As a student at Columbia Law School, Professor Richard Weisberg made an unusual observation in the law library.
“I was surprised to find that the French law books continued uninterrupted throughout World War II,” he said. “The only substantial change was a new category next to trusts and estates, criminal law, etc. – Juif, or Jews.”
Weisberg, a visiting professor from Cardozo School of Law, cites this discovery in the preface of his book, “Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France” (NYU Press, 1996), as a key influence that shaped the direction of his research on the role of lawyers in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Professor Weisberg’s book, “Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France,” is available in the Georgetown Law bookstore.
This semester, Weisberg also taught an upperclass seminar, “European Legal Systems and the Holocaust,” focusing on discrimination against Jews in the French and German legal regimes during this period.
In embarking on his research, Weisberg sought to explore how law was used to lay the groundwork for the Holocaust. “This incredible injustice cried out for some kind of explanation,” he said.
Weisberg is particularly concerned with the French Vichy period due to an interest in France that he developed at a very young age. Weisberg holds a B.A. in French and Comparative literature from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Cornell. He also speaks fluent French, and taught French and Comparative Literature at the beginning of his academic career at the University of Chicago.
Weisberg delved into the archives of the French government to uncover documents in a search to explain how the Vichy regime legitimized the deportation of over 75,000 French Jews to concentration camps.
“The fact that France was deeply admired for its legal tradition of equality—how could the French have done as much harm as they actually did through law?” Weisberg wondered. “I needed to redeem my own sense of France through this research.”
Weisberg was initially struck by the lack of dialogue in France about Vichy discrimination against Jews. As he notes in his book, the French had developed a postwar narrative of their history in which they were positioned as victims of the Nazis. However, he argues, anti-Semitic laws would not have been passed, and Jews would not have been deported, without the cooperation of the French.
An example of Vichy anti-Semitism includes the law of October 3, 1940, which defined an individual as Jewish if he or she had three Jewish grandparents, or had two Jewish grandparents and was married to a Jewish spouse.
A law passed in September 1940 limited members of the French bar to those of “French nationality,” excluding many Jewish attorneys from professional associations. Further, quotas were placed on the number of Jewish students who could be admitted to law school.
“Using French legal institutions, professors and private lawyers wound up contributing significantly to what we now call genocide, ” he said.
“The legal system didn’t disappear during the War—it just changed its stripes.”
However, he emphasized that the French have lifted their silence about their own participation in the Holocaust, although there is still shame about their participation in Hitler’s “Final Solution” to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population.
Weisberg also noted that some lawyers spoke out against anti-Semitic laws and the dispossession of Jews.
“There were lawyers in France and Germany who were able to publicly speak out. That these people were not imprisoned shows that lawyers can sometimes take risks in other areas of their professional life, and that they have choices.”
Also striking are the responses generated by the hundreds of students and attorneys who have taken part in an exercise Weisberg designed that asks participants to role play as attorneys confronting anti-Semitic laws during World War II. The exercise draws upon a real fact pattern in which a woman on the Channel Isle of Guernsey was threatened with the loss of her business based upon her Jewish heritage.
“Eighty percent of people in the exercise feel that their role is sharply limited to figuring out whether the threatened woman is Jewish or not,” observed Weisberg.
“But lawyers have enough skills to ask beyond that question. You would think more people would make arguments that the law should not be enforced.”
Weisberg has helped successfully sue French banks for Holocaust-related theft and is currently part of a team assisting Hungarian Holocaust victims in the Northern District of Illinois.
Weisberg was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his research on the legal regime of Vichy France in 2009.
In addition to his work on the Holocaust, Weisberg has published several notable books in the area of law and literature, such as “Poethics and Other Strategies of Law and Literature” (Columbia University Press, 1992), “When Lawyers Write” (Little Brown & Co., 1987), and “The Failure of the Word: the protagonist as lawyer in modern fiction” (Yale 1984).
At Cardozo, Weisberg teaches a course about law in literature, drawing upon texts such as Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Dickens’ “Bleak House,” and Melville’s “Billy Budd.”
“Why are there so many lawyers in popular culture? What is it about law that makes it so compelling?” he said. “Literature provides an external critique of the law.”
Law can also be read as literature, he noted. This approach examines how judges write and lawyers interpret texts.
Weisberg also focuses on First Amendment issues, and teaches torts in Section 2 this semester.
He will only be at Georgetown this semester, and will spend most of the spring in Chicago, Paris, and Berlin to complete work on a new book. Weisberg emphasized that his time at Georgetown has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve had a great experience—the students play a big part in this, and I’ve enjoyed working with wonderful colleagues and administrators as well as a terrific library staff, ” he said.