Paris after the liberati.., p.20
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949, p.20

           Antony Beevor

  ‘They are putting the armistice on trial,’ wrote Charpentier scathingly. ‘The prosecution seems to think that the Marshal lost the war in order to overthrow the Republic… Never does it tackle head-on Vichy’s real crime, the appalling ambiguity which, cloaked in the unequalled prestige of the head of state, led so many of the French into treason.’

  The trial consisted of long and largely irrelevant speeches, which the president of the court, Mongibeaux – who, like most of the judiciary, had sworn an oath of allegiance to Pétain – made little effort to bring back to the point. The politicians, who were the first to be called, were more interested in defending their own reputations than condemning Pétain. Only the Socialist leader Léon Blum was impressive, his moral authority increased by his imprisonment in Germany. Pétain, said Blum, told the people of France that the humiliating armistice ‘was not a dishonourable act, but an act in accordance with the interests of the country’. And because the Marshal, being who he was, spoke in the name of honour and glory, people believed him. ‘His atrocious moral confidence trick, yes, that I think is treason.’

  The politicians were followed by diplomats and generals, but few who came to the witness stand had anything specific to say. In several cases, the defence – especially the youngest and brightest member of the team, Maître Jacques Isorni – managed to indicate that the prosecution’s witnesses were just as compromised as the old man in the dock; if not as traitors, then as fools.

  As witness after witness droned on, Pétain sat in silence and the public seethed with impatience. It was not politicians and officials they wanted to see, but the victims of Vichy – particularly the déportés. The first déporté to appear was, however, far from typical. Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, skeletal and on crutches after his time in Mauthausen, was a former aide-de-camp to Marshal Pétain and had remained loyal. Loustaunau-Lacau, the founder of the ‘Noah’s Ark’ intelligence network with Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, was a rarity in the Resistance: he was ferociously anti-Communist. Glowering at the court, he condemned the trial and its witnesses. ‘I owe nothing to Marshal Pétain but that does not stop me from feeling sickened by the spectacle of those who, in this room, try to pass all their errors on to an old man.’

  It was not until Pastor Boegner, president of the Protestant Federation of France, was summoned that one of the most important facts emerged: Pétain had been informed of the atrocities and injustices that were committed by the Vichy regime. Boegner had from the start protested against the racial laws and the deportations, and he continued to do so. He had brought to the Marshal’s attention the fact that France was deporting German Jews who had sought refuge in France in the 1930s, and on 22 August 1942 he had written to the Marshal, telling himof the deportation of Jewish children from the station of Vénissieux, near Lyons. Boegner testified that Pétain had always expressed horror and indignation; but he had never lifted a finger to stop the crimes.

  Not all the witnesses were for the prosecution. A great many generals were called who were for the most part loyal to their old leader. To the embarrassment of the American Embassy, Maître Isorni read out a letter from Admiral Leahy, Roosevelt’s ambassador to Vichy, who wrote that in his opinion Pétain had always had the best interests of France at heart. Yet foreign observers were unimpressed at the general conduct of the trial. Almost anybody, including jurors, seemed to have the right to make remarks, even insults, without any reproach from the president of the court, and purely hearsay comments were accepted as evidence. Caffery reported in a signal to the Secretary of State in Washington that Americans with legal training who had followed the trial were of the opinion that the great bulk of evidence so far submitted would have been thrown out by an American court.

  The high point was the appearance of Pierre Laval on Friday, 3 August, in the second week of the trial. The spectators were agog at the sight of Pétain and Laval together again. The two men had each described the other as a ‘dungheap’. Laval’s entrance, however, was not impressive. He came in, uncharacteristically ill at ease, hugging a brown attaché case against his chest and seemed confused about where he was supposed to sit. He still carried his grey felt Homburg, and wore his other trademark, a white gangster-like tie. Yet it was the change in his physical appearance that struck people most. ‘The fat of his face is now gone,’ wrote Janet Flanner, in court for the New Yorker. ‘His oily, Moorish hair is now dry and gray and his mustache is the color of tobacco juice. His crooked, stained teeth make a dark cavernous background for his large lips…[His] rumpled gray-and-white-striped suit was so large for his frame that it looked borrowed.’

