In response to:
'The Last King of France' from the February 14, 1985 issue
To the Editors:
Robert Paxton’s review of my Pétain: Hero or Traitor [NYR, February 14] disappointed me not because he’s exigent but because more than any other historian of contemporary France he knows the problems I had to overcome in researching a definitive biography of Pétain. The essence of his criticism seems to be that I don’t supply final answers on Vichy, but hadn’t Paxton done that in Vichy France? Since by sheer chance I was to be the first biographer of Pétain to obtain access to the archives of Vichy and of the High Court which convicted him of treason I thought it essential to use the space available to me—the confines of a single book—to do what had not been done before, certainly not by the lackadaisical French history establishment of the post-Braudel generation. If I leave the reader “adrift in details” can I be absolved on the grounds that I provide raw materials for would-be historians who won’t go through the hundreds of file cartons representing four grim years of history?
Minor points: Prof. Paxton says that I “missed” Pétain’s doctor’s journal for the crisis weeks of November 1942. I do refer to this journal (P. 293) although I don’t use it for evidence of Pétain’s diminished faculties. But elsewhere (P. 297) I do note evidence of Pétain’s mental exhaustion in that month; indeed, I cite evidence of Pétain’s decline earlier than November 1942. Paxton also says that I should have quoted the “untranslatable but delicious” summing up of the old Marshal by Céline. I do quote from it (P. 347), if briefly, for it is indeed difficult to render.
Herbert R. Lottman