I have just finished reading a truly excellent book , which I recommend to anyone who is interested in the history of modern France.
It is entitled “France on Trial, the case of Marshal Petain” and is by Julian Jackson. It is published this year by Penguin books.
It describes the trial of Marshall Philippe Petain, which took place only a few weeks after the war ended, and uses it to do two things
- look back at the events that led to France’s humiliating defeat in 1940, and
- look forward to the present day ,to see how France remembers, and commemorates, its behaviour between 1940 and 1945, especially vis a vis Jewish people.
Petain was the great French war hero of the First World War, especially through his leadership in the crucial Battle of Verdun in 1916. Through this, he had acquired a God like status.
Petain was long retired from the Army by the 1930’s, and thus he had no responsibility for the strategic error of the French High Command that led to the defeat of May 1940.
This error was sending the French Army deep into Belgium, when Germany attacked that country . This created a gap in French defences which allowed the Germans to encircle a large portion of the Allied armies from the rear, in the vicinity of Dunkirk.
The consequences of this mistake discredited those who has held office in France in the period immediately before the war.
This included former Prime Ministers Daladier and Reynaud. Both of these ex Prime Ministers gave evidence in Petain’s trial. So did another ex PM, Pierre Laval, who was later to be tried and executed, for treason in 1945.
The author says that for Laval
“no cause, however noble, could justify a war”
He had been Prime Minister in the 1930s and wanted reconciliation with Italy.
During the War he said that he favoured German victory, a matter on which Petain wisely offered no opinion.
When the Germans surrendered in 1945, Laval escaped to Spain, but Franco did not want him.
According to the author, Laval was then offered asylum by the Irish government, presumably on the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s instructions.
I have never read any exploration of this issue in books about de Valera. Laval could have proved an embarrassing guest for Ireland. In the event, Laval opted to return to France and face a trial which he must have known would sentence him the death, rather that live peacefully in Ireland.
Reverting to the dilemma faced by the French government in 1940, after the shock of the encirclement had worn off, the French Army resisted the Germans bravely and effectively in central France.
But the damage to public morale , caused by the initial defeat , was too deep.
Could the French Army could have resisted long enough to retreat With their government to Algeria (technically part of France) ?
Some of Petain’s accusers argued that he should have taken this option, and have ordered the army to fight on ,rather than seek an armistice from the Germans.
Others criticised him for not joining the Americans when they landed in North Africa in 1942. Instead the authorised the French Army in North Africa to resist the Americans. This was interpreted by many as treason.
How did Petain come to be in charge in late 1940 and thus be in a position to make these choices ?
The previous French Government headed by Paul Reynaud, had retreated from Paris to Bordeaux after the initial defeat in May 1940. But it needed a new leader. It turned to Petain, as an untainted national leader, to head a new Government.
It was almost as if the politicians gathered in Bordeaux felt they needed the “Petain magic” to restore France.
This was the hope, on the basis of which the French National Assembly made Petain head of state, soon with unlimited powers.
This was never a viable project.
If Petain had thought things through, he would never have lent himself to such a dubious and hopeless endeavour. His vanity got the better of him.
Even if Germany had won the war, and had come to terms with Britain, the prestige of Petain would not have sufficed to wipe France’s humiliation away.
How informative were the proceedings at the trial?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that were some issues that were explored too much in the trial, and others that deserved more attention.
A big part of the prosecution case was that Petain had been long preparing himself for a French military defeat, and had been plotting how to exploit defeat to grasp supreme power for himself There was no evidence to back this.
The issue that got too little attention in the trial, in light of what we now know, was the active involvement of the French police, and of the Vichy government, in the transportation of the Jews to the gas chambers.
Petain’s defence team argued that by taking over the administration, from 1940 to 1943, of a large portion of the interior of the country, Petain’s regime had spared many French people, including French Jews, from the horrors of direct German occupation and that this saved lives.
There is statistical evidence to back this up.
The survival rate of Jews in France, at the end of the war , was much higher than that of Jews in Poland and the Netherlands, which were directly occupied by the Germans and where virtually every Jew was wiped out.
Another issue that could have got more attention was Munich Agreement with Hitler which sapped French morale.
Many of the themes evoked in this book are current today.
What is treason?
Is it treasonable to make the mistake of backing the loser?
Where is the line to be drawn between a bad political judgement , and treason?
Where is the boundary between making a legitimate political judgement, and betraying a cause that is, or appears, lost?
What constitutes a war crime? That had not been defined at the time.
Who should be the jury in a trial like this?
Petain’s jury consisted one half of serving deputies in the National Assembly, and the other half of recently active members of the Resistance.
This politicised the judicial system in a way that would not be allowed today.
This book also explores the emotions of the French people in the aftermath of an acute crisis. France has emerged as a strong democracy despite the trauma.
For the record, Petain was condemned to death at the end of the trial. But the jury anticipated, correctly, that de Gaulle would commute the sentence.
Petain died peacefully some years later.
The great merit of this book is the human stories it tells so well, prompting the reader to ask how he or she would have reacted if faced with the same dilemmas.