Treason is a matter of timing, Talleyrand said, and he should have known. Aristocrat by birth, priest by original profession if no very sincere vocation, consecrated a bishop only months before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord supported the Revolution before leaving in 1792 for London and then America, adroitly avoiding the Terror. Over the next forty years he returned to France, helped Napoleon rise to power, served him, deserted him, helped secure the Bourbon restoration and served Louis XVIII, and then, when the dynasty was again deposed in 1830, served the Orléanist king Louis-Philippe as his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He left London in 1834 at the age of eighty after a career of sinuous and deftly timed disloyalty.
One man understandably absorbed by this story was Philippe Pétain, who in the winter of 1944–1945 “settled down to the memoirs of Talleyrand,” Julian Jackson writes in France on Trial, “perhaps seeking tips about how to make a transition from one regime to another.” Pétain had been head of the collaborationist Vichy government of France from July 1940 until August 1944, and was now holed up in Sigmaringen, an ancient Hohenzollern castle in southwestern Germany and “an appropriately Ruritanian setting for the final act of the Vichy drama.” He had scurried thither ahead of the Allied armies, along with the flotsam of Vichy, among them Pierre Laval, Jean Luchaire, and Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches. Laval’s career, remarkable even in that age of political tergiversation, took him from left-wing socialist in 1914 to prime minister twice in the 1930s and again under Vichy, then to trial and execution in 1945. Luchaire was a corrupt journalist who had arrived with “at least two mistresses, his wife and his daughter.” And Destouches was a doctor, an ardent antisemite, and a writer under the pen name Céline, who has been called the greatest French novelist of the twentieth century.
Much as the grotesque “Republic of Salò,” the puppet regime in northern Italy in which the Germans installed Mussolini after he fled Rome, was then pretending that it was the real Italian government, the Sigmaringen crew tried to maintain that they were still in power. They put out France, a newspaper whose predictions of an imminent Axis triumph very few can have believed, if they read it at all. As a diversion the Belgian fascist leader Léon Degrelle arrived in his SS uniform to give a lecture entitled “The New Europe and the Recovery of France,” while that “New Europe”—the Third Reich, its New Order, and its satellite states—was disintegrating all around.
Reality intruded on April 21 when Allied troops reached the castle. The group dispersed, Céline escaping to Denmark and Laval to Spain. Although Pétain briefly made his way to Switzerland, he wasn’t trying to escape, and on April 26, two days after his eighty-ninth birthday, he returned to France voluntarily to face his trial for treason, which took place in the Palais de Justice in Paris between July 23 and August 15 and is the subject of Jackson’s enthralling book, as gripping as it is scholarly.
Born near Calais in 1856 to peasant parents, Pétain was a teenager when France was humiliatingly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. The Saint-Cyr military academy and the army provided the classic path upward for a gifted poor boy, and by 1912 Pétain was a colonel commanding the 33rd Infantry Regiment. That year a new Saint-Cyr graduate, Charles de Gaulle, chose to serve in his regiment, and Pétain befriended him despite the more than thirty years between them. Jackson’s previous book was a masterly life of de Gaulle, A Certain Idea of France (2018), in which he described that unlikely relationship in those early days, when colonel and subaltern went girl-chasing together in Paris.
In early 1916 Pétain commanded the French Second Army in the later stages of the murderous Battle of Verdun, in which de Gaulle was wounded and taken prisoner after his company was almost wiped out. The tide of war on the western front at last turned decisively in the summer of 1918, and Pétain, a hero of the Republic, led the victory parade through Paris in November. He had long since retired when in 1939 he was asked to take up the delicate post of ambassador to Madrid after Francisco Franco had bloodily won the Spanish Civil War. During his time there, he returned home briefly and mysteriously, and six years later it was suggested that there had been a dark purpose for this. Pétain’s reticence was understandable, but it was not for political reasons: even as an octogenarian he remained an incorrigible philanderer. Perhaps he preferred that his interrogators not know that one destination during his Paris visit was the famous brothel One-Two-Two.
