France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain
By Julian Jackson
Belknap, 480 pages, $35
If any of us thought we could do our fellow creatures good by committing or, more probably, condoning an evil act, would we do so? Would we even recognize the moment when it happened, or accept that it was evil? Most of us are wonderfully good at persuading ourselves that our actions are pure. Does treason actually exist or, as Talleyrand quipped, is it just a matter of dates? Worse, is it a process of human sacrifice, in which exposed individuals are singled out to pay for the sins of thousands—who escape punishment? Switch allegiance at the right moment, or die opportunely, and you may be spared centuries of shame. Live too long, or cling to the wrong raft and your name will be a byword and a hissing. I suspect that Talleyrand, living in a wittier and less dogmatic age, might have reflected that Marshal Philippe Pétain was just unfortunate in his timing.
From this perspective, Pétain’s mistake was to carry on living after the fall of his Vichy State during the last grisly months of the Third Reich. If he had managed to die (he was after all 88) then he would have escaped much humiliation. If he had been shot out of hand by French resisters, a lot of scores would have been neatly settled. (Winston Churchill thought this would have been a much better way of dealing with the actual Nazi leadership than the dubious Nuremberg trials with their Soviet prosecutor). But, as Julian Jackson recounts in his book about Pétain’s surrender, trial, condemnation, and lifelong imprisonment, the old soldier more or less sought out his fate. The Germans had carried him off to the Reich. But Pétain found his way back to France, so compelling De Gaulle and his provisional government to put him on trial for treason. To do so, it had to reopen the whole bitter period, in which many apart from Pétain had behaved weakly, or dishonorably, or just mistakenly. As the title of this book reminds us, France was on trial alongside Pétain.
Many conservatives are still tempted to make excuses for the ancient soldier, a humane and resolute general in his prime, an apparent friend of the traditional virtues in his old age. It was hardly his fault that France, which in 1939 had seemed to be one of the great military powers of the world, was in a matter of weeks smashed in battle by Germany. He had held the line against the same enemy at Verdun, and now at the age of 84 was the marmoreal image of resolve and patriotism, a sort of living statue. The great armies of France had been defeated. It might have been practical to transport the government to North Africa or some other colonial possession, but by the normal conventions of war and diplomacy, someone had to sign an armistice and deal with the conqueror. Many in the French elite assumed (and some hoped) that France’s ally, Britain, would shortly surrender, and there would be a general peace. Hardly any imagined that the 1940 Armistice, with its hugely expensive German occupation of much of the country, would continue for four long years. Few grasped at the time what sort of conqueror Hitler would be.
The shepherd, the argument runs, is supposed to stay and tend his sheep when the danger is at its worst, not to flee abroad—even if he eventually returns triumphant. Did Pétain perhaps stand between the French people and the full wrath of their conquerors? He may have thought so, at least to begin with. And when he spoke of “collaboration” with Hitler, the word did not seem to mean what it later came to mean.
But, as it happened, Pétain did not stand between the French people and their Nazi occupiers. He became their all-too-willing servant. We now know beyond doubt that Marshal Pétain’s Vichy state enthusiastically offered collaboration to the Nazis, so much so that the Germans actually rebuffed it. It had even suggested its own persecution of the Jews, rather than reluctantly given in to German pressure. In 1972 an American historian, Robert Paxton, obtained German documents on the Occupation which left no doubt about this. Pétain’s supposed “National Revolution” closely collaborated with the fiends and demons of the Third Reich and vigorously urged on one of its ugliest policies. Anybody who has any serious interest in Pétain now knows all this.
But they did not know it when it mattered most, when Pétain and France were on trial in 1945, or for some time afterwards. In fact, Pétain died in custody in 1951 before the facts were wholly known. Jackson’s book on the French state’s 1945 prosecution of Pétain contains a lengthy passage on Paxton’s discoveries. But it rightly leaves them until long after this extraordinary process was over and the Marshal slept with his fathers. So Jackson is able to treat seriously several French citizens, lay jurors, journalists, politicians—and Pétain’s brilliant, dangerous and inconvenient lawyer, Jacques Isorni. All these were determined to give the old man some semblance of fairness, at a time when violent hysteria would have been quite possible instead. Remember, it was not long since the repellent and chaotic epuration (purge) of actual and alleged collaborators after the German defeat in which wild, violent street “justice” was imposed on some of those believed to have been too helpful or friendly to the occupying power, especially the public shaving of women’s heads, not a brave action whatever else it was. France’s Communists, in particular, were keen to condemn the conservative Catholic Pétain as a national traitor comparable to the reviled Marshal Bazaine of the Franco-Prussian war. They published propaganda showing him dangling at the end of a hangman’s rope and urged the imposition of the death penalty.
When I used to visit the subject Baltic republics of the old USSR, especially Lithuania, in the early 1990s, I would often hear quite passionate nationalists defending certain individuals in the local Communist administration. They had done their best to soften Soviet rule, it was said with obvious sincerity. Yet they had been, in the clearest sense of the term, collaborators. Who benefited most from their collaboration, occupied or occupier? It is much easier for an occupying power to run a conquered territory if it can recruit the local administration to handle the details. The early months of the German occupation of Denmark, in which the country actually retained a Social Democratic government that would have been illegal in Germany, give an astonishing example of this worrying principle at work, which is too little known.