  Although Laval seemed cowed and nervous at first, the sound of his own voice brought back his self-assurance. He spoke brilliantly, but everything he said was addressed to the public and the journalists. The gist of his message was indignation that he should be cast as the black side of the Vichy coin. He reminded the court of Pétain’s statement five days after the Normandy landings: ‘Monsieur Laval and I walk hand in hand. Between him and me there is perfect agreement both in thought and act.’ Yet Laval did not answer a single question directly.

  His presence roused Pétain from his long silence. The old man described his shock when, on 22 June 1942, he heard Laval announcing on the radio: ‘I hope for the victory of Germany, because without it, Communism will spread throughout Europe.’ Laval countered by saying he had shown the draft of the speech to Pétain. By that stage, nobody knew who to believe.

  The jury sentenced Pétain to death, although not with the overwhelming majority that people expected. The incompetence of the prosecution and Jacques Isorni’s performance had sown many doubts among those who had possessed none before. The jury also put in a request that the sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Maître Isorni claims that this was to prevent de Gaulle fromtaking the credit for sparing the old man, who was to remain in prison on the Île d’Yeu until his death in 1951.

  The trial failed to penetrate the enigma of Marshal Pétain. Did he really believe that he had outfoxed Hitler with a ‘double game’? That he had served the Allied cause, as he pretended, even when giving the order to counter-attack the American landings in North Africa, or when writing to Hitler after the Anglo-Canadian raid on Dieppe to congratulate him for sweeping clean the soil of France? Did he believe all this or had he managed to convince himself of what he needed to believe?

  Marshal Pétain recorded in a letter to Laval of 6 August 1944 – two months to the day after the Allied landings in Normandy – his horror at the accounts he had been hearing ‘for several months’ of the crimes of the Milice, including rape, murder and theft. He went on to express his dismay at the ‘deplorable effect produced’ by the Milice handing ‘to the Gestapo their own compatriots and working closely with it’.

  Joseph Darnand, the head of the Milice, replied to Pétain’s reprimand in a telling fashion: ‘For four years, I received your compliments and your congratulations and you encouraged me. And today, because the Americans are at the gates of Paris, you start to say that I am going to be a blot on the history of France. One might have made up one’s mind a little earlier.’ Darnand at his own trial was equally forthright: ‘I am not one of those who are going to tell you I played a double game. As for me, I went ahead. I went all the way.’

  Pétain’s main method of evading responsibility for his regime’s actions was to portray himself as a prisoner of the Germans. ‘Each day, with a dagger at my throat, I struggled against the enemy’s demands,’ he protested at his trial. But if he was, as he claimed, a prisoner of the Germans, then why at the end of May 1944, in his speech at Nancy, was he still asking the French people to continue to follow him? ‘Trust me. I have a certain amount of experience and I have pointed out the right direction.’ There was no disavowal of his regime, over which he later claimed to have had no control. There was no hint of regret at what had been done by Vichy in his name.

  On 2 May, shortly after Pétain had passed through Switzerland, Pierre Laval had m
anaged to escape from the ghastly chaos of Germany’s final collapse in a Junkers 88 trimotor aircraft. To avoid arrest, he had flown over France and landed at Barcelona. General Franco’s government, not wanting to provoke the Allies in any way, refused to offer the former Prime Minister of Vichy political asylum, but at the same time did not want to hand himdirectly over to the French.

  Finally, after almost three months of tortuous negotiations via the United States ambassador in Madrid, Laval was flown to the American zone of Austria in the same Junkers 88 – this time with the Nazi markings painted out. On arrival in Linz he was taken into custody by the US army, and on 31 July, eight days after the opening of Pétain’s trial, he was handed over to the French military authorities. The following day he was flown to Paris and transferred to Fresnes prison.

