The Vichy Trial of 1942 at Riom
In 1940 a great nation found itself at its lowest point in history. Having failed to act with determination and consistency after the triumph of the Versailles Agreement concluding the First World War, France found itself divided and occupied. The Nazis governed two-thirds of the country with Paris as their centre, while the elderly Marshal Pétain was brought out of retirement to head a Government for the remainder of the country at Vichy. The Vichy administration was in a curious position. Under the supervision of a country at war with England, it was not itself at war with its former ally. And, though powerless in many respects, it was permitted many trappings of sovereignty under its Armistice with Hitler. It retained its Empire and some armed forces to police it and it conducted relations with the world, having Ambassadors accredited to it.
However, while appearances were kept up, the reality was that France was devastated militarily, politically and economically.
The catastrophic defeat of the French armies in May 1940 was an enormous shock for the country. It happened so quickly it was difficult to comprehend. The speed of their victory surprised even the Germans themselves. The German Army broke through at Sedan on 13 May, on 14 June they had reached Paris; on 20 June they had reached Nantes, Vichy and Lyons, and Bordeaux on the 25th. If the Armistice had not been negotiated, the German Army would have overrun the whole of France. The Armistice was signed on 22 June 1940, when part of the population was still stranded where it had fled; the following days people saw two million soldiers being transported by lorry to Prisoners of War camps. So rapidly was the country overrun that it looked to many as if there had been no fighting, and yet France was beaten.
The population could not understand what had happened. An explanation was called for. Marshall Pétain decided that the people of France would get the explanation they wanted: “the French had been betrayed, but they would not be deceived as well”, he said. In fact, he thought he knew the reason for the defeat: it was the Popular Front of 1936, led by Léon Blum, which had corrupted the workers by giving them too much free time (a 40 hour week and paid holidays) and which had weakened employer authority: how could a country with an idle and undisciplined working class be prepared for war? The case seemed perfectly simple and straightforward. On 28 July 1940, a month after the Armistice, Marshall Pétain announced a trial, intended to be something of a Show Trial. But things did not turn out quite as planned.
This was one of the greatest political trials in the history of France, and it was seen as such at the time.
The Times of London, not a friend of the 1936 Popular Front, wrote in approval, in terms not much different from Pétain’s, in August 1940:
“The French people must learn who are the men who caused her dishonour. A new France must be built. This trial can help the French nation to recognise who are the leaders she can trust.”
The American public followed the trial, but their sympathy was for the accused; Eleanor Roosevelt sent a telegram signed by a hundred personalities to Léon Blum in his prison on his 69th and 70th birthdays (1941 and 42). And on the same occasion in 1942 American Trade Unions organised a meeting in Blum’s honour. The New Yorker said “Two events in 1942 gave hope to Europe: the Russian entry in the War [sic], and the Riom trial.” Despite reporting restrictions, transcripts of the proceedings were secretly sent to London via a friend of Blum’s, using a journalist of La Montagne newspaper. In 1942 the British Labour Party published an English translation of Blum’s Trial speeches (see illustration) with a Foreword by Clement Attlee, and an explanatory introduction.
The Nazis expected an admission of war guilt to come out of the trial and initially supported it. Hitler announced it triumphantly in a 1940 speech, but complained in another speech on 15th March 1942 that the Trial “had not devoted a single word to the responsibility of the accused in the unleashing of this war.” The French press reported it widely, and even in a censored Vichy zone newspaper such as Le Mot d’Ordre, which is where I first came across mention of the Trial, the verbatim reports, unaccompanied by any comment, gave the unmistakable impression that the Trial was not going Vichy’s way. This was confirmed in the influential illustrated Paris magazine l’Illustration, whose pro-German political editor was exasperated by the turn of events in Vichy, for which he blamed the British and the Americans.
The Trial took place in a small town called Riom, near Vichy, which had a courthouse and a prison across the road. The trial was henceforth called the Riom Trial.
Three political leaders, one civil servant and one military man were put on trial. The strange thing is that elected representatives at the time, under the shock of events, implicitly accepted their responsibility in the defeat when they voted to relinquish their political power to a providential personality (Pétain), on 10th July 1940, at a joint session of Parliament and Senate, It was not a time for debate; there were no speeches against the proposal to give Philippe Pétain full powers to make new constitutional laws; the Socialists and the Radicals were silent (the Communists had been made illegal after the Soviet-German pact and so were absent). Only 80 Parliamentarians voted against, even though everybody knew the new Constitution would not be Republican but would be set up on the basis of the Defence of Family, Labour and Country—the right wing motto-instead of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the motto of the French Revolution. Just over two weeks later Marshall Pétain mounted his Show Trial.
