The Magazine

His Vichy Gamble

The decline and fall of a marshal of France.

Apr 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 29 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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What is harder to measure is the depth of Pétain's moral responsibility for measures he was powerless to veto but eager to temper or subvert. His intimates were confident that he was playing a canny double game--for instance signaling to his deputy, Admiral Darlan, in Algiers, that he should disregard formal instructions and cooperate with the Americans and British. He managed to keep the French fleet, what was left of it after the British naval assault at Mers-el-Kebir, out of German hands. And too late for his own good he seems to have authorized overtures to the British that he might leave France after all: an overture summarily rejected by Harold Macmillan, who after 1943 and Operation Torch was the resident British administrator in Algiers. Macmillan's failure to respond affirmatively to this overture, the author says in one of his sternest judgments, "defies rational explanation," given its potential benefits to the Allied cause.

No doubt, one factor in the historical verdict against Pétain is that he had aligned himself at some stage with the European right. He resisted overt political identity, and his private views remained opaque. But he had been warm friends in the 1920s with General Miguel Primo de Rivera, the protofascist dictator of Spain and, as French ambassador to Spain in the following decade, had been as close to Francisco Franco as the latter's icy personality allowed.

The penultimate act of the Pétain drama came in April 1945, when Pétain's German minders turned him over to the Swiss, who were prepared to offer him asylum. He could have stayed in Switzerland but he insisted on returning to France for trial; and the trial was even murkier than the cloudy facts of his disgrace. The indictment skipped what to many seemed the gravest offenses of the Vichy regime and dwelt upon constitutional details: the notional treason of Pétain's having assented to the self-dissolution of the National Assembly. This in itself was odd, since De Gaulle himself rejected the premise that the Third Republic had ended in 1940, and insisted that the Vichy regime was a usurpation, a "parenthesis" between lawful governments. De Gaulle, for that matter, would have been happier had his old mentor stayed in exile. The court that judged Pétain for treason was an oddity--three regular judges plus 24 so-called jurés, lay members chosen by lot from among representatives of the Resistance and the National Assembly. The three judges voted for acquittal. The lay members voted narrowly for the death penalty, which De Gaulle commuted. The old marshal, stripped of his dignities, lived for another six years, imprisoned on a bleak Atlantic island, and died in his 95th year.

Charles Williams has written a searching examination of this tragic but sometimes opaque story. The final effect is less to move the marshal from the "wrong" to the "right" side of history (wherever that abstract Valhalla may be) than to show how a patriot, twice his nation's savior, could stumble by generous but mistaken judgments into bad company and thence into the outer darkness.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.