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) occupied by the Germans: a motley group of ideologues, high civil servants, businessmen, defeated military leaders, local “notables” (many of whom had been repeatedly rejected by the voters), as well as a handful of strongly anticommunist union leaders. He also shows who benefited from the occupation and who paid. “Vichy spoiled the rich.” Shopkeepers, peasants, big businessmen did well; urban wage earners miserably.

Paxton, however, does not examine how various social groups behaved—a complicated story which would show a gradual shift from almost unanimous support for Pétain in the summer and fall of 1940 to strong hostility toward the decaying Vichy regime in the spring of 1944. Such a study remains to be written. It would have to distinguish not only among periods but also among regions (for the difficulties, and final breakdown, of public transport reduced France to almost feudal conditions). Moreover, by beginning his book with the fall of France, Paxton does not look back to the sources of Vichy in the Thirties—another huge subject which William Shirer ably examined in his book on the fall of the Third Republic.4 Nor does Paxton deal with those who collaborated with the Germans in Paris.

Instead, Paxton’s book tells two important stories. It shows, first, that Vichy was only one episode in a long history in which French right-wing reaction followed periods of intense social turmoil—periods in which “les honnêtes gens,” i.e., the conservative bourgeoisie, felt that “society” was being subverted. Vichy to be sure, was a repeat performance in two other respects. No French regime had ever survived a military defeat. The startling murder of the Republic by its parliamentarians in July, 1940, after very little debate and very few tears shed for a regime that had at times been effective and glorious, seemed like the re-enactment of an ancient ritual.

Vichy was also another example of the traditional French need for order. This, as Paxton rightly puts it, explains why there was no attempt at continuing resistance after the German army swept through the French lines. It also explains why people rallied around Marshal Pétain, an old war hero who promised to save and strengthen the “armature” of France, her state and social institutions. This, too, was an atavistic gesture. After each episode of domestic turbulence in France, the longing for peace and stability brings to power an essentially administrative and authoritarian regime promising law and order, an equilibrium of classes and interests maintained by the state, and strong centralized rule. The old regime of Richelieu and Louis XIV, the two Napoleonic Empires, and, more recently, de Gaulle’s regime fall in this category. Pétain’s “Etat français” can be seen as a return to the womb.


But whereas other authoritarian regimes presented themselves as being above factions and politics, Vichy was dominated by one faction, which was driven by political revenge and class reaction. It was as if, after the crushing of the workers’ insurrection in June, 1848, the “party of order” so brilliantly described in Marx’s 18 Brumaire had ruled under the protective shield of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte instead of competing for power with him and being ousted from power by him.

Pétain was not Louis-Napoleon. The eighty-four-year-old marshal, who boasted of having more authority than Louis XIV, merely presided over a right-wing défoulement aimed at punishing all those who, in the days of the Popular Front, had frightened (but not really wounded) the propertied classes of French society. The Republic had to be destroyed, for it had not only lost the war in 1940, but had allowed the civil strife of 1936. As we might expect, Vichy derived its support partly from genuine counterrevolutionaries, who dreamed of undoing everything that the Enlightenment and the French revolution had achieved. But the regime was also backed by anti-democratic liberals such as the Inspecteur des Finances Bouthillier, the journalist Romier, and the law professor Barthélémy—dignitaries of the Third Republic who became Pétain’s ministers—men who seemed to become authoritarian and anti-parliamentarian out of fear.

As in the middle of the nineteenth century, both groups fervently embraced the Catholic church as if it were a divine police force. Once more, conservative liberals adopted the orthodox counterrevolutionary ideas of their allies: an organic view of society, the rehabilitation of “organized groups,” the celebration of rural France, and, alas, anti-Semitism, which since the turn of the century, thanks to Drumont and Maurras, had been added to the rusting arsenal of extreme right-wing ideological weapons. If the Third Republic had marked the “end of the (traditional) notables”—the landed gentry and small town grands bourgeois—Vichy was their vindictive resurrection.5 It was truly the last French counterrevolution.

The absurdity of Vichy’s attempt to turn back the clock produced piles of unenforceable legislation. In fact the only leaders who preserved and even consolidated their position after Vichy were those who truly belonged to the twentieth century: the technocratic experts, businessmen, and bureaucrats, most of whom, as Paxton shows, were not purged after the liberation but continued in power. Tainted by Vichy but indispensable to the management of public and economic affairs, they ceased being masters. But while they served the new and often inexperienced leaders who came out of the Resistance and the Free French army, they retained much of their old power. The main victims of the liberation were the antiquarians, especially if they were propagandists and intellectuals.

