France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, by Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, 445 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241450253
The essence of a nation is that all the individuals constituting it will have many things in common; and also that they will all have forgotten many things.
On August 25th, 1944, four years and a month after a victorious Hitler had himself photographed with Albert Speer and the sculptor Arno Breker against the background of the Eiffel Tower, the forces of the 2e DB (second armoured division) under General Leclerc entered the French capital, where, encountering relatively little opposition, they took full control of the city in the course of a day. Paris’s military governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, chose not to obey Hitler’s order to fight to the end and destroy the city, surrendering to Leclerc at the police préfecture that afternoon. In the evening, after visits to his former offices in the Ministry of War and to the préfecture, General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, arrived at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), where he was received by the leaders of the Resistance. Addressing his colleagues in the great hall of the building, he declared:
Paris. Paris outraged. Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France, that is to say of the France which fights, the true France, the eternal France.
After the speech, Georges Bidault, the president of the National Council of the Resistance, invited de Gaulle to declare the republic from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, where it had been declared in 1848 (Second Republic) and 1870 (Third Republic), but he declined, replying: ‘But why should we proclaim the republic? It has never ceased to exist.’
Paris had not at first been the main objective of the invading Allied forces, whose eyes were on Antwerp, from which they hoped to advance on the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr. But news of an insurrection by the city’s communist-dominated Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI, popularly known as les fifis) persuaded Allied commanders to mobilise a force of sufficient strength to induce von Choltitz to surrender before Paris was either destroyed or left effectively in communist hands.
The idea that France’s capital city had been liberated solely by the French might have been seen as odd, or even offensive, by the survivors of the US, Canadian, Australian, British and New Zealand armies who had participated in the Normandy campaign and who had left more than 70,000 dead behind them, or indeed by the soldiers of the 1st Polish Armoured Division under General Stanisław Maczek, who lost 1,500 men in a single engagement in the ‘Falaise Pocket’, where the final bloody battles took place that were to open the road to Paris. But de Gaulle had his own fish to fry. A brief period in French history which many thought would be best forgotten had now been brought to a close. It was essential to assert a version of the events of the previous four years which would allow ‘True France, eternal France’ to resume its stately course. And if in the process some inconvenient facts had to be glided over and a limited number of culprits identified to carry the burden for very many others, so be it.
As the war continued beyond the capital – some pockets of French territory were not won back until May 1945 – the attention of the newly established provisional government in Paris turned to dealing with those who had, since summer 1940, collaborated with the Germans and, in many cases, been complicit in their crimes. Collaboration can be a broad category, ranging all the way from selling food and drink to the soldiers of the occupying army (tricky to refuse), to denouncing résistants to the authorities, joining the murderously repressive Milice or co-operating in rounding up Jewish families to send them to their deaths in the East.
In the brief period before the re-establishment of regular legal processes in liberated France an estimated 9,000 people lost their lives in what was termed the épuration sauvage (the unofficial or unauthorised purge). A minority of these, particularly in the southwest, were probably the victims of local score-settling by communist résistants rather than being particularly heinous collaborators; all were killed with little or no judicial process. De Gaulle was anxious that there should be an epuration légale, but a measured one, concentrating on the worst cases and sparing, in the main, the rank and file of the bureaucratic class, whom the country, in considerable postwar disarray, could not do without. In the event, the number of death sentences carried out in this official process was to be no more than ten to fifteen per cent of that of the épuration sauvage. The collaborators who were to be most harshly punished were often the most obvious and blatant ones, propagandists for the government established in July 1940 in Vichy or for the Germans, many of them loud and vulgar antisemites and vicious excoriators of the Resistance, condemned by their own words recorded in radio broadcasts or newspaper articles. The leading members of the regime itself would also have to be prosecuted, in particular the First World War hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, who had stepped forward to lead the état français, the non-democratic entity which had substituted itself for the republic from 1940 to 1944, and Pierre Laval, a minister in several governments during the 1930s and prime minister from 1942 to 1944; the third major Vichy figure, Admiral François Darlan, had been assassinated in Algiers in December 1942.
As the Allies drove the German armies eastwards towards the border, Pétain and Laval were brought against their will to the castle of Sigmaringen in Baden-Württemburg, where a final puppet government was set up – with which they refused to co-operate. When Sigmaringen in turn fell to Allied forces in April 1945, Pétain was conveyed by the Germans to neutral Switzerland but made it clear that he wished to return to France, inevitably to face trial. (Laval escaped to Spain but was eventually expelled and returned to French custody where he too faced trial.)