After crushing Poland in September 1939, Hitler’s armies turned west and invaded France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940. Within six weeks the British army had been driven into the sea at Dunkirk and the French army had been routed in one of the most catastrophic defeats in military history. Winston Churchill repeatedly flew to France to rally the French leaders, the government retreated from Paris to Bordeaux, senior legislators hoped to withdraw further to Algeria, and de Gaulle escaped to London. Pétain was brought into the government almost as a sign of despair, and on June 22 he agreed to an armistice with Germany.
To make the surrender even more humiliating, the Germans ordered the French delegation to Compiègne, where the armistice ending World War I had been signed on November 11, 1918, and even brought the same railway car used twenty-two years before. Almost all Germans had believed, quite wrongly, that the subsequent Treaty of Versailles was a “slave treaty” and also, just as wrongly, that their army had been undefeated on the battlefield, so it must have been betrayed or stabbed in the back. In 1940 there could be no such misapprehension for the French. Defeat was comprehensive, and this armistice really was something like a slave treaty. The larger part of France to the north and west was occupied by the Germans, while what was left became an ill-named “Free Zone,” a German client “French State” superseding the Third Republic. Its capital was the spa resort of Vichy in the middle of the country, chosen partly because it had so many hotels for curistes that could now provide offices and accommodations for the strange new regime.
And yet, as Jackson reminds us, “no one expected the French government to remain in Vichy for long,” since it was supposed that a full treaty would be concluded when England sued for peace. But the central military facts of that year turned out to be that while Germany won the Battle of France, it lost the Battle of Britain. Churchill and the British people knew they couldn’t defeat Hitler, but they could defy him, and so did a modest number of Frenchmen. During the invasion de Gaulle had been promoted to brigadier general and led an armored brigade in one of the few successful French counterattacks, before he briefly joined the government and then escaped to London. On June 18, anticipating the armistice, he broadcast “L’Appel” on the BBC—“France has lost a battle! But France has not lost the war!”—and began a magnificent imposture with his claim, against all evidence at the time, that he represented the true France and that the true French people were his followers. He was tried in absentia by the Vichy regime and condemned to death.
Over the next five years, the greatest and bloodiest war in history saw a dramatic reversal of individual as well as military fortunes. By the summer of 1944 the Allies had landed in Normandy and were on the road to victory, while liberation was accompanied by épuration, or purging, which in much of France meant an épuration sauvage—lawless vengeance in which at least nine thousand people lost their lives. Some of them were bloodstained Vichyite brutes, although there was a certain amount of petty revenge, as well as the cruelest kind of spite. In Marcel Ophuls’s riveting documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), people from Clermont-Ferrand, a large town not far from Vichy, were interviewed, from peasant farmers who had worked in the Resistance to an aristocrat who had served with the German army, but there is also footage of young women who had slept with German soldiers having their heads shaved in front of baying mobs.
For de Gaulle, the Allied victory was an extraordinary personal triumph. Despite all the ambiguities of the preceding years, his endless rows with Churchill, and the bitter antagonism of President Roosevelt, he extended his personal authority across the liberated country. Five years earlier he had been a traitor; now the task was to show that his erstwhile friend and patron Pétain had been one.
As Pétain reminded the court, the final act of the National Assembly and Senate of the Third Republic in 1940 had been to vote, with only eighty parliamentarians dissenting, to grant him full powers to conclude the armistice, effectively voting the republic out of existence. And so until the Fourth Republic was created in October 1946 France was in something of a constitutional limbo under a provisional government. Nevertheless, formal trials began of agents of the Vichy regime and collaborators.
First came journalists who were easy to identify, damned by newspaper files. Georges Suarez was another chameleon who had at one time been on the left but had then written ardently in the cause of Vichy and Germany. In October he was tried and shot. Much more dramatic was the trial of Robert Brasillach. A gifted writer and critic whose work was admired by de Gaulle, among others, and who was one of the first to write seriously about cinema, he was also a committed fascist, antisemite, and collaborator.