In France it is an old story when reactionaries return to power and manage to survive. But this time it took place under Nazi occupation. The right’s repeat performance had a completely new meaning, and this is the second theme of Paxton’s book. Indeed, so deep had been the hatreds created by the rise of the Popular Front that the traditionally chauvinistic French right had, after 1934, slipped into appeasement and pacifism. Before they could even think of fighting Hitler, they had to defeat their internal enemies—the communists, Blum, the unions. A new war with Germany would only breed new radicalism; 1914 had engendered 1917. Hence the lack of enthusiasm for war in September, 1939.

Only during the phony war, when there was talk of attacking Stalin, not Hitler, did the right, under the pretext of helping Finland, become eager for war. Hence a third reason for killing the Republic: it had not merely lost the war, it had started it. Hence also the immense sense of relief when Pétain signed his armistice bringing an end to the horror of the “exodus” in which millions fled on unsafe roads amid the retreating and increasingly broken armies. But the right-wing French were not merely resigned to defeat, convinced that England could do no better than France. They were also given to wishful thinking: 1940 would be like 1871; France, defeated but out of the war, could settle down to its real business: physical reconstruction and reactionary politics.


Alas, these were not the years after 1871 when a cagey old Thiers dealt with the tough but not uncharitable Bismarck. This time it was a senile Pétain dealing with Hitler. The Franco-German war may have been over, but World War II continued. And this war was not a mere clash of national interests; it was a collision of ideologies. The French state had to live in the shabby hotels of Vichy, in exile from the bureaucratic palaces of Paris, where the swastika was flying under the Arch of Triumph. The daily problem was not, what kind of peace treaty will we sign? It was, what kind of treatment can we get from the Nazi occupiers while we wait for Hitler to grant us such a treaty? According to the legend, Pétain and Laval himself between 1942 and 1944 did their best to preserve the “substance” of France. They delayed and mitigated German misdeeds and prevented the pro-Nazi French collaborators in Paris from taking over—all this at the cost of only small concessions.

Paxton’s book tells a very different, and irrefutable, story. It describes the repeated offers made by Vichy to collaborate wholeheartedly in the “new European order,” in which France would be the junior partner of Germany, and, in view of Vichy’s empire and its navy, an ally more powerful than Italy. In exchange, Hitler would have only to acknowledge Vichy’s political autonomy, soften the harsher provisions of the armistice, turn a humiliating agreement between victor and vanquished into “voluntary associations between equals.”

In the German archives, Paxton found the texts and other evidence of Vichy’s offers to Hitler, made by one official after the other: Laval, Flandin, Darlan. Can this be explained away by another part of the legend—the idea that Pétain played a double game? Did he intend to deceive the Germans, appeasing them with false promises in order to obtain immediate favors, keeping Hitler at arm’s length in order to prepare France for a future revanche or at least an important role as mediator later in the war? Alas, this is unlikely: not only did Vichy make promises, it began delivery on these promises at once, in order to gain Nazi trust, yet never got much in return. Such inept bargaining was anything but a double game. Pétain, as Paxton shows, assured American diplomats that France accepted Germany’s victory as final and that collaboration was not a ploy but a policy, not a trick but a deliberate choice.

Can one save a shred of the Vichy legend by arguing that such a policy made sense as Realpolitik? That in June, 1940, it was not foolish but wise to consider that Germany would win? That after June, 1941, it was not absurd to fear a sweeping victory of Soviet Russia throughout Europe? That raison d’Etat required French leaders in Vichy to provide France with the best possible cards to play in case Europe were “saved from Bolshevism” but dominated by Hitler, just as raison d’Etat required other Frenchmen, in London and Algiers, to acquire good cards for a different kind of game—one in which Hitler lost?

This thesis—that Vichy was the “shield” and de Gaulle the “sword,” and both were necessary to France—Paxton also destroys. First, Vichy could never bargain with Hitler. Hitler was simply not interested. He could always take what he wanted, or oblige Vichy to yield, without making concessions or promises. A French government in Vichy served his interests: it saved him the bother of administering the French. But since Vichy desperately wanted to pretend that it was France, Hitler didn’t need to use bribery.

Second, this game of blackmail was hardly mutual, for Hitler had all the leverage he needed, thanks to his army of occupation, his police, and the millions of French war prisoners. France, moreover, was obliged to pay all occupation costs under the armistice agreement. The Vichyites lacked both the means and the will to blackmail and bargain. Before November, 1942, Vichy’s chief assets were the empire and the fleet. Because Vichy’s meager “sovereignty” depended on them, Pétain was reluctant to threaten Hitler with their loss. Vichy was sitting on frozen assets. In November, 1942, Pétain could have used them, could have turned them over to the Allies by setting up his government in Algiers, and perhaps saved his authority. The old man remained passive. After that, Vichy was left with nothing except its claim to existence, which the Germans knew how to exploit. They could always get concessions by threatening that otherwise they or their French collaborators would take over.

