The Trial of Pierre Laval, by J Kenneth Brody, Transaction Publishers, RRP£35.95, 290 pages
After the Fall: German Policy in Occupied France 1940-1944, by Thomas J Laub, Oxford University Press, RRP£60, 304 pages
The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, by Matthew Cobb, Simon & Schuster, RRP£17.99, 320 pages
The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, by Frederic Spotts, Yale University Press, RRP£12.99, 296 pages
In few European countries do rival interpretations of great historical events set national passions aflame as scorchingly as in France. The 1789 Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Dreyfus affair spring to mind – and so, too, do the dark years of 1940 to 1944 when France, overrun by Hitler’s armies, established an authoritarian regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain that collaborated with Nazi Germany.
For nearly three decades after the second world war, French leaders – starting with the wartime hero Charles de Gaulle, – promoted the myth that the vast majority of French people had rejected Pétain’s regime, which was fundamentally illegitimate and unrepresentative of la vraie France. Pétain himself concocted the “sword and shield” version of history, according to which de Gaulle had fought against German tyranny from London, while Pétain in Vichy had protected his countrymen no less courageously against the Nazi occupiers.
This self-serving theory was blown apart in Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, a 1972 book by Robert Paxton, an American historian who showed how Pétain and his associates had worked more closely with the occupiers than previously acknowledged, and exploited the debacle of defeat to impose their ultraconservative vision of a “National Revolution” on France.
Paxton’s work was a turning point in the historiography of Vichy but, as the four books under review suggest, controversy persists over how to evaluate the actions of collaborators and resisters alike.
The most thought-provoking book is J Kenneth Brody’s study of Pierre Laval, who served as Pétain’s deputy premier and heir-apparent for six months in 1940 and then as prime minister from April 1942 until the Liberation. Laval, who had been France’s premier and foreign minister in the 1930s, was shot as a traitor after a scandalously brief trial in October 1945 which was so flawed that it gave him no chance of mounting a proper defence.
Some contemporary politicians were uncomfortably aware of this: Léon Blum, the socialist who had led the 1936 Popular Front government, appealed to de Gaulle – to no avail – to permit a retrial. But in general, Laval’s fate caused little outcry, and even today he has few defenders.
Perhaps this is because, although he was certainly not ideologically pro-Nazi, his personality comes across as singularly unappealing. An innkeeper’s son from the Auvergne with dark eyes and a swarthy complexion, Laval was, says Brody, “essentially a negotiator, a wheeler-dealer, with a shrewd peasant’s eye”. He was and still is viewed as a devious intriguer, a man capable of twisting any moral, legal or political argument to put himself in the best light. This made him an easy target for those who wanted a scapegoat for the suffering and shame endured by France after 1940.
Brody’s case that Laval’s trial was a travesty of justice is unanswerable. The pretrial investigation, a crucial feature of French law, was cut short, denying Laval and his lawyers the opportunity to prepare a defence. The jurors hurled insults at Laval, having made up their minds before the trial about his guilt. The judge let them get away with it. Under the law establishing the court that tried Laval, the defendant had no right of appeal. Absurdly, Laval was even convicted of one charge – taking part in the “enterprises, intrigues and manœuvres” that set up the Vichy regime in July 1940 – which the prosecutor had withdrawn.
Supposing, however, that Laval had been given a fair hearing? Could he have constructed a convincing defence that he had collaborated with the Nazis merely to save France from a worse fate? Brody believes the answer is yes. Laval was not an anti-Semite and did his best to protect French Jews – though not foreign-born Jews – from persecution. He limited the numbers of French workers sent to German factories. Under his rule France never became a formal military ally of Germany, even after the Allied landings in North Africa of November 1942. Lastly, Laval protested against the German annexation and treatment of the population of Alsace-Lorraine.
Where Brody overstates his case, in my view, is in his assessment of Laval’s prewar foreign policy. He accepts too readily Laval’s argument that France and others could have thwarted Hitler, if only Britain had not sabotaged his attempt to include fascist Italy in a broad European anti-Nazi front. The truth is that Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial rule and imperial ambitions in Africa made him at best an unreliable partner, and that by the late 1930s Italy’s military and political weight in European affairs was too light to have much impact.
Still, Brody is surely right that “if Pierre Laval, in participating in the formation of the Vichy government and later in serving in it, were guilty of a capital crime, then his co-defendants in France would have been legion” and would have included the bulk of the political and administrative classes of the Third Republic that collapsed in 1940. It was the Republic’s democratically elected National Assembly, after all, which set up Vichy by a vote of 569 in favour and only 80 against. No wonder that Laval, languishing in his prison chains, mused: “I did anything I could, so that France should suffer the least. And it’s me who’s here in these four walls. Merde, alors.”