If not quite the hero, Brasillach’s counsel, Jacques Isorni, is almost the central figure of Jackson’s book. The son of a poor Italian immigrant, he had overcome the prejudice of the haughty and xenophobic French bar to become a brilliant lawyer and was still in his thirties. He could have argued that while Brasillach’s writings were repellent, he didn’t deserve the harshest punishment. “But this approach did not satisfy Isorni’s sense of drama,” Jackson says. “Instead, he argued that Brasillach was a great writer who would be a loss to French letters.” This grandstanding defense may have been literally fatal, since Brasillach was condemned to death. The tenderhearted writer François Mauriac, “St. François of the Assizes” as one paper sarcastically dubbed him, organized a petition calling for clemency, which Albert Camus signed, although Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir refused to. Isorni visited de Gaulle to plead for mercy but found him at his most implacable, and on February 6, 1945, Isorni’s last service to his client was to accompany him from prison to a military fort and witness his execution by firing squad.
Six months later Isorni was a lawyer for the defense in the trial of Pétain. Jackson gives us vivid portraits of the main participants in the drama. The judge was Pierre Mongibeaux, who had taken the oath of loyalty to Vichy without actively serving the regime; the prosecuting lawyers, Pierre Bouchardon and André Mornet, had been prosecutors in treason trials during World War I in which, among others, the exotic dancer Mata Hari was condemned and shot. Both Bouchardon and Mornet had been born in 1870, and in the courtroom there was a striking contrast between septuagenarian lawyers and jurors in their twenties and thirties like Marcel Loriguet. He belonged to the second of the two groups of twelve men—one group of former parliamentarians and one of former Resistance members—who composed the jury.
When the trials of collaborators began, only those who had “never ceased to demonstrate their patriotic sentiments” or had served or identified with the Resistance could act as jurors, which was, as Jackson says, a “clear breach of the principle of impartiality.” The Pétain jury was scarcely a random cross section of the public: the parliamentary jurors were drawn from the minority that had voted against accepting German terms in 1940, and the Resistance jurors belonged to another quite small minority who had borne arms against Vichy and the Germans.
After lengthy if not very illuminating interrogations of Pétain, the trial began, in a cramped, hot, and claustrophobic courtroom. Among the foreign press was Janet Flanner of The New Yorker; among the French press was the ferocious Madeleine Jacob of the former Resistance paper Franc-Tireur, who wrote in tricoteuse spirit demanding a “rapid, clear, inexorable” outcome: “The execution squad perhaps, but why not the guillotine?” Pétain sat alone in the center of the courtroom, his marshal’s kepi and gloves on the table before him. Apart from a brief statement, he was largely silent throughout the trial as his former colleagues related and relitigated the events of 1940.
Very little about the case was black-and-white. Even after the armistice and Churchill’s ruthless sinking of French battleships in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir, the British government’s attitude toward Vichy had been ambiguous. Much was made of the possible double game Pétain might have played, trying to maintain contact with London while bowing to Berlin. However that may have been, he was quite correct in saying that his regime had been recognized by many countries “from the Holy See to the Soviet Union.” And the United States, he could have added: Washington maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy for more than two years and only broke them off in November 1942, when the Germans occupied the Free Zone after the “Torch” landings of American and British troops on what was technically French soil in Morocco and Algeria.
Before the war, Admiral William Leahy had been the US chief of naval operations, and by its end he was chief of staff, but from January 1941 to April 1942 he was Roosevelt’s ambassador to Vichy. Roosevelt was frequently out of his depth in international relations, as his sentimental delusions about Stalin’s good faith demonstrated. So did his plan “to normalize relations with Vichy and woo it away from Germany,” and by scorning de Gaulle and his Free French forces Roosevelt had backed the wrong horse. Now Pétain wrote to Leahy asking for his help. As Leahy later said with some understatement, “it was a difficult letter to answer,” but he did his best in a “tortuously convoluted reply”:
My dear Marshal Pétain,
…I learn from [your letter] the sad predicament in which you find yourself…. You will understand that it is impossible for me, as Chief of General Staff, to become involved in any degree in any internal French controversy in France…. Your principal concern was the welfare and protection of the helpless people of France….
However, in all honesty, I must repeat my personal opinion, expressed to you at the time, that positive refusal to make concessions to the Axis demands, while it might have brought immediate hardship on the people of France, would, in the long view, have been advantageous for France.
