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.1

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Pétain said and did, overcoming obstacles of hagiography and missing evidence (Pétain’s military dossier seems to have been replaced by another during the Vichy period), and including perhaps a bit too much hearsay.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 by phlegm under artillery barrage. Heretofore shunted aside for his heterodox emphasis on the defensive, Pétain finally came into his own when offensive doctrines had been discredited by the failed Nivelle offensive of May 1917. Replacing the flamboyant Nivelle as Commander in Chief of French forces on the western front, Pétain thereafter limited operations to assembling overwhelming local superiority for limited advances. In a lucid self-evaluation written in 1919 to his future wife, who had complained that he lacked “élan,” he wrote:

I use only as much élan as is necessary to surmount obstacles…and I surmount them. I hate the exaggerations, the exaltations that only make one fall further and reveal incapacity all the more glaringly. It is by making precise calculations, by never undertaking anything beyond my means, by clearly evaluating the forces opposed to me, after having scrutinized them with cold calculation, that I have managed to win some successes in recent years.2

In the one military operation he commanded between the wars, Pétain crushed a tribal rising in the Rif Mountains of Morocco in 1925 with a large European-style force, including tanks and planes. “A hammer to kill a fly,” sneered an aide to Marshal Lyautey, Pétain’s rival in Morocco. Watching Hitler rearm, Pétain was soon convinced that any French military action in Europe was “beyond my means.”

The second lesson that Pétain learned in World War I was the fragility of morale. The new Commander in Chief had to deal with the mutinies or, more precisely, the sit-down strikes against attacks “over the top,” spawned by the Nivelle fiasco. He calmed them by visiting affected units, by limiting the use of firing squads (Guy Pedroncini, the authority in this matter, counts only fifty mutineers shot after court martial, though others may have been shot out of hand), and by putting a stop to fruitless assaults. A researcher now working in the French postal censor’s records finds that soldiers greeted Pétain with relief in 1917. They formed the core of his immense nonpartisan following between the wars. For his part, Pétain learned that wars breed revolution. He insisted in June 1940 that if France tried to fight on in North Africa, the ensuing guerrilla in occupied France would destroy French civilization. Better defeated than Red.


Premier Paul Reynaud fell victim to these ambiguities in the Victor of Verdun’s image when he had to deal with the German onslaught of May 1940. He brought Pétain into his government as the symbol of martial ardor, only to find the marshal bent on obtaining an armistice.

By 1945, when Pétain went on trial for his life for his part in France’s surrender in 1940 and as head of the ensuing French state at vichy, two negative images had been attached retroactively to his role between the wars: the conspirator against the Third Republic, and the obstacle to the modernization of the French Army. Mr. Lottman wisely gives both charges short shrift.

Pétain’s accusers before the Haute Courde Justice in 1945 were unable to validate their charge of plotting against the Republic. It is true that Pétain was widely solicited as a leader during the leaderless 1930s. His letters to his wife—the most revealing of Lottman’s new sources, new, at least, to English-language biographies—clearly show him fending off the kingmakers who wanted him to run for president when Albert Lebrun’s term expired in 1939. As for the “coup” of July 1940 that made Pétain a virtual dictator, that step, engineered by Pierre Laval, met no effective opposition. It would be more to the point to show that Pétain had simply fallen victim to the most corrupting of self-deceptions: the illusion that he was indispensable. Lottman might well have quoted the untranslatable but delicious gouaille of Céline:

Je peux en parler à mon aise puisqu’il me détestait, Pétain fût notre dernier roi de France. “Philippe le dernier.”…la stature, la majesté, tout!…et il y croyait!…d’abord comme vainqueur de Verdun…puis à soixante-dix ans et mèche promu Souverain! qui qui résisterait?…raide comme! “Oh, comme vous incarnez la France, monsieur le Maréchal!” Le coup d'”incarner” est magique!…on me dirait “Céline! bon Dieu de bon Dieu! ce que vous incarnez bien le Passage! le Passage c’est vous! tout vous!” je perdrais la tête! prenez n’importe quel bigorneau, dites-lui dans les yeux qu’il incarne!…vous le voyez fol!…vous l’avez à l’âme! il se sent plus!…Pétain qui’il incarnait la France et il a godé à plus savoir si c’était du lard ou du cochon, gibet, Paradis, ou, Haute Cour, Douaumont, l’Enfer, ou Thorez…il incarnait!…le seul vrai bonheur de bonheur l’incarnement!…vous pouviez lui couper la tête: il incarnait!…la tête serait partie toute seule, bien contente, aux anges!

Pétain c’était aussi le “J’incarne” C’est moi! Impérial! s’il y croyait? oh, là!…il en est mort!3

As for Pétain’s understanding of modern warfare, Lottman has accepted the revisionist position of Guy Pedroncini.4 Pétain was a modernizer in World War I, an “industrialist” of war, as he liked to call himself, apostle of “method” in the accumulation of material superiority over the enemy. He was miles removed from those generals (mostly associated with the political right) who believed that ardor made an attack successful. He would no doubt have found himself at home with Eisenhower’s style of broad, methodical advance after D-day. Between the wars, Lottman claims, using the minutes of military councils, Pétain was the French equivalent of General Douhet, the proponent of overcoming the risks of ground combat by heavy aerial bombardment. It does seem clear that Pétain paid more attention to aviation in the 1930s than De Gaulle did.

The real culprits of French unpreparedness, however, lay outside the scope of Lottman’s book, in budget-cutting during the Depression, and in the “classes creuses.” After 1936, because of the lower birth rate during World War I, the number of French draft-age boys dropped by half. France did indeed possess firstclass military equipment in 1939: the SOMUA B tank and the Dewoitine 520 fighter, which the Germans used on the eastern front against the Russians in 1941. But no French leader knew when or whether to put them into mass production. On matters like these Pétain’s views reflected a broad consensus, civilian as well as military.


