Pétain’s Show Trial
In the Spring issue of Church and State (No. 104), I reported on a little remembered event, the Riom Show Trial, where Marshal Pétain attempted to find scapegoats for the French defeat. At the end of the war General de Gaulle conducted a similar exercise: he put on a show trial at which Marshal Pétain was to be the scapegoat for the compromises the country was forced into as a result of defeat. The questions raised by Pétain’s trial go to the heart of issues still deeply relevant to modern France: What is a country to do when it is defeated in war?
The trial of Pétain, July-August 1945, is assumed to have been a proper and valid trial. There are many reasons why it was not a proper and valid trial, anymore than the Riom trial was.
The normal run of legal proceedings was not respected. Pétain being ex-Head of State should have been tried by a Court emanating from the Senate (the Upper House); the jury was drawn from two lists of people hostile to the accused. The presiding judge declared before the start of the trial that the defendant ought to receive the death penalty. (The definition of a show trial is “one where the outcome is decided in advance”.)
Some of the accusations were outlandish: the prosecution said that Pétain, before the war, had plotted with Hitler and Franco to take power, and had just waited for the opportunity of the defeat. It was said further that he was in connected with the extreme right group Cagoule (the Hooded Men). Another irregularity was that Pétain’s papers had been seized and were not available for the defence. In the end Pétain was sentenced for “intelligence with Germany” and “for having asked for an Armistice” with the intention to “seize power” so as to install a political system whose goal was “to destroy or change the form of government.”
These are the most immediately obvious faults in the judicial process. At the time, these faults did not prevent Pétain being sentenced to death (the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, on grounds of age, Pétain being 89 in 1945).
Since 1945, the question of the validity of the trial has been kept out of the public mind; the assumption is that Pétain was guilty and found guilty; few ask what he was guilty of, and how this was explained and proved at the trial. At the time however the trial was reported without hostility or preconceptions in France, in papers like Le Figaro. There was straightforward reporting in Ireland as well, for example in the Irish Press, the Irish Independent, the (Belfast) Irish News and the Irish Times; the last named paper started its reporting in a hostile manner but very soon changed its tone.
What follows is a description of the trial, taken from the pages of Irish and French newspapers of the time. Other significant events reported in those newspapers at the same time are mentioned in indented paragraphs.
The Irish Press
The Irish Press kept the trial on the front page for most of the duration, using reports by the Reuters and other news agencies; the headline on the first day was “Pétain taken in Black Maria for his trial” and below the title “Pétain is on trial, so are millions of French men and women”. On the first day the paper also used a report by Relman Morin of Associated Press which provided a context for the event. According to Morin, the trial was loaded with dynamite; the country was seething with conflicting views and emotions; the Resistance wanted Pétain’s head for thousands killed by the Militia; large groups believed Pétain saved France when France’s military power was shattered. Others felt Pétain was kindly but foolish; and an enormous number just wanted to know what had happened in 1940.
On the second day the chief prosecutor showed where he stood when he said, after some booing among the spectators—which could be interpreted as support for Pétain, or at least for the rule of law—“There are too many Germans in this court” (meaning Frenchmen with the wrong ideas).
Pétain, quite rightly, did not recognise the Court. In the same circumstances of an irregular Court at the Riom Show Trial of 1942, the ex-Prime Ministers Léon Blum and Edouard Daladier denounced the Court but defended themselves nevertheless; only General Gamelin remained silent. Pétain made a speech on the second day but remained silent after that, apart from occasional brief remarks, for example when a witness went on at excessive length in his praise, Pétain said “Enough, enough”. When another defence witness, a blind general, made a passionate appeal, which was greeted by applause (Judge Mongibeaux complained “this is scandalous”) Pétain said, “I speak today for the first time to say that I did not know that General Lannurien was going to make that statement.” Pétain wore his Marshal’s uniform throughout, and kept a great dignity. If he dozed occasionally, so did younger members of the jury. It was high summer; the room was small, packed and airless.
In his speech on the second day, Pétain said:
“I was called and thus I became heir to a catastrophe of which I was not the author. Those really responsible hid themselves behind me to avoid public anger. … The Armistice saved France….
“For the French people I went so far as to sacrifice my prestige. I remained at the head of a country under occupation. … Liberated France may change words and names, but she can build usefully only upon the foundations I laid. … If you were to condemn me, let my condemnation be the last….