This wasn’t much help to Pétain, although it was enough to anger Churchill, who told the Foreign Office that “Leahy was sitting in Marshal Pétain’s pocket at Vichy.” All the same, when it was over one Foreign Office official remarked with relief, “I think we are lucky that no more was made during the trial about Franco-British relations.”
One by one the witnesses appeared, the old men who had governed the Third Republic and in varying degrees had brought about its demise: Édouard Daladier, prime minister from 1938 (when he signed the Munich Agreement) until March 1940; Paul Reynaud, who succeeded him; Albert Lebrun, the last president of the Republic; Maxime Weygand, who took over as commander in chief of the French army on May 28 when it was already defeated and who subsequently served Vichy. Rather than incriminating or exculpating Pétain, each of them was trying to defend himself and his own record.
More impressive testimony than theirs came from Louis Marin, a conservative who had been a fixture of French political life almost since the beginning of the century. “Quivering with rage,” he studiously avoided the name “Marshal Pétain,” referring instead to “the accused.” Rehearsing again the debates at the time over whether to accept an armistice, he angrily compared France to all the other countries that had been defeated and occupied by Germany. King Haakon of Norway and his government had been the first to go into exile in London, leaving their country to be ruled on behalf of the Germans by a man who added his name to the vocabulary of treachery, Vidkun Quisling. As Marin said:
Norway did not sign an armistice.
Belgium did not sign an armistice.
Holland did not sign an armistice.
Luxembourg did not sign an armistice.
Greece did not sign an armistice…
Only France signed an armistice.
This was also de Gaulle’s charge: “For me, the supreme fault of Pétain and his government was to have concluded…the so-called ‘armistice.’” The battle in mainland France was plainly lost, and ending the fighting would have been “a totally justified local military decision,” he conceded. “Then the government would have gone to Algiers taking with it the treasure of French sovereignty, which for fourteen centuries had never been handed over, continuing the struggle to the end.”
But no witness was more formidable and affecting than Léon Blum. A Parisian Jewish lawyer and man of letters turned politician, he had defended “the old house” of democratic socialism at the time of the “Leninist scission” in 1920 when part of the French Socialist Party defected to become the Communist Party. Blum had thereafter led the Socialists and twice served as prime minister in the 1930s, incurring the hatred of the right. After the armistice he had been interned and tried at Riom, in the Vichy regime’s show trials designed to prove how the leaders of the Third Republic had been responsible for France’s defeat. His superb speech at that trial was published by the British Labour Party and made him even more of a hero to the international left, but that was if anything eclipsed by his extraordinary testimony at Pétain’s trial.
When he heard the news of the armistice, he said:
I could not believe my eyes. I saw that France was betraying her allies…I saw France occupied and divided into two parts…. I saw that abominable clause, without precedent, I think, in our history, by which France committed herself to handing over to Germany those “outlaws,” exiles who had found refuge on our soil.
And then came his riveting description of the last debates at Vichy of the legislature of the Third Republic:
It was a spectacle that still chills me if I think back to it. In those two days I saw men transformed and corrupted in front my eyes, as if they had been dipped into some kind of toxic bath. What made them change was fear: fear of the fascist bands of Jacques Doriot prowling the streets, fear of the military, fear of the Germans.
That vivid testimony stirred the torpid atmosphere of witnesses debating arcane points, but then came the startling news that the man who had been described in the courtroom variously as a “dungheap,” Pétain’s “evil genius,” and Vichy’s “grand sorcerer” was to appear. Laval’s presence in Spain had proved an embarrassment to Franco before “he was offered the chance to move to Ireland, whose government had agreed to take him,” Jackson has found. Although he declined the offer, Éamon de Valera’s Irish state crowned its record of moral as well as military neutrality throughout the war by affording refuge to other murderous war criminals. So Laval was flown to the American zone of occupation in Austria and thence to France and the courtroom.
Physically repellent, notoriously corrupt, widely detested, the man who had been premier in Vichy from April 1942 until August 1944 gave a spirited and defiant performance. At the time of the armistice and later, he said, it was absurd to think that Germany could be defeated:
How can you speak of a reversal of alliances in October 1940?… In October 1940 where was England? America was not in the war. Do you think that in 1940 anybody of good sense could imagine anything else but a German victory?