For Philippe Pétain, the trial proceedings began at the Palais de Justice in Paris on July 23rd, 1945. The court was composed of three judges and twenty-four jurors, the latter chosen in equal parts from a pool of résistants and one of pre-war parliamentarians – but only from that small minority of the latter group which had declined to vote full powers to the marshal in 1940. The now eighty-nine-year-old Pétain, clearly, was going to be facing not ‘a jury of his peers’ but one of his enemies. The résistant juror Jacques Lecompte-Boinet wrote in his diary:
I would have liked to make the following declaration: ‘Pétain was named head of State by the National Assembly composed of men properly elected by the Nation. The fact of choosing Jurors among the Resisters and among the 80 parliamentarians who voted against Pétain in 1940 while 800 voted for, will taint the judgement that is made. I am happy to participate in the judgement, I do not want to participate in an assassination.’
Some lawyers, like Jacques Charpentier, the head of the Paris Bar, worried not just about irregular procedures but about the effect too much bloodletting might have on national unity and the necessary restoration of order and a measure of political normality, drawing a parallel with the revolutionary excesses of the Terror of 1793 and the resulting fall of Robespierre in 1794. But the chief prosecutor, André Mornet, brushed such scruples aside. There was business to be conducted, he insisted, and it was best done simply and quickly: ‘We need to satisfy public opinion, which wants speedy results. We are not historians. In future it will be their role to carry out careful research, especially regarding the intentions that might have inspired the accused [emphasis added].’ Julian Jackson observes that in trials of this kind, that is essentially political trials, there are many factors at play, including retribution and revenge for those once the persecuted but now the victors and some degree of consolation for the families of the victims. ‘They are also exercises in national pedagogy, enabling the new political authorities to deliver their version of history.’ For de Gaulle, who after June 1944 was more keen that France’s army would play a valiant part in what remained of the war than he was on bloody retribution, the kernel of this necessary ‘version of history’ was that Vichy had been an aberration and that active collaborators had constituted only ‘a handful’ of the French people.
If Pétain was, in most observers’ eyes, assumed to be guilty even before his trial began, it may have been largely because in the circumstances no other verdict was imaginable. As Albert Camus wrote, ‘If Pétain is absolved, it would mean that all those who fought against the occupier were in the wrong. Those who were shot, tortured, deported would have suffered in vain.’ The young writer may here have been thinking particularly of his close friend and fellow résistant the Catholic poet René Leynaud, who was one of nineteen prisoners murdered by the Germans in a wood near the village of Villeneuve in June 1944.
But if Pétain was guilty, what exactly was he guilty of? Here there was considerable disagreement, or at least difference of emphasis.
De Gaulle, reflecting ten years after the trial, wrote: ‘For me, the supreme fault of Pétain and his government was to have concluded … the so-called “armistice”. Certainly, on that date the battle in mainland France was undeniably lost. Ending the fighting … in order to put an end to the rout, would have been a totally justified local military decision.’
The distinction being made here is between (local) military surrender and (national) political capitulation, the latter in de Gaulle’s view an unforgiveable crime given the existence of the extensive French empire, whose large detachments of colonial troops were still intact, not to mention the navy and the continuing resistance of the British ally. A similar point was made at Pétain’s trial by the veteran conservative minister Louis Marin, who thundered: ‘Norway did not sign an armistice. Belgium did not sign an armistice. Holland did not sign an armistice. Luxemburg did not sign an armistice. Greece did not sign an armistice … Yugoslavia did not sign an armistice … Only France signed an armistice.’ A particularly shameful aspect of the terms France had agreed to, de Gaulle felt, was Article 19, in which the regime undertook to hand over to Hitler’s police on request (‘livrer sur demande’) ‘French political prisoners … Jews … foreigners that had taken refuge with us’, many of the latter democratic politicians who had fled from Germany and Austria and from other countries occupied by Germany.