De Gaulle in London had the same attitude of contempt for politicians of the Third Republic, refusing in 1940 the offer of collaboration of ex-Prime Minister Paul Reynaud and ex-minister Pierre Cot. However, the politicians who had remained in France felt they needed to present a united front and they buried their differences for the time.
Only a few groups at the end of the 1930s still resisted the idea that France should be a Republic. Many at the beginning of the Third Republic (1875-1940) had hoped it would go the same way as the first two Republics, but by the 1930s those who still hoped for a return to monarchy were a small minority.
(The first Republic, issuing from the Revolution of 1789, was cut short by Napoléon the First, while the second Republic, issuing from the Revolution of 1848, was cut short by Napoléon the Third.)
The interesting thing is that this right-wing idea of blaming the politicians of the Third Republic for the defeat has survived the discrediting of the Vichy regime. That is why Julian Jackson, Professor of Modern History at the University of London, in his book The Fall Of France (2003), spends a chapter debunking the idea that the parliamentary Government was responsible for the disaster, concluding that, to explain the defeat, “there was no need to invoke rottenness in the body politic”. In fact, the accused at the trial had already conclusively proved that, as we shall see.
Pétain and his Ministers had to pick the scapegoats for the Trial among the politicians of the previous few years. But some of these were among Pétain’s Ministers and Envoys, for example Frossard, a Socialist, and Chautemps, a Radical-Socialist. Pétain rejected some politicians while keeping the services of others. The choice was arbitrary, though politically motivated, and fell on:
. Edouard Daladier, a Radical-Socialist, Prime Minister April 1938 to March 1940; he signed the Munich Agreements; Minister for War from 1936 to 1940.
. Léon Blum, Socialist, Prime Minister 1936-37, head of the Popular Front which had instituted the 40 hour week and one week paid holiday under the Matignon Agreements; these concessions to the working class stood out as the causes of the defeat for Pétain and others. Strikes and occupation of factories had taken place at that time.
. Guy La Chambre, a Radical-Socialist, Air Minister 1938-40.
. Robert Jacomet, General Controller of the army, a high ranking civil servant.
. General Gamelin, chief of the French Army Staff from 1931, and then Commander-in-Chief. Replaced by General Weygand mid war. (General Weygand was now part of the Vichy administration, so could not be among the accused. Embarrassingly, Weygand was on record as saying, a month before the defeat, that the French Army was the strongest in the world.)
All five were arrested in September 1940 and kept under house arrest in an old chateau near Vichy.
Declaration of war
France declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, a few hours after Britain. Many in Vichy thought France should not have declared war on Germany. In their view, the ‘warmongers’, the ‘bellicists’, were responsible for the disaster because they had declared war. Not only was France unprepared, it also had no reason to declare war on Germany. Philippe Pétain himself said of the Government of September 1939: “One day of September 1939, not daring to consult Parliament, they declared war, a war lost in advance.” However the Trial did not discuss why war was declared, and, unlike other questions “not allowed to be mentioned at the trial”, that question really was kept out of the proceedings. The accused themselves had been in favour of declaring war and did not want to bring up the fact. Discussing the declaration of war would also have involved discussing Britain, which had declared war first, and Britain was another forbidden topic. The declaration of war would also mean questioning the military guarantees given to Poland and explaining why no action was taken to help Poland while it was fighting Germany, and this was also passed over in silence.
Connected with the vexed question of the declaration of war, but discussed at the Trial, albeit in camera, was the sensitive issue of the meeting of the 23rd August 1939. Called the same day as the signing of the Soviet-German pact, this meeting brought together the Permanent Committee of National Defence, i.e., the highest ranking military personnel, plus top politicians, to answer the question: “Is the French army in a fit state to honour our commitments due to our treaty of alliance with Poland?” The recorded unanimous answer was ‘yes’.
Those with right wing anti-war sentiments were not given satisfaction regarding the French declaration of war. Instead, the judges were praised for their patriotism in not raising the subject, since, it was said, an admission of war guilt would have allowed the Germans to raise their demands on the defeated nation, while a rejection of war guilt would have annoyed the Germans, on whose goodwill the French depended.
At the start of the Trial, the Presiding Judge remarked that France had done nothing but come to the help of Poland as it was bound to do by Treaty, and that therefore it bore no responsibility for the war.
The glaring fact remained, however, that France would not have been in its parlous situation if it had not declared war. The guilty had to be accused of bringing France into war, but without mentioning the declaration of war. This led to a convoluted wording of the indictment: Ministers and their immediate subordinates had
“acted treasonably in the discharge of the duties of their function, and committed crimes in acts which led to the passing from the state of peace to the state of war before 4 September 1939, and aggravated the consequences of the situation thus created.”
