PETAIN: HERO OR TRAITOR: The Untold Story by Herbert R. Lottman


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A ""jellyfish"" is what Roosevelt's ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, called the then 85-year-old victor of Verdun, Marshal Philippe Petain. As a subject for biography, Petain is indeed pretty slippery and formless, particularly during the Vichy years; but Lottman (Albert Camus, The Left Bank) manages to piece together enough of the surrounding terrain so we get at least a sense of where Petain stood. In the sketchy pre-WW I years, Petain slowly rose through the officer ranks and established a reputation for the methodical application of firepower (the prevailing wisdom called for blanket firing). When he took over command at Verdun, the German advance was in full swing--and simply halting that advance went down as a victory. Petain steadfastly resisted opening a counteroffensive; instead he relied on the constant troop-replacement and a steady flow of materiel to wear the Germans out. Though he became a hero, to some he looked a defeatist, a reputation reaffirmed in WW II when he pushed for French acceptance of an armistice following Hitler's trouncing of the French army: he became the logical choice, then, to head a defeated nation. Lottman spends a good deal of time on the inter-war years, but Petain's exploits as a womanizer are easier to pin down than his politics. As a Marshal, Petain enjoyed his entree to high society;in the late 1930s, as a cabinet minister, he came to despise parliamentarians. Otherwise he displayed a studied aloofness and an increasing sense of his own importance. Lottman has tracked down ample documentary sources; his weakness is in assessing doctrine. He shows Petain, in his role as Vichy head of state, as an opponent of Pierre Laval, the prime collaborationist, and as grudgingly giving in to German demands, such as those for military collaboration or on anti-Jewish laws; but be also shows him as the proponent of a new order and a supporter of Hitler's global war against Bolshevism. Judging by his actions rather than his justifications, Petain appears further to the right than Lottman places him. Still, his is indeed Petain at his jelliest--becoming progressively detached from Vichy deliberation as his faculties declined. Unlikely to reopen debates but sure to be the standard Petain bio.

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1984
Publisher: Morrow