Raymond Aron, later one of France’s leading sociologists, who had spent the war years with the Free French in London editing the journal France Libre, expressed a view quite distinct from de Gaulle’s, arguing that in the eyes of many, including the governments of both the US and the USSR, the Vichy regime, at least until 1942 (when the Germans invaded the hitherto unoccupied south) had been constitutionally legitimate. He also argued, though hedging the proposition around with several qualifications, that it had acted to protect the French population from what might have been worse oppression:
It is not impossible that the armistice and Vichy, for two and a half years, attenuated the rigours of the occupation. In interposing the French administrative apparatus between the Gestapo and the French population, the policy … procured for the 40 million French who found themselves hostages, multiple although mediocre advantages that are as difficult to quantify as to deny.
This idea – that the chief motivation for seeking the armistice, and its clear effect, was to protect the French – would be the core of Pétain’s defence at his trial. In its most extravagant form it asserted a moral equivalence between the collaboration and the Resistance, with de Gaulle as France’s sword (épée) and Pétain as its shield (bouclier). There was even the suggestion, which however proved impossible to substantiate, of a double jeu (double game) – that Vichy had been only pretending to collaborate with the Germans while all along hoping for an Allied victory.
The philosopher Simone Weil, who died in British exile in 1943 aged only thirty-four, agreed to some extent with the shield theory: ‘ … I think that Pétain has done more or less everything that his physical and mental state allowed to limit the damage.’ She was nevertheless heavily critical of the armistice decision, though she did not agree with de Gaulle in seeing it, and the subsequent collaboration, as the work of a mere ‘handful’ of people:
The armistice was a collective cowardice, a collective treason; the entire nation shares some responsibility … At the time, from what I witnessed, the entire nation welcomed the armistice with a sense of relief; and that resulted in an indivisible national responsibility.
Most recent historians would agree that it is likely that a majority – if not all – of the French welcomed the armistice after the defeat of their armies during a six-week campaign in June 1940. They might however be more sceptical of Weil’s assertions on the extent or effectiveness of Pétain’s supposed efforts to ‘limit the damage’, while in relation to Aron’s view that ‘the consequences of [the Vichy regime’s] acts had almost nothing in common with the intentions of the actors’ it might be observed that the intentions of the actors were both various and difficult to discern but it would be foolish to assume that they were always what they were later claimed to have been.
The actual conduct of Pétain’s trial might not have been a matter of the first importance given that its outcome was largely predetermined. But it can be said that neither the bench nor the prosecution were distinguished by their dignity, nor the defence by its effectiveness. The antics of chief prosecutor Mornet, his denunciations propelled by what he termed a ‘sacred hatred’, inspired the purple prose of the press corps: ‘a torso bent almost horizontal with age, eagerness, and speed’, wrote Janet Flanner, ‘his pointed greasy beard and peaked nose leading his blood-red robe trailing behind him’. For Léon Werth, Mornet resembled ‘a hunchbacked devil turned white that one could imagine flying off through the high windows towards the Sainte Chapelle [next door] on his broomstick, with his red robes floating in the wind’. The prosecutor’s performative courtroom fury may have partially derived from an unquiet conscience, for he himself had served the Vichy regime. In 1949 he published a book, purportedly a diary written during the years of occupation, entitled Quatres Ans à rayer de notre histoire (Four Years to Erase from Our History). The history that needed to be erased, cynics remarked, was not least his own.
Pétain’s legal team consisted of three men: Fernand Payen, the most senior; Jean Lemaire; and the youngest and most gifted, thirty-four-year-old Jacques Isorni, who also had the closest rapport with their client. Payen’s and Isorni’s defence strategies were contradictory. In their preparatory sessions Payen took comfort from Pétain’s frequent lapses of memory. This suited the case he was hoping to make, that his client was not entirely mentally competent, perhaps even, as he put it to Isorni in private, ‘completely gaga’. Isorni, on the other hand, was committed to defending Pétain as a shrewd and patriotic statesman who had done his best to protect France in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Of Payen’s strategy of pleading senility he later said: ‘It was perhaps juridically more effective. But there is a conflict between juridical opportunism and historical truth.’ Isorni wished the court to hear the historical truth about ‘collaboration’, or at least one version of it.