  Throughout Pétain’s trial, his defence had stressed that it was Laval, not the Marshal, who was responsible for the crimes of Vichy. Laval’s appearance as witness had done little to mitigate that impression, despite his exaggerated respect for Pétain and his insistence that he had never taken any major decision without the Marshal’s approval.

  When Laval arrived in Fresnes, Benoist-Méchin caught sight of him from his cell. He too was struck by how much weight the short and solid Auvergnat had lost since the last time they had met. Laval, although suffering from cancer, continued to smoke five packets of cigarettes a day. He was amused to receive a request for his butts from the ‘gamins’ in the cell on the floor above. They were hoisted up one by one tied to a string.

  A handful of devoted followers, most notably his wife and daughter Josée, continued to believe every word he uttered. Comte René de Chambrun, his son-in-law, made it his life’s work to clear Laval’s name. When asked what he most admired about his father-in-law, Chambrun replied that ‘he was incapable of uttering a falsehood, even a white lie’.

  Laval slept little and smoked constantly – his nervousness increased by the fact that he was denied access to the documents he had so carefully saved and annotated in Germany. He had to put together his defence from memory and from a few copies of the Journal Officiel.

  He was also denied access to any potential witnesses; and the inquiry into his case, which should have consisted of twenty-five separate ‘interrogations’, was suddenly closed after the fifth. This was because the provisional government wanted Laval’s trial, which would dominate the press, out of the way before the referendumon the creation of a new Constitution scheduled for 21 October.

  The trial began on Friday, 5 October, and was a cross between an auto-da-fé and a tribunal during the Paris Terror. Once again the courtroom was full to bursting and all eyes were on Laval. He came in clutching his attaché case, on which was written: PIERRE LAVAL PRÉSIDENT DU CONSEIL. He appeared alone, without his lawyers. A statement from them was read out by the president, Mongibeaux, saying that their absence was a protest at the abruptly curtailed inquiry into Laval’s case.

  ‘The examination procedure has not been hurried,’ Mornet, the chief prosecutor, replied. ‘It started five years ago, the day that Pierre Laval, with Pétain, seized power.’ At this point, both Laval’s fists came crashing down on to the table. His face contorted with fury, he shouted, ‘You were all under government orders, even you, Monsieur le Procureur Général! Condemn me straight away, that will make things clear.’

  Things went frombad to worse, with those supposed to be conducting the trial completely on the sidelines. Laval never answered their questions directly. The basis of his defence was that he had played a double game, to deceive Germany and protect France. He claimed that his notorious statement, ‘I wish for a German victory’, was intended to lull the Germans into a false sense of security. This line excused almost anything: his support for Hitler’s New European Order and the Legion of French Volunteers sent to the Russian front in German uniform. Even the dispatch of Jews to concentration camps, and Frenchmen to Germany on forced labour, could thus be explained away as a stratagem to save many more from a similar fate. He also managed to give the impression that the reason his trial was so rushed was that he knew the truth, and those in high positions were afraid that he might reveal it.

  The jury, however, were unashamedly out for his blood. They resisted his arguments, hurled insults and threatened him with ‘a dozen bullets in his hide’ – a phrase much in use during the épuration. At times the trial degenerated into a ferocious slanging match between the jurors and the accused. And these were the parliamentarians, not those picked from the Resistance.

  The bâtonnier, Charpentier, saw Laval as a wounded bull in an ignoble arena. ‘Like Andalusian urchins who leap into the bullring, members of the jury insulted the accused and intervened in the proceedings.’ ‘The Laval trial is a scandal beyond description,’ wrote Pastor Boegner in his diary. Charpentier went further. The whole exercise had become counter-productive. ‘In this way, a man universally hated, whose conviction, after proper proceedings, would never have raised a murmur, has been turned into a victim.’

  There was no appeal beyond this court, where decisions were final. Laval realized he stood no chance of saving himself and on the third day refused to appear, remaining in his cell from then on. He wrote to Teitgen, the Minister of Justice, complaining eloquently and bitterly of his treatment. Teitgen advised Laval’s lawyers to urge their client back into the courtroomor he would surely be condemned.

