PIERRE LAVAL: Traitor or Patriot? by Rene de Chambrun

PIERRE LAVAL: Traitor or Patriot?

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Definitely a collaborator, possibly a scapegoat, vice-premier in the Vichy government of WW II France, Laval was more than anything an opportunist. But that side gets glossed over in this attempted exculpation by his son-in-law. In Chambrun's telling, Laval separated himself from his early Socialist Party affiliation to become first an ""independent socialist"" and later simply an independent, non-party politician as a matter of conscience. In the accepted, and more plausible view, Laval saw his upward mobility blocked by Socialist abstention from cabinet positions, so he jettisoned the party. Chambrun makes no effort to untangle Laval's business dealings, which are another source of suspicion as to the motivations of his political career. (Laval, a butcher's son, became a rich man through his legal and political connections.) As prime minister and cabinet member in the early 1930s, Laval proved inept at the high-level game of international negotiation: Chambrun lauds Laval's continuing effort to establish an alliance between France and Italy, and sometimes with Britain or the USSR as well, in order to check German advances;but none of these attempts amounted to anything, and Chambrun cannot dispel the belief that Laval encouraged Mussolini in his Ethiopian adventure. As for the collaboration, Chambrun--himself an actor in these events--claims that Laval was a committed republican who traded verbal support for German policies in exchange for modifications in German demands on Vichy (e.g., those for French workers). Chambrun also cites Laval's efforts to protect French Jews from the Germans, gliding over his lack of concern for foreign Jews who had fled to France. The documents that form the basis of Chambrun's defense of Laval during Vichy--German documents made available to him by the French government--do show German irritation at Laval's maneuverings; but while Chambrun sees them as evidence of Laval's obstructionism, they can more easily be seen as evidence of an opportunist's efforts to get the most out of a situation: he was not obstructing, he was bargaining. It may be true that Laval became a convenient foil for those who wanted to forget their own ignoble actions after the war, but no one is likely to accept Chambrun's rose-colored image.

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1984
Publisher: Scribners