France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain by Julian Jackson

On July 23, 1945, ten weeks after the end of the Second World War, a throng of lawyers, journalists and vengeance-seekers crowded a stifling courtroom in Paris’s Palais de Justice for the trial of an 89-year-old hero of the First World War. The declared purpose was to impose justice on Marshal Philippe Pétain for his allegedly treasonable 1940 surrender to Hitler and subsequent presidency through the German occupation of France.

General Charles de Gaulle, by 1945 head of state, created a myth that the Resistance that he led from London was the true soul of la patrie. Yet no one knew better than himself that the real France, until 1944, was centered upon its government in Vichy.

Julian Jackson, the foremost historian of the period, here provides a magisterial account of this extraordinary yet also somehow squalid courtroom drama and its context. Some of those who attended saw Pétain as a tragic figure, “a sort of King Lear”.

The marshal himself, revered until 1940 as the savior of Verdun in 1916, declared proudly in his opening address: “Let those who accuse me ask what would have happened to them without me … What would have been gained in liberating a France in ruins, a France of cemeteries?”

The author notes a point bizarre and repugnant to modern eyes: during days of prosecution evidence damning the armistice and what followed, very little was said about the crime that in modern eyes represents the darkest stain on Pétain and his people: the deportation of 75,000 French Jews towards Hitler’s death camps by gendarmes, not Nazis.

Before the trial, evidence was already assembled of the work of the commission established by Vichy to “denaturalize” — strip of French citizenship — the nation’s Jews, to legitimize their extermination. Yet the court trying Pétain heard almost nothing about this ghastly aspect of the occupation, which laid bare France’s institutionalized anti-Semitism.

Some saw Marshal Philippe Pétain as a tragic figure, “a sort of King Lear.”

I can never forget in 1980 interviewing old resistants in southern France who spoke with disdain of one of their comrades, Baron Philippe de Gunzbourg, for whom I had formed an admiration. I asked a local historian: what was wrong with de Gunzbourg? He spat back: “Il est juif!” This was the France of the 1940s, the France on trial in the Palais de Justice.

Jackson writes of the chaotic proceedings, which spasmodically degenerated into riot. The jury was composed of 12 parliamentarians, the oldest 83, and 12 veterans of the Resistance, the youngest 26. Their verdict was inevitable: guilty. So was the three judges’ sentence: death.

De Gaulle commuted this to life imprisonment, and the impenitent old marshal eked out his last years imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off western France until his death in July 1951. But the novelist François Mauriac said at the time: “A trial like this one is never over and will never end.”

It was a young American historian, Robert Paxton, who blew away the fig leaves of justification for the conduct of Pétain’s government with his seminal 1972 history, Vichy France. He showed that the most heinous acts of Pétain’s regime were carried out not under Nazi duress, but of French volition, driven by extreme right-wing politics and directed by the prime minister, Pierre Laval. Paxton found that it was safer to be a wartime Jew in Italian-occupied France than in Vichy territory.

The controversy surrounding French wartime behavior dragged into the next generation. In 1994 the former Vichy civil servant Maurice Papon was subjected to a six-month trial for his role in the Jewish deportations. The Gaullist Maurice Druon, who had composed the famous Resistance anthem Le Chant des Partisans, demanded in his defense evidence that prosecutions of wartime collaborators should end: “Do you want to try every gendarme who pushed people onto trains?”

“A trial like this one is never over and will never end.”

That remark prompted cries of “Yes!”, to which Druon responded: “This is turning into a trial of France; but France did not conduct herself too badly.” Many French people agreed. A 1997 opinion poll on Pétain found that only 8 percent of respondents then judged him a traitor, while 59 percent thought that he acted “sincerely in the interests of the nation, but [was] overwhelmed by events”. De Gaulle, in his memoirs, delivered a pithier and, interestingly, more charitable verdict on the marshal: “Old age is a shipwreck.”

In the closing chapter of this fine, thought-provoking book, Jackson addresses the great counterfactual: what if France had refused to surrender in June 1940? What if its government, then headed by Paul Reynaud, had retired to French North Africa, there to continue the struggle, shielded by the Royal Navy? Would the fate of France’s Jews have been less awful if the Germans had been obliged to do their own vile work in identifying, arresting and consigning them to the death camps?

We shall never know, Jackson says. But what is certain is that instead France, represented by Pétain and with the support of most of his people, made a choice to bow to Hitler; to collaborate, manufacturing arms for the Wehrmacht; and to facilitate the mass murder of many of the nation’s Jews.

I have always harbored my own uncertainties about whether a Britain conquered by the Nazis would have behaved entirely differently. But I cannot believe that our grandfathers would have stooped to the absolute baseness achieved by Pétain and those who supported him.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist at The Times of London, and a former editor at The Telegraph