As head of state after July 1940, Pétain became the object of the most headlong personality cult since Napoleon. He would have mastered television, since much of his appeal was visual. As it was, radio and press made effective use of his simple homilies. Here too, however, the images contained ambiguities. One favorite theme was that France must now expiate by stern discipline years of slack enjoyment. It is the theme satirized by Camus in The Plague, where Father Paneloux preaches that disease is divine punishment for the people’s sins.

This public asceticism conflicted, however, with Pétain’s private life. Lottman makes much of the women in the old roué’s life, even after he finally married at sixty-four, and he publishes several succulent menus from Pétain’s triumphal tours at a time when many French people were seriously under-nourished. It also conflicted with another Pétain message. Follow me, he said in effect, and France will economize her blood and treasure. Even today many French people believe that France had it easier because of him; I heard that view six months ago from a French ophthalmologist. It is a case that might be argued for the period before total German occupation in November 1942, but not after. Pétain personally never outgrew his peasant’s preoccupation with his land and with having enough money, as the personal letters cited by Lottman reveal in embarrassing detail. The economist Charles Rist, too, being interviewed in the fall of 1941 for a mission to Washington, was astonished to hear Pétain break off from the great issues that burdened him to ask, cryptically, whether he should declare the funds he held at the Morgan Bank.5

A further element in the Pétain image of 1940 was the rejection of politics. Pétain represented the end of palaver, the replacement of squabbling factions by a wise and reconciling father. The heaviest charge one can make against him is that he failed to use that healing potential to create another union sacrée, from far left to far right, as in 1914. Instead, the marshal lent his prestige to what Stanley Hoffmann called the “revenge of the minorities,” score-settling by all the political outsiders of the 1930s, and the deliberate exclusion from the national community of the left, Freemasons, schoolteachers, and Jews.

The second reproach is that Pétain carried so many ordinary French people down with him. When the basic calculations upon which Pétain’s armistice gamble rested—short war, early peace, definitive eclipse of Britain—were contradicted by events, Pétain was incapable of making even the subtle adjustments of Franco or Horthy. Having “made the gift of my person” to France in 1940, he could not take it back. He refused the plane to Algiers that some of his aides urged him to take in November 1942, when the Allies landed in North Africa and the Germans occupied the hitherto semifree Vichy zone. Although he suspended functions as head of state briefly in November 1943, he could not make it stick. He continued to give legitimacy to collaboration long after that.

Lottman rightly rejects the common view that Pétain was senile, at least until late in the war. He was capable of astute and tenacious maneuvering at eightyfour, in June 1940; the first signs of serious incapacity are found in his doctor’s journal for the crisis weeks of November 1942 (which Lottman seems to have missed). De Gaulle, in a famous phrase, summed up the Pétain calamity as a “shipwreck” of old age. In this case, old age seems merely to have affirmed failings already present. Pétain always evaded hard choices, from military action to marriage. Thus his policy after 1940 was less a clear choice than a refusal of them: neither outright participation in the German military effort nor real attentisme, if that term is taken to mean waiting for the right moment to join the Allies. His neutralism was incomprehensible to the two belligerent camps at the time, and it is unfathomable if one accepts the “hero or traitor” polarity of Lottman’s subtitle.

After 1945, French public opinion felt more pity than real hatred for the old man. Spectators at his trial reported a mood of curious awe at such a fall. Just after the liberation of Paris, in September 1944, only 3 percent of French people polled wanted the death penalty for him, while 58 percent thought he should receive no punishment at all. Although opinion hardened considerably as the trial opened in July 1945, at no time did more than 40 percent of the French people support a death penalty.6 The long and stubborn campaign waged by his lawyer Jacques Isorni for rehabilitation, or at least moving Pétain’s body to the Douaumont monument on the Verdun battlefield, where he wanted to be buried, never succeeded in bringing public opinion back to its position in 1944. A poll taken in 1980 showed that 59 percent of the French judged that Pétain had been “sincerely committed to the national interest but overwhelmed by events.” Only 7 percent thought he was a hero who had been unjustly punished.7

A figure for whom a majority feels pity laced with contempt is an unlikely candidate for a revived cult. The “old right” revered Pétain after 1945 as a symbol of traditional values, but quietly. New issues attached themselves to the Pétain image in the late 1960s. As the youth rebellion gathered toward 1968, one biographer asserted that the marshal would have known how to deal with the “blousons noirs.”8 Some Algérie française diehards, such as General Jacques Faure, joined the Pétain rehabilitation movement in 1968, perhaps out of anti-Gaullism, but they were repudiated by younger, more populist OAS officers. Today the “new right” mostly avoids him. It is true that Figaro Magazine, its most effective mass publication, published Pétain’s portrait on its May 17, 1980 cover, along with a tendentious interpretation of the poll mentioned above as indicating 66 percent “exoneration” for the marshal. The main “new right” ideologue, Alain de Benoist, however, proclaims that the “old right…totalitaire, pétainiste, maurrassienne” is dead, and deservedly so, and includes Pétain among the reprehensible “militaires étoilés” who take over whenever France is in trouble.9 The main “new right” politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, never mentions Pétain. Sondages found in 1976 that only a third of those under the age of thirty-four even knew who had been head of state at Vichy. The right today crystallizes around other issues: immigrants, public order, the economy.

In the end, Pétain reflected his time more than he shaped it. It was his images, what people expected of “the Marshal,” that gave his failings tragic proportions.

This Issue

February 14, 1985