The right wing anti-war and anti-British wing were not the most influential at Vichy in 1940, when the indictment was formulated. Many Ministers and advisers of Pétain were not strongly right wing but ‘moderates’. The Minister for Justice, Barthélémy, wanted the Trial abandoned, because he could not see how the question of the declaration of war could be evaded. Further, he did not want Britain blamed or even mentioned. In fact, foreseeing the difficulties that would arise, he did not want the Trial to go ahead at all. Vichy was making efforts to maintain good relations with the United States Ambassador, the influential Admiral Leahy. Leahy had warned Washington that the French Government was “headed by a feeble, frightened old man, surrounded by self-seeking conspirators” and that he, Leahy, despaired of giving “some semblance of back-bone to a jellyfish”, which seems to imply that he was trying to influence Vichy policy. This quote is taken from a review of a 1947 book Our Vichy Gamble by W.L. Langer written to explain US policy in France from May 1940 to December 1942. Roosevelt at the time was against France admitting war guilt. The United States undoubtedly had many supporters among the Vichy bureaucracy in the early years.
Military strategy and tactics
Military strategy and tactics, the actual cause of the French rout, were not to be discussed in Court, as discussing the Army was deemed unpatriotic. Instead the focus was to be on insufficient military preparations by Ministers and their subordinates. The indictment made 1936 the starting point for considering the unsatisfactory nature of war preparations.
The reason for choosing the cut off date of 1936 was that Pétain himself had been Minister for War in 1934! Then he accepted the military cutbacks of his Government. Pétain therefore had contributed to the unreadiness of France. Under him, 5000 officers had been cut from the Army. This was at a time, in 1934, when Germany declared its intention to rearm, yet, nevertheless, France declared her intention to defend herself on her own, without the help of collective security.
Pétain’s solution to the embarrassing problem of his own responsibility was to date the indictment of ‘insufficient preparations’ from March 1936, with the directive that pre-1936 policies and budgets etc ‘were not to be mentioned’. However, the accused freely mentioned what was supposed to be not mentioned, and contrasted Pétain’s role in reducing the strength of the army to their own enthusiastic building up of the Army, leaving the presiding judge to defend Pétain as best he could.
A further restriction on the proceedings was that no other country could be mentioned at the Trial. That had the effect of leaving Britain out of the picture. The indictment considered only the French military forces, as if France had acted alone, without allies. So the indictment compared French and German populations, economies, air forces etc, leaving out the British contribution entirely. Blum and Daladier went along with this.
To add to the list of factors not considered, we could also note that there was no mention of French and British gold reserves, which allowed them to buy American armament, or their combined naval superiority which would allow war resources to arrive. No mention either of how much French conduct had been a function of British conduct. No mention of the reasons for failure of French-Soviet negotiations.
The accusations came under two counts:
One concerned industry, the social crisis and unrest of the Popular Front, the other the bad state of the army: its organisation, instruction and armament; military service was too short, credits insufficient, training for reservists unsatisfactory.
According to the 1875 Constitution, the Senate sitting as a Court of Justice judged Ministers who were impeached. Instead, Pétain constituted a new ‘Supreme Court’, with picked judges. However, these judges did try to conduct the proceedings with dignity and a sense of professional pride. Here is an instance of this attitude. In 1941, over a year after the announcement of the trial, the Riom judges were still painstakingly accumulating their 100 000 pages of documents and questioning their 650 witnesses (since it was the policies of the French Government of the past 3 years that was in question, the task was rather open ended). Meanwhile Pétain was getting letters asking when justice would be done (and the accused shot). He decided to sentence the accused himself there and then, via a newly created ‘Council of Political Justice’ (which, among other irregularities, had not read the evidence). The Council sentenced the accused, not to be executed, but to an undetermined term of imprisonment in a fortress.
The Minister of Justice, Barthélémy, heard about this new Council when Pétain announced its creation during the interval of a gala performance at the Vichy Casino. Barthélémy strongly advised Pétain to call off the Trial at this point. Pétain however insisted that the original Trial must go ahead, since the Council of Political Justice had only pronounced the sentence. The Trial was needed to provide an exposition of the truth, which the French deserved to know. The Riom judges for their part assured the accused that, as far as they, the judges, were concerned, the sentences pronounced “do not constitute a presumption of guilt”.
