Pétain: Hero or Traitor, The Untold Story
Marshal Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was the most illustrious Frenchman from the eclipse of Clemenceau in 1920 to the ascendancy of De Gaulle in 1944. No Frenchman of this century has been the object of greater extremes of veneration and obloquy. It would be difficult to rise higher than the peasant boy who became a marshal of France and rode his white horse up the Champs Elysées under a rain of flowers in the first Bastille Day parade after World War I, on July 14, 1919. At the other extreme was the nodding old man under life sentence in a whitewashed room on the Ile d’Yeu, off the French Vendée coast, after 1945. The controversy over whether Pétain had been a traitor or a canny realist after the French defeat of June 1940 remains the bitterest French family quarrel since the Dreyfus affair.
So vertiginous a rise and fall and so hotly contentious a reputation would seem to make Philippe Pétain an irresistible subject for biography. None of the many biographies (I count four in English before Lottman), however, really satisfies. Indeed, Philippe Pétain will probably never furnish the material for a traditional grand-scale biography, like Martin Gilbert’s Churchill or Jean Lacouture’s De Gaulle, to take only other World War II leaders. The main problem is that the flesh-and-blood Pétain was less interesting than the myths surrounding him.
Faced with the problem of writing on Pétain, a biographer has as his only strategy to study what Pétain stood for in French life and the discrepancies between the man and the images used to represent him, perhaps taking inspiration from Maurice Agulhon’s decoding of the “Marianne” symbol in nineteenth-century French politics. Herbert Lottman has not been so daring. He has painstakingly assembled the best current evidence of what Pétain said and did, overcoming obstacles of hagiography and missing evidence (Pétain’s military dossier seems to have been replaced by another during the Vichy period), and including perhaps a bit too much hearsay. But he leaves us adrift in details.
Pétain’s first public image was of the “Victor of Verdun” on his white horse, radiating French panache. Alone of the eight marshals of France created after World War I, Pétain became simply le maréchal. Some of his rivals died early; Foch, Lyautey, and Franchet d’Esperey were too patently right-wing; Fayolle and Maunoury had not served in themain theaters of military action. Above all, Pétain looked the part. Major Loustaunau-Lacau, Pétain’s aide in the 1930s, wrote in his Mémoires d’un français rebelle that “Foch looked like a functionary, Joffre like a grandfather, Lyautey like a cavalier, Franchet d’Esperey like a wild boar, Fayolle like a musician, but he [Pétain] looks like a Marshal of France.”
Physiognomy, in this case, was not destiny. The image did not correspond to what Pétain actually did in the war. His victory at Verdun in 1916 was a holding action, achieved both by methodical assembly of materiel and …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Vichy & Petain April 11, 1985