The Legacy of the French War Hero Who Betrayed His Country and Its Jews

June 6, 2023 | Allen Lane
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In 1918, Marshal Philippe Pétain was the most revered man in France—the heroic general who saved his country from the German onslaught at the battle of Verdun and led the army to its eventual victory. In the summer of 1945, at the age of eighty-nine, he was condemned to death by a special tribunal in Paris, although the sentence was commuted to life in prison. The crime of which he was tried and convicted was treason, but any moral reckoning would include his overseeing of the Vichy government’s enthusiastic efforts to deliver French Jewry to Hitler. Allen Lane reviews a “splendid” new book on the trial by Julian Jackson:

For four years, from the fall of France to the liberation, [Pétain] had steered the Vichy regime created from the wreckage of defeat into collaboration with the new continental hegemon, Adolf Hitler. Now, after eight months of wandering to escape the advancing Allies through eastern France to the castle of Sigmaringen in Germany and finally to Switzerland, he was in the custody of General de Gaulle’s provisional government.

His prestige and the popular confidence he inspired as French forces collapsed before the German Blitzkrieg were crucial to establishing the Vichy regime. The son of a peasant, he had a calm, grandfatherly presence and carefully cultivated his image as the embodiment of unchanging rural France, which underwrote the legitimacy that Vichy enjoyed. Whether, or to what extent, he became senile over the four years following the establishment of the Vichy government remains a controversial issue. He barely spoke at his trial, sometimes appeared confused and made great play of his deafness, yet these handicaps miraculously disappeared at key moments in the proceedings. His brutal disavowal of his old comrade-in-arms, the blind General Lannurien, who stumbled in his testimony for the defense, is a case in point. As Jackson pithily puts it, “Pétain was never shy of ditching his most devoted followers if necessary.”

In the longer term, the trial was intended to condemn Vichy France itself and its extreme right-wing ideology of authoritarianism, exclusive nationalism, and racism. Here it did not entirely succeed. Official France, of course, continues to repudiate the Vichy state as an illegal regime born of military defeat. Yet there are signs today that the “Vichy taboo” may be lifting. The most obvious evidence is the candidature of the extreme nationalist Eric Zemmour in the 2022 presidential election.

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