How the Hero of France
Became a Convicted Traitor and
Changed the Course of History
One no longer has to wonder whether humanity is nuts. International madness is obvious when contemplating the destruction --- lives, property, hope, whole civilizations --- that began with World War I.
Those who ruled France, England, Germany and Russia before 1914 were, presumably, men who were not potty. Yet, during the conflict, they presided over 8,000,000 men dying, the wounding of a further 21,000,000, and the death of 6,000,000 civilians. Whole areas of France, Germany and Russia were blasted, ravaged, destroyed; the flower of a generation disappeared, their blood spilt at Ypres, Gallipoli, Tannenberg.
WWI solved nothing, and present-day historians generally view the Second World War as a continuation of the first, with the catastrophic, unnecessary slaughter of as many as 60,000,000 - 70,000,000 additional souls in WWII from bullets, bombs, exposure, starvation, physical exhaustion or general barbarity.
One would certainly hope that those responsible for the initial disaster would have been sent off for life to a penal colony, shot, or, at best, garroted by the survivors. Not so.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, one perhaps most responsible for the whole pot of noodles, retired peacefully to Holland, where he wrote books, smelled the flowers, and died in his bed, in 1941. French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre, one of the most ineffective generals of all time, lived on until 1931 ... long enough to write his memoirs and, presumably, raise some daisies of his own.
Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the British officer most directly responsible for littering the fields at the Somme with English youth (19,000 dead in one day, 1 July 1916) breathed his last in his elegant home in England ... seemingly with no regrets. Chief of Staff General Erich Ludendorff who presided over the butchery of German soldiers on both the Eastern and Western Fronts not only survived unscathed, but came to be a much-honored hero of the Nazi "beer-hall putsch." He retired in glory and died, untroubled, in his sleep, in 1937.
Finally, there's Pétain, who lived for almost a century. He alone, through some miracle, perhaps related to hubris, was actually tried as a traitor. Not because of his officership at the Battle of Verdun where 700,000 perished (for that he was much honored). No, he was impeached because of his willingness to join forces with the Nazis after the French defeat in 1940, and was chosen as President of the French rump state at Vichy. This he ran (or pretended to run) from 1940 - 1945.
The book Pétain offers us two insoluble quandaries, and offers little help in resolving them. The first: why, after the complete defeat of France in the summer of 1940, did the Germans accept the establishment of a government of the "Free" French, at Vichy, under the presidency of Henri Philippe Bénoni Omer Pétain? Why, indeed, after their many victories in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, the Ukraine, the Benelux countries, and northern France, did the Germans let Pétain control, as he did, the considerable French navy and the many colonies spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean?
This discredited leader is at the heart of the mystery of Pétain. This icy, straight-backed, proud, insufferable old man --- who tended to fall asleep in important meetings --- claimed that Vichy was guarding the soul of France through a post-invasion neutrality. This, despite his aiding in the shipping off of French workers and Jewish prisoners to Germany to be enslaved and murdered.
Yet Pétain contrived, he claimed, at least in the first years of his presidency --- 21 June 1940 to 11 November 1942 --- to evade complete coöperation with the Nazis; indeed, could make Hermann Göring grumble that the Marshall acted like the French "had never been defeated." (Göring was also to say later that the French armistice was "Hitler's greatest mistake." Another observer contended that "the French were not won over to the German cause nor was the whole of French territory occupied;" and that if there had been no Montoire --- the meeting between Pétain and Hitler --- "there would probably have been no Allied landing in North Africa and no German defeat thereafter.")
How did this senile old man of eighty-four pull it off? From reading Williams, we gather that the Marshal was a master at dithering, backsliding, changing his mind (often from minute to minute), saying one thing, meaning another --- apologizing humbly, even with appalling servility, to the forces that were trying to run the show.
Somehow, through a combination of chance, guile, brains (or perhaps lack of them) Pétain was able to stall, for two years, despite tremendous pressure from all sides --- Hitler, Göring, Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt --- the inevitable occupation by the Germans which finally came about in late 1942.
For his rôle in Vichy France, Pétain was condemned as a traitor in 1945 and sentenced to death. Despite this, there is a chance that, in the long run, Pétain helped to enable the victory of the Allies and, ultimately, his chief rival, Charles de Gaulle.
Pétain tells you all you might want to know about this strange man and the strange world he occupied. It is best of all at showing us the mad-house back-and-forth that went on between Vichy and Berlin in those crucial thirty months. Historian Williams' style is serviceable, thought I might have enjoyed the history somewhat more if Palgrave had thought to print it in a bit larger than what looks to be three- or four-point type. The best I can say is that Pétain and I never could to see eye-to-eye, not only because of his inhumane policies, but because, during my reading of this volume, my eye was no more than a half an inch from the printed page.--- Jean-Louis Parmentier