Philippe Pétain

In presenting Philippe Pétain as one of my nominations for Heroes of the 20th Century, I have an uphill task. As head of the French government in 1940, he signed a peace treaty with Hitler, gave most of the country to the Nazis, ran the rest in collaboration with them, got put on trial for treason in 1945, was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Not the most impressive c.v. to put before the judges.  

Historical reputations are unreliable. They should acquire a greater perspective over time, and usually they do. Not always. It is probable that France will never accept the rehabilitation of Pétain. To do so would entail the admission of an unbearable guilt. Far easier to let him carry the can for the rest of the country, as he has done for 70 years. That is no reason for others not to reconsider his life.

Prior to World War I, Pétain’s career had been undistinguished. Born in 1856, he was a career soldier and won promotion to colonel only in 1912, at the age of 56. One reason was that he refused to toady to military superiors and was openly contemptuous of politicians. He once remarked to President Poincaré that ‘nobody was better placed than the President himself to be aware that France was neither led nor governed’.

Pétain was a free-thinker, unimpressed by the orthodoxy of the time that military strategy should consist only of attack. He studied defensive tactics and drew different conclusions. He did not conceal his opinions, although he knew they denied him promotion. As 1914 approached, he expected imminent retirement. He bought a small cottage in his native St Omer, in the Pas-de-Calais, and prepared to settle there.

Within 18 months of the outbreak of war, he was commanding an army of one and a half million men. Within three years he was commander-in-chief of the French army. The years of independent thought stood him in good stead. When the gung-ho attitudes of his superiors reached their predictable nemesis through hurling hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen against machine guns to a futile death, an alternative was at hand. Pétain did not believe in throwing men against machinery, if it was avoidable. The high command still disliked his theories, but it was forced to concede that he might be the right man for certain situations. The defence of Verdun was one of them. In February 1916, Pétain was appointed to the command at Verdun.

In that role he became a hero of the French nation. Because his attacks, when he countenanced them, were meticulously prepared and based on numerical advantage rather than a nostalgic esprit, his troops – and the French army as a whole – knew that here was one general who would not sacrifice them needlessly. When the French army mutinied in 1917, Pétain alone was thought capable of defusing the situation. He was made commander-in-chief. He did defuse the situation, and without vindictive punishment. He ended the war as a Marshall of France and as the greatest French war hero.

He was still not able to retire. He spent the inter-war years in senior politico-military posts, vainly arguing against the swingeing cuts to France’s defence budget, and to the endemic pacifism described in last week’s blog. In 1931, he was elected a Fellow of the Académie Française. For a brief period in 1934, he was Minister of War.

Until 1940, there is little or no dispute about Pétain’s career, or about the huge debt owed to him, not only by France, but by Britain. If Verdun had fallen, it seems inescapable that Germany would have won the war.

There is more dispute about Pétain’s career after 1940, when he was recalled to the French government after the retreat from Dunkirk. Shortly afterwards, he became the head of the government. In that role, it cannot be denied that he collaborated with the Nazis and implemented the laws that they demanded, including anti-semitic proclamations. By then, Pétain was little more than a figurehead. He was in his late 80s. He cannot be exonerated, but it is questionable how much he authorised himself, with a clear mind and without manipulation or duress. Most of the dirty work was done by others.

What is beyond doubt is that, in 1940 and throughout the war, Pétain was the leader that France wanted and clamoured for. His picture hung in nearly every French household during the Occupation. He became the figurehead that France needed. The one authentic national hero was required to be the fall-guy for the moral bankruptcy of a nation.

‘There had emerged a leader who taught his army to distinguish the real from the imaginary and the possible from the impossible. On the day when a choice had to be made between ruin and reason, Pétain received promotion.’ The words are those of General de Gaulle, writing in 1938 about Pétain in 1916. The same words would be equally apposite for 1940. Whatever flights from reason there were in the 1930s, the reality was that France had decided she could no longer resist the will of Germany. In that situation, Pétain again worked on the real, dealt in the possible, chose between ruin and reason, and presided over the humiliation with a veneer of dignity that was entirely his own.

Unlike other ministers, Pétain refused to leave France in 1940. In 1942, aged 86, as the Nazis prepared to shoot 50 French hostages, Pétain offered himself in their place. In 1944, aged 88, forcibly evacuated to Germany with the rest of his Vichy government, Pétain alone insisted on returning to France to stand trial. In the end, France required more of Philippe Pétain than to lay down his life for his country. That was a commonplace request. Millions had been required to do that. Pétain was singled out for a far greater oblation: to sacrifice his reputation so that France might preserve hers.

Pétain did not invent the pacifism of the 1930s or the defeatism of 1940. He resisted both. He was a traitor, if at all, only after the event. A nation that wants firm leadership and courageous resistance under enemy occupation does not choose the 84-year-old hero of another war to provide it.

De Gaulle was Pétain’s protégé. In 1912, a young Lieutenant de Gaulle had asked to be gazetted to Pétain’s regiment. Pétain was a godfather to his son. In 1945, France needed both men equally. She needed Pétain to take the blame for capitulation and collaboration, to shroud the country’s disgrace with his honour. She needed de Gaulle to retrieve what was left of her pride and to invent a myth to carry forward into the future.

Pétain was put on trial for treason in 1945 and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was consigned to the Ile de Yeu, along with his compatriots’ memory of their complicity and guilt. Queen Mary, in Britain, and President Truman, in America, interceded in vain for his release.

The Court stripped him of most of his military ranks and honours. At Verdun, his portrait in the room of honour was removed; his name erased from the plaque that bears the names of those awarded the freedom of the city. A burial plot had long since been prepared for him in front of the Ossuaire outside Verdun. He is still waiting to be buried there.

Philippe Pétain died in 1951 at the age of 95. He never uttered one word of recrimination.