“A Marshal of France asks mercy from none…
“Your judgement will be answered by that of God and of posterity. These will suffice for my conscience and for my memory. I leave it to France.”
There is little that is not true in what Pétain said in that speech. The Armistice was preferable to a capitulation after being totally overrun, which was the only alternative; Pétain did sacrifice his prestige—negotiating an Armistice is not glorious— so that France could be governed by a French man for what turned out to be an indefinite length of time, which was expected to be short. French administrators under occupation did lay the foundations of modern France. To the last, Pétain was concerned with the fate of the population, 300 000 of whom, like many of the witnesses for the defence, were awaiting trial at the same time as himself: “let my condemnation be the last”.
After that beginning, the Trial covered much of the same ground as the Riom Show Trial: who was responsible for the defeat? Was the Armistice justified? Was France sufficiently prepared for war?
As at Riom, Third Republic politicians and military men were called as witnesses for and against. Those against included Herriot, who had suggested calling Pétain to head the Government in June 1940, Daladier who had called him, and Reynaud who had resigned and handed over the Government to him. The new emerging political class did not participate in the Trial, except as members of the jury.
Blum (28.7.45) said “Pétain said to the French in 1940 that the Armistice was not dishonourable. I call that treason.” The five judges, who had all sworn fidelity to Pétain when he was Head of State, were visibly embarrassed when Blum spoke of French leaders and officials who were too ready to compromise.
As for treason, even the main witnesses for the prosecution, ex-Premiers Reynaud and Daladier, would not bring themselves to accuse Pétain of treason; when asked directly, Reynaud (ex-prime minister) prevaricated: “There are different meanings to the word”.
Other prominent politicians spoke for the prosecution in a very unconvincing manner. Edouard Herriot (ex-Prime Minister) said that in 1940 France had Britain and the economic resources of the United States. De Gaulle had said the same thing in his 18 June 1940 speech, but this was simply not true. In 1940 Britain repatriated its troops and refused further air support while fighting was still going on. The United States did not respond when asked for support at the same time.
Paul Reynaud said that in 1940 the army should have ceased fire and the Government should have refrained from parleying with the Germans; that would have saved France’s honour. This begs the question of what would have happened then.
General Weygand (Commander in Chief before Gamelin in 1940) said correctly at the trial that the Armistice had been asked for on military grounds.
Witnesses for the prosecution did not agree with each other. Blum said he expected Paris to be defended with energy and audacity [in 1940]; counsel asked, why wasn’t it? Reynaud replied, “In order not to destroy the wonder of the world.”
The US had an ambassador at Vichy, the seat of the Pétain regime. This was Admiral Leahy, who was in Vichy until he was called back to the US and became Chief of Staff to President Roosevelt, in May 1942.
On 2nd August the Irish Press’s front-page headline was “Pétain tribute by US Envoy”, with a photo of Admiral Leahy. Leahy sent a letter to Pétain to be read at the trial, saying: “I had then, as I have now, the conviction that your principal concern was the welfare and protection of the helpless people of France.”
The next day a telegram of support for Pétain from the US National Veterans Committee (US Veterans who had served in France under General Pershing) was read.
On 2nd August, General George quoted Churchill who had told him in Marrakech in January 1944 that Hitler had made a mistake granting an Armistice to France in 1940: he should have gone on to North Africa and Egypt.
The judge then interrupted: “Let us stop discussing who was responsible for the defeat and start the trial of Pétain.”
Churchill’s appreciation of the strategic disadvantage of the Armistice to Germany is very much to the point. It is clear that if Hitler had refused an Armistice and simply overrun France until capitulation, he could have got the French possessions of Algeria, Tunisia and especially Morocco, which would have given him the key to the Mediterranean. Instead, the Armistice explicitly left France with enough military power to keep control of her empire.
Irish send £3 million of food aid to Europe
Vichy Prime Minister Laval’s testimony was not desired either by prosecution or defence, but the jury demanded it. He spoke for four and a half hours. He said “Even if the German card was a bad one it was necessary to play it. France had to try all cards. General de Gaulle played another card on the other side of the Channel and he too was right.” This evidence was very much to the point: when a country is thrashed militarily as France was in June 1940, there are no good cards left to play and the alternatives are all bad; but something has to be done nevertheless.
Whilst the war in Europe was over, that in the East continued. On 7th August 1945 the Irish Press headline was:
“Americans drop Atomic Bomb on Japan — Truman reveals great scientific discovery”. The following day the paper reported: “Vatican absolutely opposed to the bombing of Japan.”