Throughout the trial the Communist press distinguished itself by the bloodthirsty violence of its language and imagery, with cartoons showing Pétain hanged, and the same fate was now demanded for Laval: “There are two of them, that makes twenty-four bullets.” And yet, as Laval pointed out, “the Russians were on the side of the Germans.” Quite apart from Russian recognition of Vichy, Stalin had colluded with Hitler in the dismemberment of Poland and had continued supplying matériel to Germany until Hitler’s attack in June 1941, while in the preceding year the French Communists were effectively collaborators.
In a sense all this was beside the point, since everyone knew what the outcome of the trial would be. The last speech for the defense ended at 9 PM on the evening of August 14, and the jurors, who had been listening for eight hours, were allowed to eat before their deliberations began. These were lengthy, into the small hours, and several votes were taken, not about the verdict but about the sentence. Jacques Lecompte-Boinet was one of the Resistance jurors, and his journal shows considerable skepticism about the conduct of the trial. But in the end, “we could not not condemn him to death.” An almost superfluous plea for clemency was added, since everyone also knew that de Gaulle would commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Pétain lived out his remaining years on the little Île d’Yeu off the coast of Brittany, dying in 1951 at ninety-five barely aware of events.
A defense of Pétain had been made from unlikely quarters: two French, and Jewish, writers who had chosen exile. “It is not impossible,” the great politologue Raymond Aron said, “that the armistice and Vichy, for two and a half years, attenuated the rigours of the occupation.” And Simone Weil thought that
the armistice was a collective cowardice, a collective treason; the entire nation shares some responsibility…. Moreover, I think that Pétain has done more or less everything that his physical and mental state allowed to limit the damage.
But these excessively generous words overlooked many things, from the Statut des Juifs of October 1940, excluding Jews from the French civil service, to the hideous Rafle du Vél d’Hiv in July 1942, when foreign Jews in Paris, numerous children among them, were rounded up by French policemen and incarcerated at a cycling stadium, before they were deported to the east, and death.
When did the Pétain case really begin? In his scholarly and eye-opening France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944 (2001), Jackson quoted a memoir Brasillach published in early 1940 entitled Notre avant-guerre, with a preface dated “6 February Year VII. National revolution.” He was dating this revolution, that is, from the crisis of February 6, 1934, when during a far-right riot on the Place de la Concorde in Paris fifteen demonstrators were shot by the police, marking what Jackson calls the beginning of “a French civil war lasting until 1944.” But perhaps that civil war began much earlier. The proto-fascist Charles Maurras had cut his political teeth as an anti-Dreyfusard in the 1890s, and nearly half a century later he wrote in support of Vichy. He too was tried after the Liberation, and when he heard his sentence of life imprisonment, he shouted, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus!” Although it wasn’t literally that, the rupture in French society occasioned by the Dreyfus affair lasted for many years. But then it was only one of many such ruptures going back to 1789.
And when did the Pétain case end? There were more trials to come—in October of Joseph Darnand, the former head of the detested Milice (Vichy’s Gestapo) who was tried and shot. So was Laval, although as Jackson says, even his “bitterest enemies agreed that his trial was a travesty.” The third part of Jackson’s book is called “Afterlives.” Isorni was transformed by the trial and devoted the rest of his life to the cause of Pétain, visiting him regularly until his death and thereafter trying to rehabilitate him. A cult of Pétain devotees visited the Île d’Yeu, where he was buried, and campaigned for his body to be reinterred at Verdun.
In 1958 the turbulent Fourth Republic, unable to bring the Algerian war of independence to a conclusion, came to its end, and de Gaulle emerged from more than ten years of self-imposed internal exile. As Jackson provocatively says, “The parallels with 1940 were striking: at a moment of national crisis a providential hero emerged to save the nation”—once Pétain, now de Gaulle. If anyone ever played a double game it was de Gaulle, who allowed the army as well as the pieds noirs—the French Algerians—to believe that he would keep Algeria French, while allowing Parisian politicians to believe that “he was the man who could save them from the army.” His creation of the Fifth Republic, which gave the president wide powers, was a formidable stroke that allowed him to extricate France from the Algerian war, and from Algeria. This branded him a traitor in many eyes, but then again treason was a matter of timing.
During de Gaulle’s years in office his version of history was officially imposed, with the Free French and the Resistance presented as the true nation, and there was very little Vergangenheitsbewältigung, as the Germans call a reckoning with the past. Certainly there were “memory wars,” and one newspaper wrote that “People are Talking about Him. People are For, People are Against. There is a New Battle over Pétain.” In fact there wasn’t; as Jackson says, it was just the old debate rehashed. A truly new debate was begun in 1972 by a young American historian. In Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, Robert Paxton used German documents to show that the Vichy regime,
far from having collaboration forced upon it, had consistently sought a collaboration that the Germans rebuffed; that the first repressive policies of the Vichy regime, including the persecution of the Jews, were entirely home-grown and not the result of German pressure.
Even then it wasn’t until well after de Gaulle’s death in 1970 that the story of the French Jews began to be told fully, not least the fact that the Vichy regime had introduced antisemitic measures without German pressure and that Jews had been rounded up by French policemen serving French officials. That was still too difficult for many French people to accept, at least those of the wartime generation. François Mitterrand exemplified these ambiguities, having served Vichy in a minor capacity before he became a prominent Socialist politician in the Fourth Republic and was then elected president in 1981. Not until 1992 did Jacques Chirac become the first president to acknowledge French participation in the Shoah.
When Alistair Cooke collected his dispatches covering the Alger Hiss case for The Manchester Guardian in 1950, he called the book A Generation on Trial, which was a misnomer. Hiss may have represented a very small group drawn to Soviet communism, but not a generation of Americans or anything like it. Jackson’s title is far more apt. In some ways the Pétain case really was “France on trial,” implicitly judging millions of French men and women who were dismayed and demoralized by the catastrophe in 1940, and who may have disliked the German occupation but who compromised with it and obeyed Vichy, even if no clear verdict was pronounced on them.
“The affair is now over once and for all,” de Gaulle’s younger colleague Georges Pompidou said to him when Pétain died. “No,” de Gaulle replied, “it was a great historical drama, and a historical drama is never over,” echoing what Mauriac had said in 1945: “A trial like this one is never over and will never end.” Rather contradicting that, Jackson’s last line is: “The Pétain trial is closed.” But is it?
Two years after Chirac spoke and almost half a century after the war, Maurice Papon was tried and given a ten-year sentence for his part in the arrest and deportation of Jews. Jackson describes Papon’s “stellar administrative career” in the long years after he had served as a Vichy functionary, “rising to be Prefect of Paris police between 1958 and 1966.”
What Jackson doesn’t mention are the events of October 17, 1961, the year when Papon was awarded the Légion d’honneur by de Gaulle. That night, in another kind of rafle, large numbers of Algerians demonstrating in Paris were rounded up by the police, commanded by Papon, and scores of them—at least forty, maybe more than two hundred (the exact figure will never be known)—were beaten to death and dumped in the Seine. More than sixty years later, anti-Muslim and even racist polemics have recently been best sellers in France, and this summer the outskirts of Paris were shaken by riots after an unarmed seventeen-year-old boy of North African origin was shot by a policeman. The police union denounced those rioters as “vermin,” while surveys suggest that a substantial majority of French police officers vote for parties of the far right, notably the National Rally (formerly National Front), whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is among the most popular candidates for the 2027 presidential election. No, a great historical drama is never over.
One of those interviewed in The Sorrow and the Pity was Sir Anthony Eden, by then Lord Avon, who had been Churchill’s foreign secretary during the war and in 1955 his successor as prime minister. Speaking lucid French, he described the hugger-mugger of June 1940, but then wisely added that no one who had not lived under an occupation should lightly judge those who had. All the same, and although Brasillach is not a man one would usually choose to quote, as I finished Julian Jackson’s splendid and even profound book, my feelings were well expressed by Brasillach’s last words in front of the firing squad: “Vive la France, quand même.”