After the Fall

Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944

by Robert O. Paxton
Knopf, 418 pp., $10.00

Marshal Pétain
Marshal Pétain; drawing by David Levine

The four sinister years that followed the fall of France in June, 1940, have not received the meticulous attention from historians that has been given to Nazi Germany. In France, there have been studies, memoirs, charges and countercharges about this complicated and excrutiating period. But few writers have been able to do full justice to it. Robert Aron in Histoire de Vichy1 attempted to be comprehensive, and fair but succeeded only in being superficial and uncertain. French writers have tended to split along partisan lines, each side defending a legend. The first is the legend of the Resistance, which celebrates a nation that rose against German oppression after a brief moment of confusion. According to this view, shared by Gaullists and communists alike, the Vichy government and the Paris collaborators with the Germans were merely a handful of reactionaries or traitors, without roots in French history or lasting effects on it.

The other legend was created by the Vichyites themselves and has since been spread by many writers and politicians. It holds that Vichy was France’s “shield,” a noble attempt at protecting the nation from the fate that befell Poland, and at restoring the social order that had been shaken by the turmoil of the Thirties. The aim of Vichy was to prevent a foreign power from again exploiting France’s inner weakness, whatever the outcome of the war.

Marcel Ophuls’s recent movie, The Sorrow and the Pity, has tried to shatter both legends and to show how, for most Frenchmen, survival was the first consideration, although often an inglorious one. But Ophuls’s movie was more concerned with undermining the myth of Resistance than that of Vichy (although it also demolished the claims of Pierre Laval’s defenders), and more interested in the average Frenchman’s reaction than in politics. Robert Paxton’s book examines, coolly and scrupulously, the maneuvers and achievements of the Vichy regime, and destroys the Vichyite myth once and for all.

Paxton is a young American historian, professor of French history at Columbia University, whose first book was a dispassionate analysis of Vichy’s “Armistice Army.”2 He has examined not only the recollections and the trial records of Vichy leaders but also the German and US archives. (French archives for the period are not yet open to scholars.) His findings are more damaging, and far less open to challenge, than those of the postliberation prosecutors or the eloquent but not always well-documented denunciations written by former Resistance or Free French fighters. Among French writers, only Henri Michel has produced an equally devastating analysis, but his work on Vichy has only begun,3 and it does not have the sweep and perceptive detachment of his young American colleague’s study.

Paxton’s book is more a political than a social history. He shows who took part in the devious attempt to bring about a “national revolution” in a country two-thirds (and later totally)…

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