Halifax’s letter to Pétain
Jacques Chevalier was Vichy Minister of Education and Health, 1940-42; he said he was given a letter by the chargé d’affaires for the Canadian legations for France at the time, Pierre Dupuy. (Apparently the “Canadian Channel” of communication between London and Vichy was invaluable, according to Churchill. Lord Halifax had actually encouraged the presence of Dupuy at Vichy. This was not mentioned at the trial.)
That letter was from Lord Halifax (then Foreign Secretary) and addressed to Pétain and contained the text of an Agreement made between Britain and Vichy France, to come into effect in December 1940. According to this Agreement, France would keep its fleet, keep its colonies but not attempt to get back the colonies “which had joined Britain”. In exchange Britain would ease the blockade, and would allow French ships through the Straits of Gibraltar. Lord Halifax said in his letter: “Artificial tension must be maintained between us to safeguard article 9 of the Armistice. But behind that façade of misunderstanding we must get together.” Chevalier recalled that Winston Churchill described Pétain’s attitude [during the Occupation] as one of passive resistance to the Germans and that the Germans called Pétain “Marshal Nein” because he refused their demands.
The judge stated that Churchill had denied that there was any such Agreement.
The following days heard more instances of Pétain not aiding Germany. Pétain kept French fighters jets grounded when Britain raided factories e.g. near Paris in 1941-2. General Bergeret said that Vichy organised a spy network which had contacts with the British Intelligence Service, in September 1941.
On 9th August the judge dropped the accusation that Pétain had premeditated taking power, and the accusation that he went to Germany in 1944 of his own accord.
The following day came news of the second American nuclear bomb, dropped on Nagasaki. The London Catholic Herald (reported in Irish Press) called the atomic bombing “utterly indefensible, immoral”.
More testimonies came in support of Pétain. His personal secretary from January to July 1944 quoted a letter from Ribbentrop to Pétain, complaining of the latter’s attitude to the Reich. Abbé Rodhain said Pétain approved anti-Nazi Catholic secret meetings in catacombs.
Charles Barres a resistance leader in Alsace said Pétain’s intervention saved his life, 11.8.45
On the 14th August the public Prosecutor spoke for four and half hours, along the lines of “This Quisling government had accepted a state of servitude for France. Pétain’s motives were vanity, love of power, authoritarian instincts and hatred of the Republic.” 14.8.45
Counsel for the Defence said that the Armistice was an absolute necessity, that Britain agreed it was so, and did not blame France at the time. The British Parliament knew about it a week before it happened and accepted it.
Finally on the 15th Pétain made a short statement, followed by some applause quickly quelled.
The next night, after a deliberation of over six hours, the jury, by a single voice, sentenced Marshal Pétain to death “for a premeditated change of the form of government and intelligence with the enemy.“ This is nonsensical. No one can deny that an occupied country has to communicate with the enemy. British historians and others have established that the Armistice was militarily inevitable, and granting it was a mistake by Hitler. That Pétain plotted to take power belongs to fantasy. As for the change in the form of government, since when do parliamentary elections take place in times of war, never mind in times of occupation? The question that might be asked however is, Why did the men in charge of governing France in 1940 choose Pétain?
According to the Irish Press, Le Figaro said that the sentence was a sentence that had been decided in advance, and pointed out that Frenchmen experienced relief at the 1938 Munich Agreement with Hitler.
The Irish Independent
The Irish Independent presented similar information. There were some extra details.
Paul Reynaud, ex-Prime Minister, described the Cabinet meeting of 15 June 1940 where 13 ministers were in favour of asking for an Armistice and 6 against. 25.7.45
Pétain offered himself as hostage instead of the hundred men taken to be shot in reprisal for the murder of two German officers, Counsel for the Defence said. 27.7.45
Francois Roux, envoy to the Vatican, defended Pétain. 28.7.45
The question of the Jews is mentioned by General Héring who said that the removal of nationality from the Jews that Hitler had demanded was brought to an end thanks to Pétain. 2.8.45
It is striking that the question of the Jews was hardly mentioned during the trial. Similarly, the French witnesses for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trial grouped together all men and women deported from France, without making distinctions. According to Laurel Leff, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, in a letter to the New York Times 9.10.11 “Although the Nuremberg trial provided substantial documentary evidence about the Holocaust, that information was not highlighted either during the trial or in the press coverage of the trial. American prosecutors focused on Germany’s making of aggressive war and barely touched on crimes against civilians, including the Jews.”