Vichy compared itself to Prussia after Napoleon’s victory at Tilsit. But Hitler was not Napoleon. After Tilsit, Prussia went through a period of drastic modernization and prepared for revenge, whereas Vichy fluctuated between trying to maintain its bucolic, clerical illusions and making efforts to organize French industry more rationally for Hitler’s war machine. Vichy’s self-proclaimed “realism” was the worst of all illusions—its policy could have worked only if there had been another kind of Germany, and if all the French had blindly followed Pétain to the end. Gradually, most of the French came to recognize Hitler for what he was, listened to the Allies, to the Gaullists, to the communists, and longed for their freedom. The weaker Pétain’s domestic power, the more illusory became his pretense of offering to Hitler the collaboration of a strong, united country. The more disdainful and brutal the Nazis, the weaker Vichy’s hold on the French became.

Not only did Vichy’s foreign policy rest on a miscalculation of the war’s outcome; it also, as Paxton suggests, betrayed the nation’s deepest values in order to save the state. Paxton shows how little of France Vichy actually saved. The “shield” was a hair shirt. Vichy promised order, and disintegrated in civil war, with its “forces of order” killing and torturing the men of the Resistance, and the latter resorting on a grand scale to the ultimate weapon of the oppressed: terrorism and sabotage. Nor did Vichy ensure for the French better material conditions than those prevailing in the other occupied countries of Western Europe, whose governments had taken refuge in London. Vichy’s rate of inflation and the French standard of living were just as bad as those in the rest of Western Europe, if not worse. In 1943, more workers were sent to Germany from France than from Poland.

Vichy looks better today only because most French Jews were saved. But as Paxton puts it, “The real question…is not whether fewer Jews were deported from France than from the totally occupied countries, but whether more Jews were deported from France because of Vichy preparation and assistance than would have been the case if the Germans had had to do it all alone.” He points out, first, that Vichy’s laws discriminating against the Jews in economic, legal, and civic matters were made without any German pressure, thereby making persecution easier for the Gestapo; second, that Vichy deliberately sacrificed the foreign Jews living in France, as if the only alternatives were delivering foreign Jews to the Nazis or sacrificing French Jews. Italy, during the brief months of Mussolini’s occupation of the French Riviera, behaved better than Vichy.

If Vichy’s moral balance sheet was even more disastrous than the material one, it was in part because the French right deemed France’s decline and Germany’s superiority inevitable. This feeling, already lurking in the writings of Barrès and Maurras before 1914, had been enhanced in the Thirties by ideology. Hitler’s triumph seemed to clinch the old case of the French right against France’s republic.

It is true that the monarchists, ex-syndicalists, grands bourgeois, technocrats, journalists, and civil servants in bizarre alliance around Pétain were not pro-Nazi. But they really meant it when they said, “Rather Hitler than Blum.” Had they been less blinded by domestic prejudices and passions, less afraid of the “red menace’ in France and abroad, less convinced that the Fascist regimes were the wave of the future, they would not have been so sure that Germany had won a permanent victory in 1940. Nor would they have been so relieved at the “end” of the war, so convinced that the only alternative to a German triumph or a compromise peace giving Hitler control of Europe was the victory of Stalin.

During the Thirties and Forties, however strong one’s wishes, one no longer could isolate the social struggles in France from the conflicts in the outer world—any more than one could during the French revolution, when the French reactionaries had to call on the armies of the Prussian king and the Austrian emperor. However hard the Vichy “nationalists” tried to dissociate themselves from Nazi totalitarianism or from their fellow French collaborators, however hard they tried to show that their anti-Semitism was based on “national” and not on racial grounds—was “authentically French,” and not imported—such intentions were irresistibly pushed aside by the reality of what they did. To make an armistice with Hitler, because of fears of social disorder, meant taking sides in the international civil war. When they understood this—too late—many Vichyites drew back in horror, or joined the Resistance.

Pétain and Laval, with somnambulistic logic, went on to the bitter end: exile in the baroque castle in Sigmaringen, where Marcel Ophuls interviewed a former member of French Waffen SS for his film. Their many offers of collaboration, which Paxton mercilessly documents, were not just bad tactics. Pétain and his court, because of their domestic phobias, put their heads into the German noose. By contrast, de Gaulle, whose only criterion, from early on, had been France’s place in the world and the need for France to prevail over Germany, had the intelligence to understand that his own success required that he appeal to all the Republican instincts, including the forces and traditions of the left. His inflexible sense of the priority of foreign affairs dictated his domestic choices, just as Vichy’s reactionary domestic views determined its foreign policy. It is the great merit of Professor Paxton’s book to open our eyes to connections that Vichyites have heatedly denied, and that go much deeper than the conspiracy theories and psychological speculations advanced by earlier writers on Vichy.

This Issue

February 8, 1973