It was not just Denmark where this sort of thing happened. British sneering at the weakness and cowardice of continentals under the jackboot is also badly shown up by the curious, embarrassing and largely-forgotten German occupation of the British Channel Islands in 1940. “But what would you have done?” the islanders ask their mainland critics, to this day. The islands’ local authorities were cut off from the British constitution and government when Churchill brusquely abandoned them as indefensible after Dunkirk. Suddenly these largely conservative gentlemen, some nearly as elderly as Pétain, found themselves implementing the decrees of the Third Reich rather than those of His Majesty the King. They felt they had little choice but to work with the German occupiers. Where can a resistance movement hide on a tiny island?
But compromise leads to compromise and to worse compromise. Some of their leading officials ended up cooperating in terrible acts, such as the deportation of local Jews to Auschwitz. Those who survived this distressing period are understandably angry about criticism from safe mainlanders who never saw a German soldier on their streets. When the author Madeleine Bunting wrote a severe account of the islands’ subjugation, The Model Occupation, she met much resentment from those who had experienced it. But I wish this story was better known so that boastful and ignorant British people would stop mocking the supposedly cowardly French for their collaboration in the Vichy period. The fate of the islanders suggests that it would have been the same for the British, if Hitler had ever got ashore.
One senior figure, the Bailiff of Guernsey, Victor Carey managed to refer to British soldiers as “enemy forces” and to offer a large reward to anyone who informed on islanders for painting anti-Hitler “V” (for victory) symbols on walls. Yet Carey was among several figures who were honored with knighthoods or other decorations after the war. The view of the British government seems to have been that this was the best way of ending the episode, despite private doubts about some of those involved. And Carey remained a respected figure among many of his fellow-citizens for the rest of his life. There was a lot of ambivalence at that time, but it was made easier by the fact that Britain itself had never been invaded. Another official, Ambrose Sherwill, made a very ill-advised broadcast over German radio, praising the conduct of German occupying troops. But later he was imprisoned after acts of courageous resistance.
Despite the French Communists’ righteous wrath at Pétain, they had their own highly embarrassing secrets from the era. This is hugely significant because of the undoubted (and gravely mistaken) attraction of the Pétain regime for French conservatives and Catholics. His national motto of Travail, Famille, Patrie, replacing the Republican Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, made it plain that this was not just a necessary co-operation with a new master, but an attempt to overturn many of the principles of the French Revolution. To this day, some figures on the political right in France seek to defend Pétain, the most recent being the failed presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who most unwisely and inaccurately sought to defend Vichy’s policy, for supposedly saving French Jews by sacrificing recently arrived Jewish refugees to the Nazis. Why would anyone bother to do this? Could it be because of an actual lingering sympathy with Pétain’s social policies?
The Communist attempts at collaboration with the Germans were (like Vichy’s active anti-Jewish behavior) not widely known at the time of Pétain’s trial. Julian Jackson discussed the Communist approach to the German occupation authorities in another work on France’s occupation period France: The Dark Years 1940-44. For many years after the war the episode was little more than a bitter Trotskyist rumour, but it has now taken solid form in serious research. To even begin to comprehend it you must recall that in May 1940, as France’s democratic government collapsed and Nazi power swept into Paris, the Nazis and the Communists were allies against the democracies, thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, which would endure until June 1941 and was far more than a brief flirtation. The previous September, there had been a joint Wehrmacht and Red Army victory parade over Poland in the city of Brest-Litovsk (pictures still exist of German and Soviet officers happily communing as they take the salute). Not long afterward the two worst secret police forces in the world, Hitler’s Gestapo and Stalin’s NKVD, exchanged prisoners, as each wanted to get their hands on persons the other had arrested. Much of the fuel and material used in the German Blitzkrieg against the European democracies in May 1940 had come from or through the USSR.
The French Communist Party was therefore considered a pro-enemy body by the French state. It was banned and its daily newspaper L’Humanite shut down. The French Communists brushed aside rumors of their behavior for long after the war, and their considerable power and popularity in Gaullist France allowed them to get away with doing so. But scholarship has now caught up with them. Beyond doubt, French Communists went voluntarily to the Nazis and sought permission for the re-issue of their newspaper. Apparently the Comintern, then the central headquarters of all Communist Parties, was taken by surprise by the French defeat in 1940. It did not know how to respond. The leaders of French Communism had been dispersed by the proscription of their Party, and were in hiding or abroad. But some heavyweight commissars, Jacques Duclos, Jean Catelas, and Maurice Treand, wondered if the fall of the French state might be a chance to recover their organization’s lost influence. This was in the Leninist tradition of ruthlessness and of scorn for patriotism and other such bourgeois notions.
