Why weary France cosied up to Hitler

December 4, 1998

On August 14, 1944, Jean Guehenno wryly commented on an extraordinary broadcast made by Radio Paris. In it, a "German soldier" recounted how he had consulted the leading Parisian astrologers on the outcome of the war. All of them predicted a glorious German victory. The German war machine had moved from the devastating tactics of Blitzkrieg to the less-than-assured occultist art of Ouija-board warfare. Within days Paris was liberated.

Ian Ousby's book is intelligent, astute and elegantly written. It is conceived for the English-speaking lay reader and deals with a period of history that has only recently become better understood in France, though is still deeply disliked. Ousby achieves his objective remarkably well. It is a first-class work of synthesis. But its real strength lies in its ability to convey the atmosphere of this dark time in French history.

The work begins intelligently in 1916 with a vivid account of the battle of Verdun and its victor, General Philippe Petain. By 1918, Petain was a national hero, promoted to the rank of marshal. In 1945 he was disgraced and reviled. Subject to degredation nationale, Petain was stripped of his rank and imprisoned on the Ile d'Yeu off the Brittany coast. This for having presided over the death of the Third Republic and serving as head of a government more grotesque than the Republique des Camarades, which it replaced. As head of l'Etat Francais, with its national motto "travail, famille, patrie", the marshal entered into a Faustian pact with Hitler. But as Ousby points out, Petain's logic was impeccable. He justified France's armistice with Germany - the only defeated nation offered one by the Reich - with the remark: "too few children, too few weapons, too few allies". Britain, the last of her former allies, would succumb shortly and France, having sued for peace, could maintain independence and honour, and possibly a key role in a New European Order that would last a thousand years, Petain thought.

Verdun, however, is crucial for another reason. The horrible blood-letting of that battle and the war itself created the conditions for national exhaustion such that when France and her allies were finally victorious, the French experienced the triumph of war with a profound sense of defeat, disorientation and malaise. This contributed to a powerful pacifist movement, animated by intellectuals such as Alain, Jean Giono, and Andre Malraux, and to the rise of reactionary activism inspired by ideologues from Charles Maurras and Leon Daudet, founders of Action Francaise, through Jacques Doriot and his Parti Populaire Francais, to Robert Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet, writers for the rancorous right-wing rag Je suis partout. The combination created a political and cultural climate that sought Franco-German cooperation from the left and Franco-fascist emulation from the right. A sign of cooperation was the creation of the "Comite d'entente de la jeunesse pour le rapprochment franco-allemand" created in 1930 by Jean Luchaire, editor of Notre Temps, and a striking German professor, Otto Abetz - later to become the Reich's ambassador to France. The clearest sign of fascistic imitation came in 1934 with the Stavisky crisis. The ensuing riot that brought down the government of Edouard Daladier was dubbed by the right as "le grand soir des honnetes gens" and christened by Brasillach as the "dawn of fascism".

Weariness, pacifism and fanaticism were crucial elements in the Reich's victory. But it was right-wing fanaticism that helped Hitler to ensure that Petain could never realise his dream for France. Here, Ousby is at his weakest. Petain, and many around him, subscribed to Maurras's view that the very foundations of republican government, "liberty, equality, fraternity", were the sources of its corruption. But unlike Maurras, Petain was rooted in the tradition of French Catholic conservatism. The new reactionary activists viewed that tradition as moribund. What animated them was the dark emotional qualities of fascism, its appeal to the irrational. Highlighting this intensity, Brasillach declared that fascism was sublime "poetry, the poetry of the 20th century", and the demented Alphonse de Chateaubriant called Nazism the "work of God".

Hitler exploited this division between old and new right, pressing Petain's regime into adopting policies that the marshal disdained - though Vichy refused to force Jews to wear the yellow star in the unoccupied zone after May 1942. In its efforts to out-manoeuvre the radical right and in its illusory endeavours to maintain the semblance of national sovereignty, l'Etat Francais was driven inexorably into a connivance that tipped into bewildering horror. For the Reich ensured that Vichy played its part effectively in fulfilling the aims expressed by the fascist fanatic Darquier de Pellepoix in 1937: "The Jews must be exiled, they must be massacred!" Michael Drolet is honorary research fellow in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-44

Author - Ian Ousby
ISBN - 0 7195 5670 8
Publisher - Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 348

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