Paris after the liberati.., p.2
Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.2Antony Beevor
‘You are a general,’ remarked Pétain, no doubt eyeing the two new stars on his sleeve. As a Marshal of France, he had seven. ‘But I don’t congratulate you. What’s the use of rank during a defeat?’
‘But, Marshal,’ de Gaulle pointed out, ‘it was during the retreat of 1914 that you yourself received your first stars.’
‘No comparison,’ was his retort.
The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, although determined to resist the enemy, had come under increasing pressure from his louche pro-German mistress, Comtesse Hélène de Portes. She shamelessly interfered in matters of state – on one occasion the draft of a top-secret telegram to President Roosevelt had to be retrieved from her bed. But worst of all, she had managed to persuade her lover to appoint several defeatists as ministers. They were to bring him down.
Impressed by de Gaulle’s certainty and vigour, as well as by his predictions about the course of events, Reynaud had just made him Under-Secretary of State for War against much opposition. Yet in mid-May, Reynaud had already felt obliged to recall Pétain from his post as ambassador to General Franco in Madrid and offer him the vice-presidency of the Council of Ministers.
Philippe Pétain in old age was still wrapped in the reputation he had made at Verdun. The memory of his rallying cry – ‘They shall not pass!’ – was enough to moisten the eyes of veterans. But he had no stomach for this fight and was openly advocating an armistice with the Germans before the French army fell to pieces completely. Already there had been reports of troops refusing to obey orders. Weygand shared his fears. ‘Ah!’ he is supposed to have sighed. ‘If only I could be sure the Germans would leave me enough men to maintain order.’
Neither of them had forgotten the mutinies of 1917 which followed the disastrous offensive on the Aisne. French commanders, alarmed by the disintegration of the tsarist army and the recent revolution in Petro-grad, had repressed the disturbances mercilessly. Pétain had then been given the task of reforming the army and bringing it back to discipline. His admirers saw him as the man who had saved France from Bolshevism.
The conference was to take place in the dark dining roomof the château, where a long table had been prepared. Reynaud, a short man whose intelligent face was a little too well nourished to be described as foxy, called his colleagues together in the hall to greet their allies. The pressure he was under made him nervous and irritable. De Gaulle, one of the most junior members present, stood in the background. He would take his place at the far end of the table when they sat down.
Churchill had left England in a very bad temper and was dressed in one of his old-fashioned black suits despite the summer heat, yet he entered the room looking rubicund and genial. He was followed by Anthony Eden; General Sir John Dill; Major-General Hastings Ismay, the Secretary of the War Cabinet; and Major-General Edward Spears, his personal representative to the French government. Spears felt that, despite Reynaud’s polite welcome, their presence was like that of ‘poor relations at a funeral reception’.
Weygand, at Reynaud’s request, gave a description of the current military situation: it was relentlessly pessimistic. He ended with the words: ‘C’est la dislocation!’
Churchill, in a long, passionate speech full of historical allusions and expressed in his inimitable mixture of French and English, recalled the disasters of the First World War from which the Allies had recovered and won: ‘We would fight on and on – toujours, all the time – everywhere, partout – pas de grâce, no mercy.Puis la victoire!’ Unaware of Weygand’s decision to abandon Paris, he urged the defence of the capital with house-to-house fighting. Churchill’s further suggestion of continuing the struggle by guerrilla warfare – one of his pet subjects – horrified Pétain even more. His face briefly came to life. It would mean ‘the destruction of the country’, he muttered angrily. He was convinced that this loosening of the chain of command would lead to the anarchy that he and Weygand feared so much.
General Weygand, in his baffled anger, was attempting to shift the responsibility for France’s humiliation away from the French army. He and his kind bitterly blamed everything they loathed – the Popular Front government of 1936, liberals, Communists, anti-clericalism, freemasonry and now, it seemed, their allies for having started the war. No criticism of the French general staff could be considered.
The commander-in-chief evaded the issue of continuing the struggle by other means. He repeated that they were ‘at the last quarter of an hour’ of the battle and persisted in demanding every available British fighter squadron. The British were not prepared to transfer any more Hurricanes or Spitfires from home defence, especially when they doubted the will of the French military leaders. Soon it became clear that this refusal would provide the defeatists with an excuse to seek a separate peace with the Germans.
But by no means all the men opposite were capitulards. At least eight were firmly opposed to an armistice. The British delegation was particularly impressed by Georges Mandel and de Gaulle. Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior – a Jew who was to be murdered in 1944 by members of Vichy’s paramilitary Milice – had ensured that no politician keen on a deal with Germany, in particular the arch-opportunist Pierre Laval, stayed behind in Paris. He also believed in continuing the fight from France’s North African colonies should metropolitan France fall. De Gaulle, meanwhile, supported the plan for a last stand in Brittany and left after the meeting to prepare the defence of the north-west peninsula. But against the resolution of such men weighed the scale of the disaster and the shameless manoeuvres of their opponents. When the British Prime Minister and his party flew back to London the following morning, they feared the worst.