The negotiations involved the subtle French-speaking Otto Abetz, Germany’s future ambassador to Vichy France. Treand and Catelas promised, Jackson writes, that if allowed to reappear, the Communist daily would “pursue a policy of European pacification” and “denounce the activities of the agents of British imperialism.” Underground editions of the paper (secretly printed since September 1939) published three articles in the summer of 1940 praising fraternization between French workers and the Germans. Perhaps these were aimed at persuading the Germans to allow open publication. Who can now say?
As so often in history with things that nearly happened, it is like watching a ghost begin to appear, and then disappear again. There was surprising sympathy for collaboration on both sides in France. Some conservatives loathed England, hoped for a British surrender, and thought Hitler was better than socialism. Some Communists suspected that Hitler might be kinder to them than democracy had been. Only as the occupation hardened, and as the French Communist leader in exile, Maurice Thorez, reasserted control, did the Communists end the talks. They did so very shortly before the Germans also went off the idea, though it was a close-run thing. One Communist, Robert Foissin, was made an internal scapegoat by the Party—which belatedly realized how embarrassing the talks would one day become. But Duclos was too important for such treatment. He would live to be the Communist candidate for the Presidency of France in 1969. No wonder that in 1945 the Communists—now covered in glory because of their post-1941 Resistance role—wanted to draw eyes away from their own behavior in 1940, and concentrate instead on the wickedness of the Catholic, conservative Pétain.
Jackson deals with another factor that is surprising in retrospect but was not at the time: What would later be the dominant element of French shame, the disgraceful treatment of Jews under Vichy, barely featured in the 1945 proceedings. No Jewish witness was asked to testify against Pétain. Pétain was accorded privileged treatment, allowed to observe the trial from a comfortable armchair in the courtroom rather than placed in the dock normally reserved for the accused. And he was permitted to remain almost completely silent throughout the proceedings. For many, he was still a great man, in whom they wanted to believe. The brilliant and generous writer Francois Mauriac, who had briefly supported Pétain before joining the resistance, made the most disturbing comment on the trial, which it is hard to gainsay. Collaboration, he argued, may have been the logical consequence of the 1940 Armistice with Germany. But the Armistice was itself the logical consequence of France’s deliberate decision at Munich not to fight Germany in 1938. Mauriac said, “We would be hypocrites if, before joining the chorus of voices of all those who accuse [Pétain], each of us did not ask: what did I think at the moment of Munich? What were my real feelings on hearing of the armistice? …let us not hide from ourselves the thought that each of us was perhaps complicit, at certain moments, with this old man now struck down.”
So Julian Jackson’s account of the opening of the trial, in which several lay jurors and others were determined to be fair to Pétain, makes sense to any thoughtful person. Few of the initial witnesses, apart from the lonely Leon Blum (in mourning for the death of his brother at Auschwitz) had been ready to say that Pétain was a traitor or that the Armistice was itself treasonable. Charles De Gaulle had defied defeat and gone to London, but almost everyone else was complicit in the national collapse in some way. And this complicity was not just to be found among Frenchmen. Vichy was still recognized abroad as the legitimate government of France, in some surprising places. Franklin Roosevelt was among those who was fooled by Pétain’s apparently upright military bearing. In his instructions to Admiral William Leahy, his newly-appointed ambassador to Vichy, in November 1940, he wrote that the Marshal “at the present moment is the one powerful element in the French Government who is standing firm against selling out to Germany.” In this judgment he could not really have been more wrong, but poor Leahy, a very decent man, was compelled to try to moderate Vichy’s relations with the Axis until May 1942. Even after that a skeleton US mission remained in operation in Vichy until November 1942, when the Allies invaded French North Africa and Hitler occupied the whole of France. FDR continued to be reluctant to deal with or recognize De Gaulle, dismissing him airily as the “head of some committee” long after it was obvious that he spoke for Free France.
In truth, France was on trial in 1945 more than Pétain. And France emerges from the trial with perhaps a little more credit than we give it. This at least was not a howling enraged tribunal, as the Communists might have desired, but a genuine attempt to apply due process and so to restore some sort of legitimate stability. De Gaulle’s view of the old man was that he was a living corpse who had died to all intents and purposes in 1924. Probably those in French politics who (perhaps too willingly) let him take responsibility for making peace with Germany had a similar view. He was a cypher, not a person. Those who seriously imagined that he was the head of a conservative national revolution were deluded at the time, and those in modern French politics who suggest the same are equally deceived, though it now seems fairly certain that the Marshal was, more often than not, conscious of what was going on around him and aware of what was done in his name. His reprieve from execution was not only a recognition that he was too old to face a firing squad. It was a humane compromise between the De Gaulle and Pétain factions which still haunt French public life in surprising ways. After all, the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand served and was honored by the Vichy regime, yet lived to prosper. The far more brutal fate of Pétain’s colleague Pierre Laval, shot after a brief and undignified hearing and a botched suicide, probably satisfied the general desire to erase the shame and discomfort of the collaboration years which Mauriac had identified. How pleased any reader of this book must be that he and his country did not undergo such misery. Do not be defeated in war. Defeat corrupts the defeated, and it is far harder than we think to stand above the grim process. Pray that it never happens to you.