Pétain having chosen to remain largely silent after an opening statement (‘a compilation of dubious assertions and half-truths, approximations and provocations’ in Julian Jackson’s view), the journalists and other spectators in court listened instead to the evidence of a number of prominent pre-war politicians who in some cases were as concerned to defend their own actions in the lead-up to the conflict as to comment on the guilt or otherwise of the accused. Paul Reynaud, prime minister in spring 1940, blamed both Pétain and the commander-in-chief of the army, General Maurice Weygand, for their defeatism and refusal to consider continuing the fight from North Africa, but he was forced to admit under cross-examination from Isorni that he had arrived at his negative assessment of Pétain only post hoc, when he was in a Vichy prison. He added that he had never characterised signing the armistice as treason per se but that he viewed it as ‘contrary to the honour and interest of France’. Reynaud’s immediate predecessor as prime minister, Édouard Daladier, invited by Payen to say whether he considered Marshal Pétain a traitor, first said that his view was that as head of state the marshal had ‘betrayed the duties of his office’. Further pressed to answer the question he had been asked, he replied: ‘My answer is that the word “treason” has numerous different meanings. There are men who betray their country for money, there are men who betray through simple incompetence … Of Marshal Pétain I would say, frankly, and it is painful for me to say it, that he betrayed his duty as a Frenchman.’
No one was more able than Léon Blum, France’s left-wing prime minister in the mid-30s, to make fine distinctions, but he arrived in the end at a more damning verdict than either Reynaud or Daladier. In 1940, Blum said, a population stunned by stupor and despair was told that the armistice that was being proposed was not dishonourable but in conformity with the interests of the patrie.
And this population who did not know its terms, who had not read it, who did not understand it, who only saw its implications as events unfolded, believed what it had been told because the man who uttered these words spoke with the authority of his great military past, in the name of glory and victory, in the name of the army, in the name of honour.
So that for me is the key issue: the massive and atrocious abuse of moral confidence. Yes, I think that can be called treason.
In the end, the jurors were given a choice between two distinct guilty verdicts which would have different outcomes for the accused. Pétain could be convicted under article 80 of the penal code of endangering the external security of the state, which carried a maximum sentence of five years, or he could be convicted under article 75 of treason, which carried the death penalty. Asking for further direction from the judges, the jurors were told that for a guilty verdict under article 75 there had to be an intention to commit treason; for article 80, the treason resulted from action carried out without treasonable intent. The jurors voted for article 75 – death, though a majority of them almost immediately signed a document requesting that the sentence should not be carried out in view of Pétain’s age. Imprisoned for life, first of all in a fort in the Pyrenees and then on the île d’Yeu off the west coast of France, the marshal was eventually released to a private residence a month before his death, aged ninety-five, in July 1951. He was buried quietly on the island, but masses were said in several Paris churches and messages of condolence arrived from Dr António Salazar of Portugal and General Francisco Franco, who had earlier been kind enough to send a box of oranges when he heard that the marshal was no longer eating. Pétain’s former prime minister and unloved colleague Pierre Laval had been condemned to death after a farcical trial in October 1945 at which he was frequently prevented from speaking and was constantly barracked by the jurors. On the day appointed for his execution he was found to have taken cyanide, though not a sufficient quantity to kill him. His stomach was pumped and he was dragged out and shot by a firing squad.
In October 1940 Adolf Hitler had travelled through France to meet General Franco at Hendaye on the Spanish border. The meeting was a disaster, Franco being unwilling to facilitate Germany with bases from which to engage the British in the Mediterranean without a quid pro quo in terms of North African gains for Spain, and these could only come at the expense of the French. On his return journey Hitler stopped off at the small town of Montoire-sur-le-Loire, where he and his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, met Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval, at that time deputy prime minister and foreign minister. The meeting seemed to go rather well. The two men treated each other with respect and Hitler certainly found Pétain an easier interlocutor than ‘that Jesuit cur’ Franco.
In a radio broadcast a week later Pétain assured the French people that the meeting had taken place (he had accepted an invitation from the Führer) at his own volition: there had been no diktat. He continued:
A collaboration is envisaged between our two countries. I have accepted the principle of it. The details will be discussed later … It is in honour, and to maintain French unity … in the framework of the active construction of a new European order that I enter today down the road of collaboration … This collaboration must be sincere.
More than four years later, on the eve of his trial, Pétain stated:
I always resisted the Germans. So I could not but be favourable to the Resistance. The Resistance is the sign of the vitality of a people. But as Head of State I could not approve it publicly in the presence of the Occupier.
So which was the real Pétain? Was he trying to fool his accusers – or even himself – in 1945? Or had he been trying to fool the Germans from the beginning with a feigned show of ‘sincere’ collaboration? The reticence shown in their trial evidence by both Reynaud and Daladier on the question of Pétain’s intentions may have had a valid basis. How could they know his intentions? How could they judge? How could they be sure? They, and Blum, had spent the war in captivity, very much out of the loop.
