How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History

by Charles Williams

Palgrave, 320 pp., $29.95

THE CASE OF PHILIPPE P TAIN, sometime marshal of France, presents an intriguing study in the historiography of reputation. "It is always a mistake to end up on the wrong side of history," writes Charles Williams, regarding Pétain's decision to head the collaborationist Vichy regime after the fall of France in 1940. Since no one volunteers for such a destiny, this seems an odd use of the word "mistake," as odd as it is in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! when Colonel Sutpen describes his failures of human sympathy as "mistakes"--as if shunning one's own children were somewhat like miscounting a stack of dollar bills.

There certainly was a time when Pétain's "mistake" seemed ineradicable. He was not so far beyond historical redemption as Vidkun Quisling, the puppet president of Norway, and indeed the gist of Williams's present study is that Pétain was a reluctant collaborationist. The further difference between Pétain and Quisling is that when France fell to the Nazi Blitzkrieg in May 1940, Pétain was already a heroic figure who had twice "saved" France in the previous world war. Having risen from colonel on the retirement list and former theorist of infantry tactics at the Ecole Militaire to high command, it was he who directed the defense of Verdun in 1916 and, in the summer of 1917, subdued a brewing mutiny that infected half the divisions of the French Army and could have led to an Allied collapse. For these achievements, Pétain in 1940 was venerated by many of his countrymen (and not least by himself, which was part of the difficulty) as the man who could uniquely manage national salvation. But that salvation was oddly defined: He would stay in France and "offer his person" to the preservation of mythic France.

When this reviewer had the good fortune to study the history of the Third Republic under one of its preeminent historians, the late Philip Williams, the explanation for national collapse seemed obvious. Pétain's flaws were, in some ways, those of his nation. To begin with, France in the 1920s and '30s had suffered from a demographic hangover from the 1914-1918 war: a dearth of young men, producing a deficit of military recruits. France was radically divided in the face of the rise of Hitler and Stalin, torn between the leftist Popular Front of Léon Blum and quasi-fascist sympathizers with Hitler on the right. Mieux Hitler que Blum was the astonishing motto of some of the latter: Better the Nazis than a Socialist premier willing to coalesce with the far left. The result was that France's splintered party system was unable to generate a stable governing consensus. Nor could it overcome the fatalism and passivity that were also legacies of the First World War.

By the 1930s, finally, a defensive mentality had expressed itself in the Maginot Line (suddenly useless when Belgium went over to neutrality). Add the staggering casualties of the spring of 1940 and you had the formula for collapse. It was Pétain, the last surviving marshal of the First World War, to whom the demoralized politicians turned. It was he, the former peasant boy from the Pas-de-Calais, risen by merit, who would assume responsibility for dealing with Hitler. Never has one who supped with the devil needed a longer spoon, and Pétain's was far too short.

The asset that Pétain did bring to the shabby capitulationist Vichy regime ("the funeral procession of [France], of which M. le Maréchal was the decrepit pallbearer," in the vivid words of Gen. Sir Edward Spears) was a certain cunning and patriotic attachment to the mystical idea of eternal France. That France would live, even if the rickety political state died. As Pétain put it in that mystic tongue he shared with his protégé, Charles de Gaulle, he would offer his person to his "children," the French.

A former deputy leader of the British House of Lords, Charles Williams has a seasoned grasp of political subtleties, and has made himself master of this tangled tale, in a book that is explanatory without being either accusatory or exculpatory. Yet in the end it is unclear that this very French tale is fully or clearly accessible to the Anglo-American political understanding. A salient sense of the nature of Pétain's "mistake" remains elusive. True, as head of the Vichy state, he accepted formal responsibility for some evil concessions: the end of the National Assembly, the promulgation of racial laws, the deportation of 75,000 Jews, many to die in the east, and the forced removal of scores of thousands of French workers to man German industry. And, later, the formation of the villainous Milice, collaborationist vigilante enforcers of the Nazi occupation.

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.

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