The French government moved to Bordeaux two days later, on the last stage of its retreat. Ministers found the city in a state of chaos resulting from both panic and apathy. Those with influence had commandeered rooms in the Hotel Splendide, the Hotel Normandie or the Hotel Montré. They also secured tables at the Chapon Fin restaurant, which maintained its superb cooking despite the acute shortages. Spears and the British minister, Oliver Harvey, looked round at the deputies and senators at other tables. Spears reflected, ‘with some annoyance as a Conservative’, that the only politicians prepared to continue the fight against Germany were ‘in the main Socialists’. But the chief object of his loathing was the turncoat Pierre Laval. The very appearance of the squat Laval, with his toad-like features, decaying teeth and greasy hair, made hatred easy.
Any officials who stepped outside their hotels were mobbed by refugees anxious for news of the German advance or of relatives in the army. Accusations of incompetence, cowardice and even treason rang out, for that mood of ‘Nous sommes trahis!’ had started to gain hold. The British consulate was besieged with refugees, including many Jews, desperate to get away. One rumour was not false: German aircraft had dropped magnetic mines in the Gironde estuary, virtually sealing off the port of Bordeaux.
By Sunday, 16 June, Reynaud found resistance to the capitulards almost impossible to maintain. It was already hard for a civilian politician to challenge the opinion of military leaders, and he did not have de Gaulle’s support at this stage, having sent him on a mission to London. Marshal Pétain had a huge following in the country, and he knew the strength of his position.
Every hope rapidly proved false. An appeal for help to President Roosevelt turned out to have been ridiculously optimistic. Reynaud thought that Churchill’s last-minute proposal of an Anglo-French Union, which was backed by de Gaulle, might save the situation. The Pétain faction saw it as a plot by Britain to make France one of her dominions.* One Pétainist minister, Jean Ybarnegaray, exploded: ‘Better to be a Nazi province. At least we know what that means.’ To which Reynaud replied: ‘I prefer to collaborate with my allies than with my enemies.’ Pétain himself dismissed the whole idea angrily, describing it as ‘a marriage with a corpse’!
Reynaud’s opponents then went on to support the proposal of another minister, Camille Chautemps, that Hitler’s terms s
At ten o’clock that night de Gaulle, who had flown straight back to Bordeaux from London in an aeroplane provided by Churchill, touched down at Mérignac airport still full of hope for the Anglo-French Union. He had not yet heard how things had gone at the Cabinet meeting. An officer waiting for him on the tarmac warned him of Reynaud’s resignation. The news that President Lebrun had appointed Marshal Pétain as the next Prime Minister followed half an hour later. The shock can be imagined. De Gaulle was no longer a minister. He reverted, at least in theory, to the rank of temporary brigadier-general. But Pétain’s appointment, signalling the victory of the defeatists, removed any doubt from his mind. Whatever the consequences, he must return to England to continue the fight.
To make sure that he left France safely, he had to be careful. Weygand loathed him, both personally and politically. Any attempt by an officer to continue the struggle which the commander-in-chief had been so keen to abandon would be treated as mutinous. Weygand would call for his court martial with the satisfaction which only moral outrage can bring.
Reynaud, in many ways relieved to be free of an appalling burden, encouraged de Gaulle in the idea when they met shortly before midnight. Ignoring the fact that he was no longer Prime Minister, he obtained passports and secret funds to provide the knight-errant General with his immediate expenses.
Early the next morning, Monday, 17 June, de Gaulle, accompanied by his young aide, Geoffroy de Courcel, met General Spears in the lobby of the Hotel Normandie. A short time before, a call had been put through to Spears’s room. It was the Duke of Windsor, asking for a Royal Navy warship to pick him up from Nice. The former king was told firmly but politely that no warship was available. Surely the road to Spain was open to motor cars if he did not wish to use the only other ship in the harbour – a collier.
The small party – Spears, de Gaulle and Courcel – drove to Mérignac and boarded the four-seater aeroplane provided by Churchill. It was standing in the midst of what looked like a military junkyard. After an agonizing delay manoeuvring the aeroplane on to the runway, they took off. Soon they were flying over depressing reminders of the military reality below. Ever-widening columns of smoke arose from depots set ablaze and, worst of all, they passed over a sinking troopship, the Champlain, which had been evacuating 2,000 British soldiers.
This very junior general’s decision to resurrect the French battle flag in defiance of his own government had set him on a path of mutiny. Crossing his Rubicon, the English Channel, constituted both political and military rebellion. Years later, André Malraux asked him about his feelings during that journey on 17 June. ‘Oh, Malraux,’ he said, taking both of the writer’s hands in his, ‘it was appalling.’
The Paths of Collaboration and Resistance
The announcement that Marshal Pétain was to form a government produced a profound sense of relief in the overwhelming majority of the population. People just wanted an end to the relentless attacks, as if the last five weeks had been an unfair boxing contest which should never have been allowed to start. His address to the country by wireless declaring that ‘the fighting must stop’ was broadcast on 17 June, just as de Gaulle’s small aircraft was about to land at Heston, near London.