Did the marshal even know his own intentions? He is generally credited by observers with considerable reserves of cunning, but not necessarily far-sightedness. Perhaps his loyal military aide General Jacques-Marie-Joseph-François Campet revealed more than he should have when he testified for the defence:
The Marshal was not swayed by sentiment; only reason mattered to him. The issue is not whether or not he wanted the victory of the Allies or the Germans, but to know which would prevail in the war so as to attach himself to the winner and profit from his victory.
For sentiment here we might read morality, and for reason, interest.
There were two major features of the Vichy regime which did not really surface as issues at Pétain’s trial, which concentrated on the question of the nature of the accused’s ‘intelligence with the enemy’. These were its effective abolition of democracy in France and its treatment of the Jews.
One of the prosecution’s accusations was that Pétain had conspired to overthrow the republic earlier in the 1930s and that his taking office as head of state in July 1940 was also a result of scheming. It is Julian Jackson’s view that these allegations remained unproven. It may, however, be worth considering the marshal’s arrival in power in the context of, first, his evident personal vanity, and, second, his known political views, admittedly not hugely different from those of many senior army officers. Announcing to the French on June 17th, 1940 his intention to seek terms of armistice from the Germans, Pétain went on to offer the country ‘the gift of myself to alleviate its misfortune’. This gift, though presented as a sacrifice, was certainly one which the donor considered to be of high value. And it was going to be spread widely. As Jackson relates, wartime cinemagoers regularly
had to sit through images of Pétain’s provincial tours: Pétain adulated by crowds, Pétain patting children on the head like the grandfather of the nation, Pétain greeted on the steps of cathedrals by prelates, Pétain handed bouquets by curtseying women in regional costumes. Pétain’s image had been on posters, stamps, handkerchiefs, napkins, plates, cups, ashtrays, children’s colouring books, boardgames, tapestries, paperweights, penknives, even barometers. He could be purchased in Aubusson tapestry, Baccarat crystal, Sèvres porcelain.
Léon Blum seems, in his trial evidence, to have been one of the few who regarded the abolition of democracy as a serious charge against the marshal. It may well have been the case, Blum conceded, that Pétain had been given a mandate to reform the republic’s constitution, but what he actually did was to destroy it, ‘creating for himself and the band of ambitious arrivistes and cowards around him a government that was almost farcical by the sheer enormity of its power’. The ideological cover for this hoarding of power in the hands of a few was the Révolution nationale, a construction which its chief theoretician, René Gillouin, defined as having four chief characteristics: it was national, it was authoritarian, it was hierarchical, and it was social. The historian Nicolas Beaupré elaborates: in the view of the ‘national revolutionaries’, hierarchies, and the authority of the chief, are natural and should not be challenged; the individual should remain in his properly ordained place, in service to those who have been placed higher than him; the division of the nation into classes, or parties representing classes, is unnatural and must be suppressed; Jews and foreigners do not belong to the ‘French race’ and cannot be assimilated to it. Vichy’s national revolution also displayed some of the trappings of fascism in its weakness for uniforms and raised-arm salutes, large gatherings, the marshalling of youth and exaltation of sport, though it was essentially closer in spirit to the Catholic-impregnated reactionary conservatism of Dr Salazar’s Estado Novo than to German or Italian worship of blood, war and conquest.
The crucial point, however, which was clearly made by Robert Paxton, the most influential historian of Vichy, in his groundbreaking Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972), is that Pétain did not arrive on the scene in 1940 as a somewhat befuddled old man suddenly called upon to protect France but unsure how he might go about it; he arrived as a man with a plan in his pocket. That plan involved the reconstruction of French society on a different, non-democratic model, the punishment of those democratic politicians who had been complicit with its previous ‘decadence’ and pursuit of pleasure, and – as in previous periods of French history when the nation had sinned – a good deal of penance. As Pétain explained to his cabinet in June 1940, it would be vain to hope for an eventual restoration of the old France at the hands of the Allies: ‘No, we must accept that France and the children of France must bear her suffering. That is the principal of her renewal.’
