Pétain by Charles Williams

From Verdun patriot to Vichy puppet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Although Charles Williams spoils things by his absurd overestimate of Pétain as general - "not a Napoleon or a Wellington but he comes very high in the ranks just below them" - his lucid account of 1914-18 enables us to follow and understand Pétain's meteoric rise. Insanely jealous of all other French military luminaries - Joffre, Weygand, Nivelle - and contemptuous of all politicians and of democracy itself, Pétain nonetheless made his reputation as a master of defence. Even though he spent just two out of 10 months directing the defence of Verdun, Pétain's name became indelibly associated with France's finest hour (ils ne passeront pas) in the First World War. By clever image- building he managed to achieve a kind of mythical status as the incarnation of the French fighting spirit. His promotion thereafter was rapid: he became Chief of the Army General Staff in May 1917 and two weeks later replaced Nivelle as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the North and East. To his unappeasable fury, however, it was Foch who was appointed as Supreme Allied Commander in 1918. Sober history must record that, rather than Verdun, Pétain's finest achievement was licking the demoralised and mutinous French army into shape, using a judicious mixture of conciliation and the firing squad, when it seemed to many observers that the poilus had degenerated into an anarchic rabble.

Dispassionate and detached, lucid and compulsively readable, Williams's book is a valuable contribution to the still unresolved debate about the Western Front and the culpability of its generals. He spends a lot of time on Pétain's difficult relations with Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, who was the major exponent of the permanent offensive. In this account (as in most others), Pétain scores heavily over Haig. Pétain was shaken by the bloodbath at Verdun, but Haig was shaken by nothing, not even the Somme and Passchendaele, and continued to fling attacking troops at barbed-wire entrenchments and machine-gun nests, with predictable results. Williams stresses once again, in defiance of the absurd revisionist school of Haig-worshippers, that it was only the arrival of the Americans in June 1917 that saved the Allies, not, as is foolishly and disingenuously claimed by the Haig bunch, the failed Haig offensive of 1918. The Americans did not put scores of divisions into action immediately, but this consideration is irrelevant. They saved the day by convincing a wavering civilian population and a mutinous Allied army that the Allies were bound to prevail in the long run, however long it took.

The Marshal Pétain of the 1920s and 1930s clearly evinced the mentality and attitudes that would lead him to his disastrous regime at Vichy after 1940. Close friend of the detestable Spanish dictator Primo di Rivera, friend of General Franco, collaborator with the right-wing French and Spanish generals who put down the Rif rebellion in Morocco, Pétain despised parliamentary democracy and believed in the authoritarian hierarchy of the Army and the Catholic Church. When France collapsed in 1940, Pétain actually helped the process along by his pro-German defeatism; in a notorious broadcast on 17 June that year he shocked the nation and paralysed French troops by saying they should stop fighting. When he succeeded Paul Reynaud as head of the French government, this particular man on horseback immediately consented to a humiliating peace, allowing the Nazis to occupy two-thirds of France. Once Pétain was installed in Vichy as head of the puppet, nominally independent, French government of the Unoccupied Territory, he compounded his errors by meeting Hitler and shaking his hand. At Vichy he put himself in the Franco-Mussolini class by requiring all army officers and civilian officials to swear an oath of personal loyalty to him, before turning Vichy into a police state. He denounced the Resistance as "communist", allowed Hitler to dragoon Frenchmen as forced labour, permitted the Nazis' anti-Jewish laws and deportations to have effect in his "independent" sphere. When the Germans occupied the Vichy lands in November 1942, following the Allied TORCH landings in North Africa, Pétain offered no resistance, and the perception of him as a stooge was complete. The scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon on 27 November, when the Germans tried to seize it, signalled the end of Vichy. For his active collaboration with the Nazis Pétain was, rightly, brought to trial in 1945. Condemned to death for treason, he was lucky to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the Ile d'Yeu. He died in captivity in 1951 aged 95.

Pétain's story compels abhorrence, but this is not the knee-jerk and facile condemnation of "collaboration" routinely made by comfortable Western intellectuals who never had to make hard choices, nor is it to endorse the French myth of the Resistance. So-called collaborators can be superior in intellect, insight and moral stature to so-called resisters, as the example of Alexander Nevsky and the Mongols famously shows. The real question must be: did Pétain collaborate because he weighed up the true interests of France, as Nevsky did those of Russia? The answer must be a resounding no. Pétain subscribed to a dead, mechanistic, almost nihilistic view of life, in which sexual relations were mere animal coupling and all public life mere cynical jockeying for power, money and ambition. To sustain that world view against anyone with vision, hope and commitment, and to do anything to oppose "communism", Pétain was prepared to hand over France to the Nazis. Better Hitler than socialism, better authoritarianism than free thought, better repression than engagement.

The contrast with de Gaulle is clear. De Gaulle had a vision of France in terms of which he was even prepared to take on the biggest bully in the international playground (the USA); that kind of courage was something Pétain and his ilk were incapable of. Pétain, as this splendid book makes clear, was another anti-Communist fanatic who would sign up to any and every Nazi atrocity if it meant dishing the Reds.