The accused were free to choose their defence counsel, a team of lawyers and researchers helped them prepare their defence. Léon Blum chose socialist lawyers, friends of his; one, Vice-President of the erstwhile Socialist Parliamentary Group, wrote the introduction to the Labour Party pamphlet mentioned above. Some of the lawyers came from the occupied zone, and had to have permits to cross the demarcation line. There was trouble when they objected to having to deposit their documents in advance to be checked by the occupier. Otto Abetz, the man in charge of the Occupation, intervened to smooth things over.
In the Court building, they had to use the room on the ground floor because the floor of the Court room proper was not strong enough; they carried out improvements to make the décor majestic, installing new wood panelling, antique tapestries and crystal chandeliers. The chief Judge wore a coat of ermine (there were complaints about how much it cost).
An old tunnel connected the Courthouse to the prison across the road; the prison cells had been decorated and papered to receive the important prisoners, but the bed bugs remained. Daladier collected a number of them, put them in an envelope and sent them to the presiding Judge, who arranged for the prisoners to be transferred back to their previous lodgings.
17 journalists from the occupied zone attended the proceedings, 52 from the Vichy zone, 55 from abroad (USA and Chile the only non-European). Each newspaper was allowed 2 journalists, who attended alternately.
The Vichy authorities tried to put limits on reports of the proceedings, largely ineffectually, since the German press and the press of the occupied zone could not be subjected to censorship, only the Vichy press. Some versions of the transcripts of the proceedings indicate the sentences the censors wanted deleted.
Journalists were given in advance a list of official directives as to what they should write, directives which the Defence delighted in reading aloud at the start of proceedings, to the embarrassment of the judges. The first directive said journalists had to mention:
“that the policies of the Marshall were and remain inspired by the necessity which comes form the obvious fact that France is condemned to build a new regime or to perish.”
A list of things to say, and a list of things not to say, came on a daily basis e.g.
“not to remind readers that the Marshall had reduced the number of officers and reduced spending on military training camps, that when heavily criticized he had been defended and covered by Daladier; that it was on his advice that the Ardennes section of the frontier had not been fortified, or that he was suspected of having had relations with the Cagoule [an extreme right wing organisation]”.
The Army Staff’s attitude towards armoured units, the Air Force’s slowness at choosing prototypes, that in May 1940 air forces of France and Germany were more or less equal, the name of De Gaulle: all this was specifically not to be mentioned. But only Vichy journalists could be made to respect these directives.
The Trial eventually got under way on 19th February 1942, nearly two and a half years after it was announced.
The former Commander in Chief, Gamelin, appointed two lawyers from the extreme right, who informed the Court that the General would remain silent. The chief judge tried to coax Gamelin into speaking, but the General stuck to his decision. This decision could not have pleased Vichy more, since it was not the military they wanted put under the spotlight.
Daladier and Blum were eager for the Trial to start so they could defend themselves. According to a journalist, they looked well, relaxed and in good shape. Experienced debaters, they were well prepared. Their knowledge and their eloquence easily overcame the puny efforts of the Prosecution. They were able to describe in detail the budgets they had put forward and the measures they had taken to improve the Army. Both were in their element, in the atmosphere of their former parliamentary triumphs. An American journalist said: “The Third Republic has never looked better than under the attacks of her successor.”
Daladier and Blum were treated with courtesy, and allowed to speak at length. Blum spoke for four hours on March 11th and the same the next day. The press reported that the audience and the judges, attentive throughout, were spell-bound for the last fifteen minutes of his speech. His eloquence is extremely effective and affecting, even today.
In spite of the directives, Daladier and Blum referred constantly to the military situation, since for them the defeat was the result of faulty strategy.
Daladier wanted to analyse the military operations: “How else to explain this formidable strategic surprise [the breakthrough at Sedan], which is the deepest cause of the defeat?” Like Blum, he denounced the outdated military theory and inadequate strategic conceptions as the main causes of the disaster: all army activity was still, in 1940, envisaged at the pace of the infantry, with tanks and planes playing a secondary role.
Blum declared: “It’s not the quantity of armament that matters, it’s the way it is used: our military ideas and doctrines were out of date”. The presiding judge (Trying to argue back, while allowing discussion of a forbidden topic): “Mistakes committed by Napoléon at the battle of Waterloo are still in dispute”.
Léon Blum: “Yes, but there are other definite mistakes which are not disputed, even in the case of Napoléon.”
Blum defended the record of the Popular Front; it had improved the lot of the working class by giving it more leisure time. It had not made it idle: “Leisure is not laziness”. It introduced “a little beauty, a ray of light into their drab and difficult lives.”
“My Collective Agreements Act has not been impeached; it introduced democracy into the factories. The authority of the employer, like the hierarchic law, like the totalitarian law, is finished; it is dead; it will be seen no more; no longer will the working masses be given the feeling that are enslaved to labour by bonds of a hierarchy which they have not had the right to discuss and to which they have not voluntarily consented.
