Without doubt, Marshal Philippe Pétain, the octogenarian head of the war-time collaborationist Vichy Government, remains one of the most controversial figures in French history. To his defenders, still a vocal minority in post-1945 France, he would remain for ever the First World War hero who shielded the country from a much more terrible fate during the Occupation. For his accusers, he was a criminal whose traitorous regime enshrined anti-Semitism in law before going on to co-operate in the deportation of Jews to the killing fields of Eastern Europe.
Using German archives, Robert Paxton demonstrated beyond doubt that Petain's regime had to be explained not as a Nazi imposition but in terms of the dynamics of French history since 1789, namely the civil war between Right and Left that hit new levels of hatred in 1936 with the election of Leon Blum's Popular Front Government.
Drawing on Paxton and others, Charles Williams's highly readable biography of Petain is an important addition to this work. Williams is a former banker and Labour Party politician, who was in the early 1990s Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. He is already well known for his previous books on Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, both of which have received solid praise. Now, in turning his attentions to Petain, he has given us a fully rounded biography that puts the man into a wider perspective.
Williams underlines Pétain's austere peasant childhood in Cauchy-à-la-Tour, a village of some 400 people in the Pas-de-Calais. This upbringing inculcated in him a belief in rural roots - the values of the true France - that became the bedrock of his world-view. Significantly, too, poverty meant that in terms of career Pétain had little choice but the military - the only other option was the Church - and Williams weaves the personal story into the broader sweep of French history. In fact, it is incredible to think that in 1914, already aged 58, Pétain was on the verge of retirement, a footnote of French military history.
What transformed Pétain's career was, as Williams rightly emphasises, the First World War. Propelled into the eye of the storm, he rose to become the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army, British, German, Russian, Austrian, Italian or Turkish. Specifically, his role in organising the defence of Verdun in 1916 - the defining battle of the whole conflict for France - transformed him into the country's greatest military hero, a fact that was confirmed when he received his marshal's baton in December 1918. For this reason, it is interesting to speculate about what would have happened if he had died in the 1920s. Probably, contemporary France would still be lionising his memory on Armistice Day. However, Pétain did not die and during the 1920s and 1930s he became increasingly political.
Williams brings new insights into how Pétain's thinking developed. In particular, Pétain was impressed by Primo de Rivera's brand of Catholic authoritarianism in Spain, and he came to the conclusion that this was what France needed to see off the communist menace. Viewed from this perspective, therefore, his assumption of power in June 1940 was not a case of a man reluctantly taking control in France's hour of need. It looks much more like a coup d'état whose blueprint was already well prepared.
Yet, Pétain's initial popularity cannot be separated from the trauma of 1940. By mid-June, millions of refugees were clogging the roads of Northern France. When Pétain called on the Army to down arms, there was widespread relief. Few people saw any alternative, and only a tiny minority sided with General de Gaulle in London. The whole country was in a state of shock, and instinctively people looked to Pétain as the saviour figure above politics.
But in the autumn of 1940, Pétain revealed himself to be a deeply ideological person as the regime launched a right-wing crusade, the national revolution.
Williams, as one would expect, is strong on politics and the minutiae of Vichy intrigue, although he could have said much more about the regime's involvement in the Holocaust. After all, 76,000 Jews were deported and only 3 per cent returned - a shocking statistic that needs explaining. How much did Pétain know and what role did he play?
It is intriguing to imagine how this book will be received in France. Last year, Le Monde carried on is front page one of Williams's major revelations, that Pétain might have defected to North Africa in 1943. In general, though, I suspect that French academics, schooled so thoroughly in the concept of history as a social science, will be sniffy. They will see it as too literary, too preoccupied with the Anglo-Saxon eye for detail, which is a pity because Williams has produced a well-researched portrait that deserves to be read on both sides of the Channel.
Martin Evans is professor of contemporary history, Portsmouth University.
Author - Charles Williams
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 576
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0316 8618