Thomas Laub’s After The Fall draws extensively on German archives to illustrate how the different components of the Nazi power machinery – the army, the SS and the German embassy in Paris – competed for authority in France during the Occupation. It was largely because of power struggles among these German agencies, and because of a lack of German resources, that proportionately fewer Jews were killed in France than in other occupied countries in Europe, Laub contends. He is harsher than Brody on Laval: “The second Laval government transformed a defeated French nation into a German satellite.” As he observes, however, Otto Abetz, the self-styled Francophile who was Hitler’s wartime ambassador in Paris, was rarely satisfied with the extent of French collaboration. The Vichy regime, Abetz complained, consisted of “a small group of sincere collaborators who were surrounded by a large number of anti-German conspirators”.
Vichy authorities repeatedly tested German patience by invoking the principle of French sovereignty, even though real power was obviously in the hands of the occupiers. By using French authorities to carry out German policies, Pétain, Laval and company persuaded themselves they were saving French lives, defending something of France’s honour and keeping fanatical pro-Nazis out of their government. But Laub points out that no matter how much the men of Vichy gave, the Germans always demanded more, pushing France further down the slope of collaboration.
How many French actively collaborated? In his informative, often moving history of the Resistance, Matthew Cobb estimates that almost 120,000 people were put on trial after the Liberation, of whom nearly a quarter were found not guilty. About 1,600 death sentences were carried out. Earlier, the Resistance had executed some 9,000 individuals by summary justice. It was a relatively small figure for a country whose population had overwhelmingly welcomed the 1940 armistice and the installation of Pétain’s regime and did not turn in numbers to the Resistance until late in the war.
Cobb transports us to a world in which the BBC’s French service broadcast cryptic messages such as “Esculapius does not like sheep” – a signal that an air drop of supplies for the Resistance was imminent. Communists provided the Resistance’s largest military organisation, but their efforts were hindered by murderous infighting between pro-Moscow men and Trotskyites.
Popular protests on May Day and Bastille Day in 1942 proved that a traditional workers’ celebration or national ceremony could mobilise French people against Vichy and the Occupation. In this way, although the Resistance was by no means the voice of the majority, it possessed a moral force that the Germans, Vichy and the French public could not ignore. All the sadder that when de Gaulle entered Paris after the Liberation and delivered his famous speech – “Paris! Paris humiliated! Paris broken! Paris martyrised! But now Paris liberated! Liberated by herself!” – he could not find it in himself to pay tribute to the home-based Resistance fighters who had risked their lives for the nation.
One such man was Boris Vildé, whose group was betrayed to the Nazis from the inside. Cobb recalls Vildé’s final words before his execution: “I love France. I love this beautiful country. Yes, I know it can be small-minded, selfish, politically rotten and a victim of its old glory, but with all these faults it remains enormously human and will not sacrifice its stature ... ”
In The Shameful Peace, Frederic Spotts asserts that the Occupation marked a decisive moment in world cultural history by ending centuries of French domination of western culture.
He quotes Karl Epting, the wartime head of the German Institute in Paris, as saying: “French intellectuals must give up the idea of being world leaders ... They must not pretend to speak in the name of principles valid for every country, and they should not try to spread these principles beyond France.” Since such pretensions were and are quintessentially French, it appears that Nazi policy aimed at radically remoulding French culture.
Spotts reminds us that, even if Abetz and other Germans who administered France knew its culture well, this did not make them friends of the French people. On the contrary, they obeyed Hitler’s orders, were often dedicated Nazis and were usually anti-Semitic.
Under these circumstances, one might expect French intellectuals and artists to have thought twice before hobnobbing with the occupiers. To their credit, some kept a firm distance – such as André Gide and Pablo Picasso. Others, such as the playwright Sacha Guitry and the writer Alfred Fabre-Luce, did not. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, one of the last century’s most remarkable French literary talents, cultivated the Germans in exchange for scarce paper supplies, extra food and drink, and permission to travel. But he was not a true collaborator; he derided the anti-Semites who wrote for Je Suis Partout, a rabidly far-right French journal of the wartime years, as a “feverish club of ambitious little pederasts”.
French collaboration did not appear from nowhere in 1940. In the case of Laval and other politicians, it was rooted partly in pacifism and a desire for reconciliation with Germany after the destruction of the first world war. But, as Spotts writes, these honourable instincts combined all too often with anti-Semitism, anti-communism, anglophobia, contempt for liberal democracy and admiration of Nazi “discipline”.
As for the French writers, artists and actors who mixed in German circles, what comes across most strikingly is their vanity, self-centredness and lack of deeply held convictions about anything. In this sense they seem not too different from the Paris brothel-keeper who, once the war was over, reflected: “I am almost ashamed to say it, but I never had so much fun in my life. But it is the truth, those nights during the Occupation were fantastic.”
Tony Barber is a former FT Brussels bureau chief