  Laval did not take Teitgen’s advice. He thought that absence from his own trial would become an insurmountable obstruction to its continuation, and persuaded his lawyers – who had long been under his spell – to agree with him. Wrapped in a cloud of self-delusion as thick as the cigarette smoke in his cell, he worked feverishly on a new defence for a new trial. On 9 October he heard to his stupefaction that the court had condemned him to death.

  Four days later, Pastor Boegner went to the rue Saint-Dominique to ask for a commutation of Laval’s death sentence, since his trial had been such a travesty of justice. ‘If Laval is executed after what has happened,’ he said to de Gaulle, ‘will it really be an execution?’ Boegner watched his reaction carefully. Not a muscle moved on the General’s face. Laval’s lawyers had a similar experience. Their client could already have been dead. François Mauriac also wrote to Teitgen begging for a retrial, but received no reply.

  Most executions took place at the fort of Montrouge, but Laval was shot at Fresnes. The official witnesses, including the Procurator-General, the presiding judge and Charles Luizet, the Prefect of Police, arrived at the prison soon after half past eight and went to the condemned cell on the ground floor. Laval, scorning his persecutors at the last moment, swallowed cyanide, which he must have kept concealed in his clothes. Almost immediately he went into convulsions. The official party panicked, not knowing what to do. The senior prison doctor called for a stomach pump. Céline observed later (in his other persona, as Dr Destouches) that the cyanide had almost certainly been spoiled by moisture. Others thought that Laval had failed to shake the phial.

  It took over two hours to revive Laval sufficiently for execution. Half-carried, without his shoes, he was taken out and strapped to a chair. Laval apparently tried to rise to his feet as the firing squad took aim. Benoist-Méchin claimed that the soldiers were drunk with rum, given to steady their nerves during the wait. As the ragged volley was heard inside the prison, the inmates went into a rage, hammering on their cell doors with shoes and yelling: ‘Bandits! Salauds! Assassins!’

  The government tried to keep the grisliest parts of Laval’s story from the people, but the news spread rapidly. France was split between those who felt that he deserved his fate, however it had been administered, and those sickened by the shameful episodes in court and afterwards. The question even provoked arguments within families. ‘The only time I ever struck my husband,’ said Liliane de Rothschild (her husband, Élie, had recently returned from his prison camp in Germany), ‘was when he said that Laval had been badly treated.’

  Early in November 1945 a
sale was held at the Hotel Drouot to dispose of the jewellery and furs confiscated fromprofiteers and collaborators. The prices obtained were far higher than expected in such impoverished times. A yellow diamond ring went for 4 million francs ($80,000 at the time). The audience was an extraordinary mixture of poor people come to see a bizarre form of justice carried out and ‘black-market queens’ in their new dresses by Lucien Lelong.

  This event said much about the mood of the time. Nobody was satisfied, except for those who had profited and escaped the consequences of their actions. The épuration was both too harsh and too weak. The failure to pursue some of the greatest criminals, particularly those responsible for the deportation of Jews, compounded by an attempt to rewrite history and close the lid on the past, created greater trouble in years to come. Over a quarter of a century later, a new generation began to probe the shameful secrets of the Vichy years.


  Hunger for the New

  After the Occupation, the urge to express opinions was quite overwhelming for a cerebral society. Galtier-Boissière was amused by the instant outpouring of prose by the French writers who had refused to write for the collaborationist press. An astonishing number of newspapers and literary magazines appeared, feeding the hunger for ideas. The greatest problem was the shortage of paper:Le Monde had to be reduced to tabloid size, and became known as the ‘Demi-Monde’. Paper supplies permitting, Les Lettres françaises was selling over 100,000 copies by the end of 1944.

  The main complaint about this deluge of printed matter, however, was the similarity of political approach. Even the review Esprit, published by Emmanuel Mounier, propagated a form of Christian Socialism which sought to bridge the chasm between Catholicism and Communism. Like many who shared the ideals of the Resistance, Mounier now believed that revolution was a vital renewal of the organism; this even led him into accepting the brutal transformation of Soviet-occupied Europe as natural in the circumstances.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment