Banishing Pétain’s ghost

As de Gaulle’s star rose – as de Gaulle became the centrepiece of French national identity and pride – Pétain’s fell.

Marshal Pétain at his trial in 1945.
Marshal Pétain at his trial in 1945. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, Julian Jackson, Allen Lane, £25

Few today have heard of François Achille Bazaine, but he once loomed large in the French imagination. His story made an impact on a young Charles de Gaulle, who, on the very first page of his war memoirs, described his grandparents’ anguish on hearing in 1870 that Marshal Bazaine had capitulated to the Prussians. In 1873 he was tried, convicted, and exiled to a Mediterranean island (from which, like Napoleon, he pulled off a daring escape). His life was glorious and deplorable, but never mediocre.

When the Third Republic fell to the Germans in 1940, as the empire of Napoleon III had fallen seventy years earlier, memories of Bazaine returned to the fore. This fall of France had its own coward, its own traitor, its own Bazaine. Like Bazaine, he had once been a great hero, and like Bazaine, he was Marshal of France.

The spectre of history stalks every page of Julian Jackson’s latest book, France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain. The old Marshal himself is haunted by ghosts of the past. Holed up in 1945 in the castle of Sigmaringen, a sad little Vichy rump-state enclaved within the Third Reich, he turned to the memoirs of Talleyrand, perhaps on the hunt (so Jackson suggests) for ‘tips about how to make a transition from one regime to another’. In the end, not even Talleyrand’s wiles could save him.

‘It is I alone who will be judged by History’, Pétain declared when announcing his fateful decision to collaborate with Nazi Germany in 1940. That judgement came at his trial five years later, which dominated French headlines in those chaotic summer months between VE-Day and VJ-Day. Now it falls to historians not only to judge Pétain, but also those who judged him. Marc Bloch, himself a victim of the Vichy regime, contrasted the historian’s craft to that of the judge, but Jackson has mastered both. The closing section of the book, a series of counterfactuals carefully demonstrating all the measures Pétain could have taken to distance himself from Hitler and to protect France’s Jews, marshals a stronger case against Pétain than the prosecution at his trial could muster. (Indeed, as Jackson notes, French complicity in the Holocaust was scarcely mentioned, though it has since come to be understood as Vichy’s primary sin.)

Although they succeeded in convincing the jury of Pétain’s guilt (a foregone conclusion), the prosecution struggled to bear the weight of their historic task. Perhaps this was because they lacked precisely what Jackson gives us. ‘We are not historians’, boasted one of them, André Mornet: ‘let us not go too deeply into the archives.’ Jackson has immersed himself in the archives, and his narrative – and the case against Pétain – is all the better for it.

At various points throughout the book one can almost hear Jackson’s frustration with the hapless prosecution. In particular, Mornet and his colleagues were obsessed with the idea that Pétain had plotted with fascist-oriented ‘Cagoulards’ to seize power prior to 1940. The evidence for this was threadbare: it was a conspiracy theory, propounded all the way from New York by the writer André Schwob. The prosecution spent a great deal of time and energy barking up the wrong tree.

Pétain’s defence was no better, having some peculiar fixations of its own. His lawyers attempted to prove, against the odds, that Pétain had been playing four-dimensional chess all along: that he was engaged in a ‘double jeu’, pretending to collaborate with Hitler while really working with the Allies. This conspiracy theory was given a veneer of credibility by Professor Louis Rougier, a ‘self-important and meddling provincial academic’, who purported to be the middle-man between Vichy and London. His Majesty’s Government was quick to disavow him.

But for all their shortcomings, and their ultimate defeat, Pétain’s defence team included in its number the most dynamic and colourful character to emerge from Jackson’s book. Jacques Isorni was a young man hungry to prove himself. He developed a filial attachment to the elderly Marshal, and after Pétain’s death in 1951 he became the leading flagbearer of ‘Pétainism’.

With Isorni one gets the sense that the Pétain trial was a career highlight; he spent the remainder of his career chasing after it, re-living it in speeches and books, and petitioning successive French presidents, always in vain, to allow it to be relitigated. Practically everyone else in the story resented having to go through with the trial. As Maurice Garçon commented, ‘everyone regrets Pétain’s return – regrets the fact that he lived on until the end’. De Gaulle joked that he wished someone had slipped poison into Pétain’s coffee. Nobody really wanted to be lumbered with the trial, which rubbed salt into national wounds. Pétain would have done himself and his country a service, it was widely thought, if only he had succumbed to his old age earlier – if he had, Christ-like, ‘made the gift of his person’ to preserve national dignity, as he had purported to do in 1940.

Of Pétain himself, there is little to say: in the book, as in the trial, he ‘somehow dominates the proceedings by remaining silent’. The most striking thing about him is his capacity for self-delusion. When he returned to France in 1945, he ‘probably believed that he was still protected by the magic of his legend’. This partly stemmed from his feted status as a Marshal, an immortel, ‘the Lion of Verdun’. But it also grew out of the sycophancy to which he had become accustomed during his four years at the head of a dictatorship: he was used to being greeted with cheering crowds and smiling faces wherever he went. Pétain’s ego was further massaged by Isorni, who paid him secret visits and gave him pep talks, likening him to Joan of Arc and Napoleon.

Pétain was in for a ‘rude awakening’. He quickly discovered that he was not a Joan of Arc or a Napoleon, nor even a Talleyrand, but a Bazaine. The great British man of letters Philip Guedalla had already drawn the parallel in 1943. At the May Day parade in 1945, marchers held up an effigy of Pétain, with ‘Bazaine’ written across his stomach. ‘PETAIN-BAZAINE DOIT PAYER!, one newspaper demanded.

‘Bazaine is forgotten today’, writes Jackson in the introduction, ‘but in 1945 comparisons between him and Pétain were frequently made’. So, now that we are at a further remove from the Pétain trial than that was from Bazaine, is this: has Pétain gone the way of Bazaine? Has he become universal figure of hate, a byword for treachery – if, indeed, he is even remembered at all? For most of the characters of France of Trial, the Bazainification of Pétain would have been inconceivable: all of them stress Pétain’s divisiveness; all of them acknowledge, usually with bitterness, that Pétain still commanded the respect and admiration of a great part of the nation. It was for this reason, wrote François Mauriac, that ‘a trial like this is never over and will never end’. ‘It was a great historical drama’, said de Gaulle, ‘and a historical drama is never over’.

Historians are sometimes guilty of overselling the ‘relevance’ and ‘urgency’ of whatever they are writing about, and it would have been easy for Jackson to traverse that path, concluding his study of Pétain and Pétainism on the same foreboding note as Mauriac and de Gaulle. But in fact Jackson, writing from his twenty-first century vantage-point, disagrees with them: the trial, the drama, is over, ‘the Pétain case is closed’.

Two reviewers, in the Literary Review and The Critic, have objected to this aspect of Jackson’s argument. Yet Jackson shows, I think convincingly, that Pétain was principally a totem for rabid anti-Gaullists like Isorni, whose hatred of the General ran so deep that he voted for the socialist François Mitterrand in the presidential election of 1965. Thus it had particular salience when de Gaulle was viewed on the far right as a traitor for abandoning Algeria. There was an effort to reconcile Pétainism with Gaullism – using the ‘sword’ and ‘shield’ metaphor, to which Isorni paid lip-service at the trial – but this was peripheral, and its main proponent, Colonel Rémy, was marginalised from the Pétainist mainstream. Thus, as de Gaulle’s star rose – as de Gaulle became the centrepiece of French national identity and pride – Pétain’s fell.

France on Trial is therefore best read as a companion piece to Jackson’s magisterial biography of de Gaulle, A Certain Idea of France. There, too, Jackson contends that the ‘rancid arguments of Vichy apologists are long past’. This is because there exists, in France today, an ‘extraordinary unanimity around de Gaulle’. Such unanimity would have been difficult to predict during de Gaulle’s lifetime, just as de Gaulle himself could never have predicted that there would ever be any consensus in France, though in the opposite direction, around Pétain. The Fifth Republic has swallowed up other historic mainstays of right-wing agitation – royalism, clericalism, vitriolic revanchism – and Pétainism follows suit. France today is de Gaulle’s country. Pétain’s ghost has indeed been banished.


Samuel Rubinstein