. In fact, they were the most exploitative in many ways as well.