“All that belongs to another age. The organisation of labour can no longer be other than a more of less complex system of cooperation, including the whole personnel of the undertaking from the employer to the humblest labourer.”
During the occupation of the factories
“the workers behaved in a certain sense as co-owners”. [This feeling of co-ownership] “can only contribute to the sentiment of unity between the different classes which make up the Nation”.
“It is in proportion as co-ownership in their country is achieved that the workers learn to defend their country.”
The high point of the Trial certainly was this speech in defence of the Popular Front and Industrial Democracy.
Blum paid tribute to the Communists active in the Resistance, and victims of reprisals; he singled out for praise Jean-Pierre Timbaud, a Trade Union leader in the steel industry, with whom he had clashed during the Popular Front, who had been shot as a hostage by the occupier.
Examining the Generals
After the main speeches of Daladier and Blum, there was cross examination of witnesses. Seventeen Generals were called; inexperienced in debate, they were no match for the ex-Parliamentarians. An example of questioning:
Daladier to General Besson: “Did you share Marshall Pétain’s opinion in 1934 before the Senate Army Commission that the Ardennes forest was impenetrable?”
General Besson: “It is possible to make forests absolutely impenetrable, but only on condition of carrying out enormous works.”
Daladier to General Blanchard: “Could you have resisted if you had not gone into Belgium?”
General Blanchard: “If we had stayed put, we probably would not have been cut off.”
The Generals made naïve remarks; General Besson: [during the phoney war] “The men asked themselves why they were at war. And we didn’t really know what to say to them.”
General Herring, about the morale of the industrial workers: “‘work with joy’, that was Hitler’s great formula. We did know about joy, but not about work.” General Andrei: “At all levels [of the army] we believed in the blockade [of Germany].”
Another: “We thought the blockade would carry the day, and we only had to wait.”
The end of the trial
Clement Attlee wrote in his Foreword to Léon Blum’s speeches at Riom:
“It is a dangerous thing for mean-minded men to bring a man of great spirit before a tribunal. They are apt to find themselves in the dock and the prisoner conducting the prosecution. This is what happened to the men of Vichy when they staged the trial at Riom of Léon Blum and in the person of Léon Blum indicted democracy.”
The reports of the Riom Trial in the press, even when censored, did not reflect well on the regime, showing in particular that Pétain had made mistakes and lacked lucidity in military matters. Pétain lost considerable prestige. When the Germans suggested the Trial be abandoned, the suggestion was taken up and the Trial suspended on 15 April 1942 “pending further inquiries.” The accused were taken to a mountain fortress in the Pyrenees, from which the occupiers deported them to Germany, despite protests by Laval. The Germans assured Laval that the prisoners would receive privileged treatment. Blum was taken to a house on the edge of the camp of Buchenwald where he lived with his wife and their servant, reading Plato and writing. Blum and Daladier returned to France after the war.
The Trial was not a success for the Vichy regime. It showed up its weaknesses and contradictions. Pétain had never had exceptional abilities, or gifts as a statesman; he depended on advisers and ministers of different political persuasions, from whom he got contradictory advice. He was not supported by a political party. Pétain was 15 in 1871 in the first modern war on Germany. By 1940 he was 84. Tired, not hearing well, he tended to agree to the various proposals put to him, however contradictory. He had “more powers than Louis XIV”, as Laval told him, but could not prevent himself be ridiculed in Court.
The Trial was forgotten; by 1941 the war had become a World War. By 1942 the situation in France had worsened and greater hardships took people’s minds away from the questions raised at Riom. After 1945, the new French Government did not care to remember that France had lost the war, never mind why or how. Blum and Daladier had demolished accusations and counterattacked but their success was short lived: the Third Republic was not rehabilitated in the eyes of the new forces that emerged after the war.
The Riom Trial was representative of the early years of Vichy; improvised, incoherent, amateurish, and full of contradictions; legal and illegal, authoritarian and ineffectual, attached to tradition and breaking with tradition, pulled by opposing influences; showing a contrast between propaganda and actual actions, for example anti-British in words, but pro-British in fact.
I might add that the word ‘Jew’ was not pronounced at the Trial, except once by Blum, who said that, although he was a Jew and a Marxist, as a statesman he negotiated, in 1936, with a representative of Nazi Germany, a country that persecuted Jews and Marxists, because at that time negotiations could be useful for France.
Finally, the Riom Trial is itself still ‘best not mentioned’ because it raises a question that is not resolved, that of the ‘guarantee’ to Poland and the declaration of war, by which France and Britain started World War II.