The Irish Independent commented on Hiroshima: ‘The atomic bomb is a terrible new weapon, 7.8.45. There was also the following report:
Atom bomb secret “discovered by German Jewess, Lize Meitner”, 7.8.45
General Lacaille talked about contacts between Great Britain and Vichy. Churchill and Eden had said to him “We are temporarily separated. Let us do each other as little harm as possible.” According to General Lacaille, Colonel Groussard, now an anti-Gaullist member of the Resistance, was sent to London, when he was head of Pétain’s military guard, where he met Churchill and Eden and talked to them with a view to obtaining modification of the British blockade of French coasts as well as moderation of the BBC campaign against Pétain.
(According to the website of Geneva City Archives, General Huntziger, War Minister at Vichy, told Colonel Broussard to go to London to see De Gaulle, with a view to finding a way of cooperating to throw the Germans out of France. De Gaulle refused to see him. http://etat.geneve.ch/dt/archives)
Since the question of the French defeat was being aired by the trial in Paris, the question of what her British ally was doing at the time could not be ignored; this perhaps explains a news item on 8th August: under the title “Paper that ‘lost war’ for Reich’ the Associated Press reported that “Gambling everything on a bold strategy, the Commander of a small British force held on for three days while the Dunkirk beaches were emptied of 330 000 British and French soldiers.” He was able to do this because he found a plan left behind by fleeing Germans giving details of a projected “attack on Calais designed to cut off the British escape.” 8.8.45
Other news items of the time were:
“Atom bomb development cost £500 000 000, the cost of 9 days of war.” 8.8.45
“The Catholic Church has equal pity for all subjected to atomic bombing and cannot make distinctions between the victims.” 8.8.45
War Crimes Trial to be held at Nuremberg. “The Tribunal will not be bound by technical rules of evidence. […] Article 19 of a charter on the constitution of the Tribunal and the principles governing its operations, declaring that it shall adopt and apply to the greatest possible extent expeditious and non-technical procedure.” 9.8.45
The Zurich newspaper Die Tat challenged the American use of atomic bombs on Japan and “urged the Swiss government to protest. There was no difference between the Nazis who spread their atrocities over Europe and Americans who used the atomic bomb— both used extremist measures and methods to annihilate their enemies.” 14.8
The Irish News (Belfast)
The Irish News also gave full front-page reports to the Trial.
On 27th July an article by John J M Ryan at the start of the proceedings said:
“The enigma of Marshal Pétain.
“When the present war neurosis has passed and men are capable of viewing Pétain’s dilemma with calmer eyes and cooler judgment, they may see more clearly that, instead of betraying his country, the Marshal conferred great benefits upon it by his actions in those dark days.
Recognising these facts, millions of Frenchmen gave him their loyalty. This is why, when Pétain is on trial, it is not he alone who is being tried, but millions of his countrymen.”
On 8th August further Vichy-Britain links were reported; Professor Louis Rougier was sent by Pétain to negotiate an alleviation of the British blockade of France (which reduced or stopped French imports of food and other essentials). However, in June 1945 the British Foreign Office denied Rougier’s assertion that there had been negotiations.
The Irish News noted the views of a Swedish paper that the use of the atom bomb made the Anglo-Saxons war criminals.
On 16th August the editorial of the Irish News said:
“Pétain’s death sentence
“Whether or not General De Gaulle commutes the sentence of death on Marshal Pétain, history will reverse the verdict, and before many years France will feel ashamed of her treatment of this veteran, who was an acknowledged hero of the first World War, and who was called on to play an unenviable part in the war that ended a few months ago.
“It was the French nation rather than Pétain that was on trial […] but no evidence has revealed a France chivalrous or magnanimous in her hour of recovery. […]
“The only touch of dignity or gallantry was in the old warrior’s declaration: “A Marshal of France does not seek for mercy.”
“[…] His policy, however wrong it may have been, saved France much suffering and left her with the means of recovery. […] [The trial] does not explain how a man who helped to save France a generation ago should work for her final overthrow during the past five years. We do not think Pétain was a traitor. His name and fame will yet be vindicated.”
The Irish Times
The Irish Times was more hostile to Pétain, especially at the start of the proceedings; the paper tended to pick the more negative elements out of prosecution evidence; for example on 25.7.45 the headline was “No man did more harm to France” (a quote from ex-prime minister Reynaud).
