“France On Trial. The Case of Marshal Pétain” by Julian Jackson (published by allen lane)

From hero of Verdun to turncoat of Vichy

In July 1945, five years after the French Head of State, Marshall Philippe Pétain, shocked his compatriots by shaking the hand of the nation’s conqueror, German Führer Adolf Hitler, Pétain faced a specially created High Court over his questionable conduct from the signing of the armistice between the two countries in June 1940 and the liberation of France in August 1944.
8. June 2024 3:01

Pétain was head of the puppet Vichy regime, the État francais (French State), an 84-year-old who had become head of government in June 1940 after a six-week military campaign by the German forces in which they humiliatingly routed France’s armies. He said he believed that further resistance was futile, and signed to end hostilities. This allowed the Germans to occupy two-thirds of France while leaving an unoccupied “Free Zone” in the south. Paris was in the occupied zone, so Pétain’s government settled in the famous spa resort of Vichy.

His government suspended the country’s institutions and installed a quasi-dictatorship. The national motto of the former Republic, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity),  now became “Travail, famille, patrie” (Work, Family, Fatherland). Did he betray or save his country? Julian Jackson explores the facts around the treason trial that divided the French in 1945 and is said to have divided them ever since.

Britain and France were allies pledged to protect Poland, and after Germany invaded the Eastern European country on September 1, 1939, World War Two began. Germany then overran Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in a six-week blitzkreig.

Luxembourg was occupied the same day the assault began, on May 10, 1940, the Netherlands surrendered on May 15 and Belgium on the 28th. The capture and subjugation of France followed, with the armistice on June 22. Only Britain now faced Nazi Germany.

Paul Reynaud resigned as Prime Minister rather than sign an armistice, and was replaced by Marshal Pétain, who duly signed on June 22, 1940. This was a noose around France’s neck. It was assumed it would be short-lived, ending with Britain’s defeat and a full peace treaty.  But Britain survived, leaving France with a truce that had no provision to release the one million-plus French prisoners in Germany. Also the demarcation line between the two zones disrupted the French economy and daily life,  plus the French had to pay an indemnity to cover German occupation costs.

So Pétain had good reason to meet Hitler, and did so in the saloon car of the Fuhrer’s special train, the Führersonderzug “Amerika”, on October 20, 1940. The meeting lasted about two hours and was inconclusive, but as Jackson writes, the symbolic impact was incalculable. The photo of the handshake would be reproduced innumerable times in the next four years, a propaganda coup for the Nazis, a shock for the French and worldwide headline news.

Pétain asserted that Hitler had held out his hand and he could hardly ignore it, “but I only took his fingers”. On another occasion he asserted: “… I could hardly spit in it! All the more so since I was there to see if I could get the return of our prisoners.”

In a radio speech after the meeting, Petain told the French people that he was “entering down the road of collaboration”. He concluded: “This is my policy. My ministers are responsible to me. It is I alone who will be judged by History.”

Pétain was France’s highest ranking military officer, the supreme commander and great general of the French armies in World War One. In France the title “Maréchal” (Marshal) is an honour and not a military rank. Generals receive it for exceptional service in wartime only, and just eight were created after the Great War.

He was the “hero of Verdun”, a semi-divinity for his command of France’s armies in the longest battle of the war, from February-December 1916. After the cessation of hostilities in 1918 he rode down the Champs-Élysées leading a victory parade.

After more than four years of Nazi occupation, Paris was liberated in August 1944 and this time it was Free French General Charles de Gaulle who led a joyous march on the Champs Élysées. Pétain sent an emissary to arrange a peaceful transfer of power but de Gaulle refused to receive him. At the end of August the Germans transferred Pétain to Germany.

Liberation was followed by the épuration, a purge, or purification. There was a wave of executions, imprisonment, public humiliations, assaults and detentions of suspected collaborators. Some 10,500 people are thought to have been executed, some after legal proceedings, others extrajudicially. Women guilty of “horizontal collatoration” were shamed in the streets by having their heads shaved and swastikas daubed on their bodies.

Pétain was eventually able to return, keen to defend his reputation. The trial of a marshal was an extraordinary event and unfolded over three humid weeks from July 25 to August 15, 1945. Given the gravity of the crimes of which he was accused, there was little doubt that he would be sentenced to death. Equally, given his age – he slipped from Germany to Switzerland on his way back to France on April 24, 1945, his eighty-ninth birthday – and given the distinction that he had acquired as a general in the First World War, there was little chance that the sentence would be carried out.

And so, the denouemont of  the drama saw Pétain condemned to die but the punishment was immediately commuted to solitary confinement for life. He was imprisoned in a fortress on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died on July 23, 1951, at the age of 95.

Julian Jackson is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Queen Mary University of London and a foremost expert on 20th-century France. His book “De Gaulle” (2018) won the Duff Cooper Prize and Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, among other awards, and was a New Yorker, Financial Times, Spectator, Times and Telegraph Book of the Year.

He also wrote “France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944” (2001) and “The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940” (2003). He is a Fellow of the British Academy, Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes académiques and Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Jackson is considered a remorseless researcher, burrowing down new biographical burrows to unearth further details and assimilate them into compelling accounts. Here, we enter the Palais de Justice in Paris, and there is a real sense of being there. The court is protected by 600 policemen. It is packed and stiflingly hot. There are 24 jurors, plus dignitaries, diplomatic corps, stenographers, portraitists and photographers. Extra wooden benches are in place to accommodate the many international journalists and as many public as possible.

Judge Pierre Mongibeaux presides. The main prosecutor, procureur, André Mornet, took part in many Great War treason trials and describes Vichy as “four years to erase from our history”. Three defence lawyers are led by Jacques Isorni, repeating his role in other purge trials and who will devote much of his life to the defence of Petain’s reputation. Pétain has an armchair and a nun-cum-nurse.

The scene is set and Jackson takes full meaure, in the courtroom and beyond, then and now. The French government could have moved to North Africa in June 1940. Debate continues today in France on Petain’s culpability, the wisdom of the armistice and the responsibility of Vichy for the fate of the nation’s Jews. Did Vichy atually slow extermination? The case returns intermittently to the spotlight.

There’s a lot to learn here in this latest account, a lot to think about, in painstaking detail.

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