Pètain: How The Hero Of France Became A Convicted Traitor And Changed The Course Of History, by Charles Williams
To make a somewhat long story short, the author does not view Henri Pètain as a traitor and believes that he simply bet on the wrong side of history and paid a terrible price for it that postwar French rulers were simply unwilling to deal with. Before coming to this point, though, the author provides a compelling biography of the man and his deep complexity. This is deeply interesting, and those who are interested in 20th century French history would do well to give this book a read, as the author manages to discuss how it is that an elderly general was able to rapidly rise in the ranks to the top of the French military and then attempt to preserve his people from the worst of World War II only to be the scapegoat for everything that went wrong after the fact. If the author’s discussion about Pètain tends to lean a bit much on the political and personal it is certainly an interesting read and one that details just how little it took to rise above the standard of French generalship in the 20th century.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages and is divided into 29 relatively short chapters. After a list of illustrations and acknowledgements the author discusses the quintessential French problem of being on the wrong side of World War II history in an introduction. From there the book is a chronological look at Pètain’s life, starting from his background as a peasant in Artois (1) and his choice of the military over the priesthood as a way up (2). The author explores Pètain’s experiences in Saint-Cyr (3) as well as his minor role in Paris during the Dryfus affair (4) and his love life and plans for retirement so rudely interrupted by World War I (5). The experience of war (6) dominates much of the next few chapters, including Pètain’s focus on the Germans (7), Verdun (8), Pètain’s rise to commander-in-chief (9), total war (10), and his role in planning for victory (11). After that the author explore’s his marriage (12), work with the Spanish in Morocco (13), dealing with the politics of peace (14), opposing the socialists (15, 16), serving as ambassador to Spain (17), and returning to France on the eve of defeat (18). The author then looks at Pètain’s role in setting up Vichy (19), acquiring power (20), dealing with the Germans, Darlan, and the Jewish question (21), opposing Communism (22), falling into the trap of thinking Germany would win (23), facing the German occupation of all of France (24), living as a virtual prisoner (25, 26), fleeing the Allied invasion of the Rhone (27), fighting for his honor in a rigged trial (28), and dying in prison (29), after which the book ends with notes, a bibliography, and index.
What really separates this book from the norm of historical works (even biographical histories) is the author’s clear nuance. Without whitewashing its character of his considerable flaws and mistaken judgments, the author manages to place him in a variety of contexts that demonstrate that he was not a monster but in fact a person who is not so unlike a great many others, including those who sat in judgment upon him. If he misjudged his ability to cope successfully with Hitler and protect his people, he certainly was not the craven coward that so many were, nor was he someone who ultimately did anything but do what he thought would best protect the well-being of the French by sharing in their experiences of captivity and trying to make the best of it. The author’s basically fair-minded approach encourages the reader to think about what they would do under the circumstances and if they would find themselves just as unjustly considered as traitors when they were merely people who had misjudged who would win and been unable to walk it back when things changed and people desired to take vengeance on those who were on the losing side of a war, before being on the winning side at the end but unable to get any credit for it.