“Is Pétain living in a world of his own? When he left the court room he saluted the armed policemen, seeming to mistake them for some kind of guard of honour.” 25.7.45 This however was the only personally derogatory comment in the paper. After that, the paper merely reported the arguments for and against the prosecution.
After the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, the paper quoted President Truman: “The atom bomb had 2000 times the blast power of the 10 tonners dropped by the RAF on Germany.” “A harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” 7.8.45
The Irish Times quoted the Communist paper Ce Soir, which demanded that the death penalty be carried out, 16.8.45
This is an extract from the Irish Times Editorial at the end of the trial:
“The result of his long drawn out trial is something more than the condemnation of a man. It is a condemnation of the whole Vichy regime and represents an attempt by a France that is beginning to find her national feet again to wipe out an unfortunate chapter in her history. The old man who has been sentenced is a victim of circumstances, but war is ruthless and an error of judgment, once committed, can never be undone.”
The nature of the error of judgment is not spelled out. What is the signing of the Armistice?
Le Figaro, the oldest French newspaper, stopped publication on 11th November 1942 and started again when the war ended. It decided to devote the whole of its page 2 every day to its coverage of the trial. “We were deceived by Pétain”, they wrote to cover up the two years when they continued publication under Vichy. Two eminent novelists, Jean Schlumberger and Francois Mauriac, provided commentary.
At the start of the trial Francois Mauriac wrote:
“One man faces trial alone. [Le procès d’un seul homme]
“Hitler enjoyed the help and support, whether overt or covert, of the whole world.
We must ask ourselves: how did we react after Munich? After the Armistice? So this trial is the trial of Frenchmen who agreed with both. Neutral countries did the same as Pétain. The example came from on high. We know who supported, advised, and approved Pétain. A part of each of us was an accomplice, at times, of this ruined old man [ce vieillard foudroyé].”
Schlumberger made the same point 15.8 “In 1940 the country wanted Munich and the Armistice. The term ‘treason’ is not appropriate.”
This was Mauriac’s final comment on 16.8.45:
“We had not wanted this trial. … The judges were men who had sworn fidelity to Pétain…. A trial like this one is never closed. The dialogue between prosecution and defence will continue over the centuries. …Pétain is a tragic figure, half way between treason and noble sacrifice.
“Defenders of Pétain however should read Twenty months in Auschwitz by Pelagia Lewinska. Pétain shook hands with Hitler, he is responsible too.”
There are two elements in Mauriac’s summing up. The first element, the idea that the controversial investigation into the events would continue, corresponds to attitudes between the end of the war and the mid-sixties; the second element, referring to Auschwitz and making the fate of the Jews the determining event of the Vichy years, corresponds to the period from the mid-sixties to the present day. However a trend towards a new attitude is beginning, as in J.M. Varaut Le Procès Pétain 1945-1995 [The Pétain Trial, 1945-1995] which argues that the early studies, such as Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy (1954), derided in the seventies, have never actually been refuted. These studies did not gloss over the Vichy treatment of the Jews. Varaut expressed the hope in the conclusion of his book that present day historians will return to an investigative and free-thinking attitude towards the period.
An Association to Defend the Memory of Marshal Pétain exists today in France. At its foundation in 1951 it included a spectrum of political opinion; today it is headed by a leader of the Megret offshoot of the National Front. However, a re-evaluation of the events of 1940 should not be left to the extreme Right. It is the French as a whole who were sentenced at the Show Trial that condemned Pétain.
The result of a Trial that was invalidated by its irregularities and by the bias of the times has never been re-examined.
Pétain was made a scapegoat, but since he had many supporters, the trial was the trial of millions of Frenchmen, and it was the French themselves who were sentenced to eternal guilt. This is clear when the US or Britain start criticising the attitude of France during the war; they don’t mention who was the Head of State was at the time. It is France itself that stands accused of betrayal and collaboration. The attempt by the Gaullists to save France of that accusation by making Pétain a scapegoat has failed.
The responsibility of those who first encouraged Hitler (a question repeatedly aired at the time of the Trial with mentions of Munich) and then initiated a world war with the consequences that we know (the Riom Trial, it will be recalled, was specifically told not to mention who started the war) is what needs to be discussed. The catastrophic collapse of France in June 1940 was part of that chain of events; you cannot begin your examination of events that followed from that date without studying earlier causes, much less blame one man, or even one country alone, for the whole disaster.