Julian Jackson remarks on a considerable hardening of French attitudes towards Pétain in spring and summer of 1945 as the camps in the East were liberated and deportees started arriving back in Paris, many of them having the appearance of living skeletons. It may be the case that popular realisation in France of the full scale of Nazi barbarity was an incremental process. One long corridor in Paris’s most important reception centre for returned deportees was lined with panels containing thousands of photographs and names of missing persons and the date of their disappearance. One read: ‘Odette Elina, rap. [repatriated from] Birkenau, 32, Rue d’Empare, Castres, seeks info. on her parents and brother Jean-Max, dep. [deported] 29/10/43, direction Auschwitz.’ Most of these missing people would not be coming home. In the biggest single action against French Jews, in July 1942 (the rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver), 13,000 people were arrested, almost a third of them children, and deported to Auschwitz. Fewer than one hundred returned. The round-up was conducted by French police. The total number of French Jews murdered during the war is thought to be around 80,000. Of those deported to the camps only 3 or 4 per cent survived. Even fifty years later official France was struggling to come to terms with its responsibility in this regard. Pierre Messmer, a Gaullist prime minister in the 1970s, stated in somewhat contradictory fashion that in spite of his respect for all victims ‘especially innocent ones [in this case Jews] … I respect more those who died with weapons in their hands because it is to them that we owe our liberation.’ Another Gaullist, Maurice Druon, himself of Jewish heritage, complained that while at the Liberation all victims had been treated in the same way, now [the occasion was the trial, in 1997, of a Vichy official complicit in deportations] Jewish victims were being put in a special category. Yet Jews quite obviously were in a special category: they were the only victims who had been marked for death simply on the basis of their ethnicity.
In his radio speech to the French people in October 1940 announcing the new departure of ‘collaboration’, Pétain made clear his complete personal identification with that policy: ‘This is my policy. My ministers are responsible to me. It is I alone who will be judged by History.’
So how has he been judged by history? Robert Paxton convincingly demonstrated more than fifty years ago, using German archival sources that had hitherto not been looked at by French historians, that the central plank of pro-Pétain apologetics – that Vichy’s collaboration had been partial and always reluctant – could not be allowed to stand. Rather, the sources demonstrated sustained efforts on the part of the État français to be accepted as a full partner with Germany, in the words of Pétain’s October 1940 speech, ‘in the active construction of a new European order’, one which would allow France to remain a Mediterranean and colonial power. The record also shows that these démarches were constantly rebuffed, often rudely so, by German foreign minister von Ribbentrop, though this did not in any way deter Vichy from continuing to knock on the door. Paxton also effectively undermined some previous historians’ attempts to mitigate Vichy’s record on the Jews.
But perhaps historians are not the only ones in charge of history and historical memory. While they try, through painstaking work, to establish as much truth as is possible, the wider public makes up its own mind, not always feeling the need to be too fully informed. In its penultimate chapter, France On Trial quotes a number of opinion polls on Pétain taken over the last two decades of the twentieth century. These showed that over three surveys from 1993 to 1997 the number of people who said they considered the marshal to have been a traitor declined sharply. The proposition (one of four alternatives put to those surveyed) that commanded by far the greatest assent (59 per cent) among those polled in 1997 was that he ‘[sincerely acted] in the interests of the nation but [was] overwhelmed by events’.
Julian Jackson is a highly regarded specialist in the history of France in the mid-twentieth century, most celebrated for his magisterial study (A Certain Idea of France, 2018) of the life of Charles de Gaulle. His account of the Pétain trial, working on a smaller canvas, is fluently written, wise in its judgments, humane in its attitudes and informed by an understanding which takes in both the historical moment at which the events played out and the quite different way in which they have come to be viewed over the longer term.
If the judgments of historians can sometimes be severe, we should perhaps also remember the words of Britain’s wartime foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, in relation to occupied France and its people: ‘If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce on what a country does which has been through all that.’
When Philippe Pétain decided that he would favour the French people with ‘the gift of my person’, he perhaps did not anticipate that he would eventually, like the unfortunate goat in Leviticus 16:21, be expected to take on all the sins and impurities and transgressions of his people and be led out and left alone in a barren place. But perhaps, judging from the degree of charity to his memory revealed by the opinion poll answers, many French people, knowing themselves to be not quite up to the mark of the moral rigour of Simone Weil or the martial valour of de Gaulle, were quietly grateful to him that he did.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books. He is working on a history of the far right in France from the 1890s to the present.