On 21 June, Hitler stage-managed the French surrender in Marshal Foch’s railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne, thus reversing Germany’s humiliation there in 1918. General Keitel presented the armistice terms without allowing any discussion. The capitulards convinced themselves that the conditions were less harsh than they had expected. They, along with the millions who supported their action, also needed to believe that the decision of the British to continue the war alone was madness. Hitler would defeat them too within a matter of weeks, so continued resistance was against everyone’s interests.
Once the area of ‘unoccupied France’ had been defined by the Germans – the central and southern regions, excluding the Atlantic coast – Pétain’s new government selected the spa of Vichy as its base, a choice partly influenced by the empty hotels available for use as government offices.
There, on 10 July, the senators and deputies of the National Assembly voted full powers to Marshal Pétain and the suspension of parliamentary democracy. They were offered little choice, but the majority seemed to welcome that. A minority of eighty brave men led by Léon Blum opposed the motion. The following day Marshal Pétain’s French State came into being, with Pierre Laval as the first Prime Minister. Pétain felt able to congratulate himself that at last the country was no longer ‘rotted by politics’.
The most fervent support for Pétain’s regime might best be summed up as provincial prejudice. Vieille France – that arch-conservative ‘old France’ symbolized by a ferociously illiberal clergy and a petite noblesse that was both impoverished and resentful – still cursed the principles of 1789. A number of them continued to wear a white carnation in their buttonhole and a black tie on the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, and stuck postage stamps with the Republican symbol of Marianne upside down on their letters. In their eyes, the demonic successors of the French Revolution included the Communards of 1871, all those who had supported Dreyfus against the General Staff, the mutineers of 1917, the political leaders of the inter-war years, and the industrial workers who had benefited from the Popular Front’s reforms in 1936. The right believed that these, not the complacent General Staff, had dragged France down to defeat. This counterpart to Germany’s conspiracy theory after the First World War, the ‘stab in the back’, was also deeply imbued with anti-Semitism. On 3 July, Britain joined the front rank of Vichy’s hate figures when the French naval squadron at Mers-el-Kebir rejected an ultimatum to sail out of reach of the Germans and was destroyed by the Royal Navy.
In October, the character of the German occupation was defined at the small town of Montoire in Touraine. Hitler’s train halted there for a meeting with Pierre Laval, who greeted the Führer effusively. He promised to persuade Pétain to come to Montoire forty-eight hours later. After the Hitler–Laval meeting was over, the train travelled through the night to arrive in Hendaye on the Spanish frontier, where Hitler had a meeting with General Franco.
The train then returned to Montoire, where Marshal Pétain arrived on 24 October, having travelled from Vichy in secret. The contrast between decay and modern military power could hardly have appeared greater. In this little provincial station stood Hitler’s special train, a gleaming beast in armoured steel with flak guns mounted on a wagon at the rear. The platforms were guarded by a large detachment of his personal SS bodyguard. Marshal Pétain’s chef de cabinet, Henri du Moulin de Labarthète, was struck by Hitler’s resemblance to his photographs: ‘the gaze fixed and severe, the peaked hat too high and too large’. The oblivious old Marshal in a shabby gabardine greeted the Führer, stretching out his hand ‘d’un geste de souverain’.
Pétain felt he had obtained what he wanted from this encounter. France retained its empire, its fleet, and guarantees covering the unoccupied zone. Ignoring the events of the past six years, he treated Hitler as a man of his word. After the meeting at Montoire, Pétain’s supporters went further. They persuaded themselves that the old man had somehow managed to outfox the Führer; his principal apologists even called this agreement ‘the diplomatic Verdun’.
All the self-deception of Pétainism was revealed in a New Year message addressed to ‘Messieurs et très chers collaborateurs’ from the Bishop of Arras, Mgr Henri-Édouard Dutoit. This cleric’s pseudo-Cartesian formulation only drew further attention to the false basis of his reasoning. ‘I collaborate: therefore I am no longer the slave who is forbidden to speak and act, and only good to obey orders. I collaborate: therefore I have the right to contribute my own thought and individual effort to the common cause.’*
This imaginary autonomy described by the Bishop of Arras was so important to the Vichy regime that until 1942 the Germans needed little more than 30,000 men – less than twice the size of the Paris police force – to keep the whole of France in order. Vichy bent over backwards to help the occupier – a policy that was taken to appalling lengths when assisting with the deportation of Jews to Germany.
Pétain’s regime had already introduced anti-Jewish regulations without any prompting from the Germans. Exactly three weeks before the meeting at Montoire, a decree had introduced special identity cards for Jews and provided for a census. A Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives was set up. Jewish-owned businesses had to identify themselves clearly, thus allowing the French state to sequester them at will.
The most infamous operation of all was to be the grande rafle raid in Paris. Reinhard Heydrich visited Paris on 5 May 1942 for general discussions on implementing the deportation of Jews to Germany. Adolf Eichmann came on 1 July to plan the operation. The following day, René Bousquet, the Vichy Prefect of Police, offered his men for the task. On the night of 16 July 1942 some 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children whom even the Nazis were willing to spare, were seized in five arrondissements by French policemen. They were transported to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a covered stadium for bicycle races. More than a hundred committed suicide. Almost all the rest later perished in German concentration camps.
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