THE GRAVEDIGGERS. By Pertinax. Garden City: Doubleday, 1944.

GREAT events leave behind them trails of misery, rarely of happiness. They also make prompt and extensive additions to bookshelves. Some of the volumes which began to roll from the presses almost before the sudden collapse of the Third French Republic was complete were potboilers -- cheap attempts to lift the veil from the private lives of the Republic's last two Prime Ministers; some were eyewitness accounts of special aspects of the débâcle; the few serious attempts to write contemporary history were necessarily made without the opportunities for reflection and reappraisal which the later behavior of the principal actors would permit.

In certain ivory towers contemporary historians are sneered at. "Journalism, not history" is the taunt. But when the chronicler is honest and intelligent his work cannot be too contemporary, and he should be applauded for not permitting obvious risks to deter him. If time is certain to reverse some of his verdicts, he can find solace in remembering that he performs an indispensable service. Without it, the statesman is not able to learn promptly of, and to profit from, the mistakes of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. What other means is there, too, of lowering the barrier of ignorance which makes public opinion hesitate to judge or causes it to judge wrongly? How else create the informed vigilance which will guard against new betrayals? Today, as Maitland said, "we study the day before yesterday in order that yesterday may not paralyze today and that today may not paralyze tomorrow." When the student of the day before yesterday is a philosopher as well as a chronicler, he will give his readers not only more knowledge but also a greater measure of wisdom. The combination is rare. When found, the world should prize it more highly than many of the rubies that fall from Clio's ivory towers.

It is contemporary history of this rare kind -- published in French a year ago [i] and now about to come out in English -- that the best-known French publicist of the period between the wars gives us after three years of reflection and study. In the group of writers who regularly analyzed the course of European foreign policy Pertinax (André Géraud) was outstanding. He was hard-working and honest. His sources of information were rich and varied. Statesmen courted him. Even when one disagreed with what he wrote in the Echo de Paris or L'Europe Nouvelle, one could rarely deny that he was magnificent. His writings were read everywhere and quoted by everyone; but that they were without deep influence his book bears eloquent witness. His trenchant arguments, regularly repeated, had little effect. Is it only as private individuals that the French can claim to be a logical race? Logic, said an Oxford don, is not a science, it is a dodge. The logic of the French Right was worse than a dodge, for it ended in national disaster.

Pertinax calls his work "Les Fossoyeurs" -- in English "The Gravediggers." Gamelin, Daladier, Reynaud and Pétain were the important wielders of shovels. Lesser figures receive more or less extended treatment in connection with these principals, whom they were serving or against whom they were intriguing. Lord Morley told of a young man coming down to London from an English university and applying for a job as leader-writer on the Pall Mall Gazette. "What are your qualifications?" Lord Morley asked. "Well," replied the young man, "I have a great gift for general vituperation." Pertinax's readers may think of him as having this gift, but only because the cumulative effect of his judgments is so devastating. He uses not an axe but a scalpel -- in different places and to different depths. Mordant but not venomous, and anxious to do justice where justice is due, his criticism goes far beyond mere epithets.

The writer of contemporary history may not improperly have the qualifications which Mitford, the historian of Greece, boasted he possessed: complete partiality and a bad temper. Pertinax is partial to France, to the Republic, to the enemies of Nazism. He blasts against their betrayers. Demurrers will doubtless be entered against certain counts in his indictment. But I venture to prophesy that other gravamen will stand and that fault will have to be admitted only in regard to nuances. The French text has been under scrutiny for a year by some of those who participated in the events described and by rival chroniclers, so that errors of fact should by now be almost non-existent. It is probable, then, that Pertinax's book will be read and pondered when histories of the fall of France are no longer so contemporary and when their authors have access to archives now still closed and have been able to analyze the many apologies -- epauletted, civilian and also, it is to be hoped, posthumous -- which will come from the principal gravediggers and their assistants.

Pertinax's range is enormous. He writes as an ordnance expert when he discusses in great detail the lack of French preparations in respect of matériel -- airplanes, tanks, anti-tank guns, armored units, etc. He is a military critic when he follows the German campaign in France from day to day, considers the intricate dispositions and the steadily worsening fortunes of the different French armies, and stresses the faulty conceptions of the generals and their imperfect or non-existent execution. Using British as well as French sources of information, he deals with the lack of liaison between the allied armies and the mutual suspicion and hostility of their leaders. Then he turns to the political figures -- Daladier and Reynaud and their satellites. The chapters on Pétain reëxplore a good deal of the same ground, though from a different point of view. Illumining the chronicle are frequent learned passages calling attention to comparable pages in previous centuries of French history. Charlemagne, Charles IX, Louis XIV, Richelieu, Mazarin -- with them Pertinax seems to be as familiar as he is with the gravediggers themselves.

The story of French foreign policy from the advent of Hitler teems with epigrams and interpretations of French thought and life. The analysis of the acts and motives which led to the French request for an armistice is exceedingly detailed. More fully than any other writer, Pertinax tells how the scales trembled and then were weighted with a numerical but not a moral majority of the cabinet against the attempt to set up a government outside of metropolitan France to continue the war. Those who wanted France to follow the Dutch, Norwegian and Belgian examples lacked an outstanding leader. Unhappily, the President of the Republic demonstrated the truth of the principle that ordinarily the Elysée is a prize for "the most insignificant and the most neutral." Lebrun's insignificance was natural and sterling -- even though, ironically enough, he was the only President since Jules Grévy who had been reelected. All his Prime Ministers made fun of him. "He had the gift of tears," and two words described him: "perpetual panic." At Bordeaux a President like Poincaré or even Millerand might have taken a government to Africa and given the fleet to the British.

The gravediggers triumphed, however, and Pertinax recounts at length the tragic, sordid story of the Vichy régime. In telling this Pertinax becomes the law professor and argues at some length (why should he have bothered?) that the transition was unconstitutional: that the statutory emanations from Pétain -- "Nous, Maréchal de France, chef de l'état français" -- have no taint of legitimacy. The volumes end with an epilogue -- a summing up of the prosecutor, a reasoned verdict of the judge.

What I have said suggests that Pertinax's range is vast and that his analyses of men and events are detailed. He has made no concession to lure the general reader. The two volumes of the French edition which appeared a year ago have now been translated, with corrections, refinements and additions. Elaborate footnotes constantly bark at the reader from the bottoms of the pages. Since the gravediggers were at work at the same time, each portrait repeats parts of other portraits. The artist is not content to sketch and does not economize on detail: he paints the hairs in the nostrils. After what must have been a mighty battle with his publisher, he refused to write to please the million.

But like the play within the play which was caviar to the general, Pertinax's narrative "is well digested in the scenes." The reader is constantly aware that the facts are being filtered through a superior intelligence. Moreover, there are "sallets in the lines that make the matter savoury." Pertinax writes from his heart as well as from his intellect and his pen sometimes drips tears as well as ink. His style is rarely pedestrian and the fine writing never seems precious. The result is that an involved story, far from boring the reader, will always interest and not infrequently excite him. I give a few examples.

Pétain, Laval and their crowd "racked their brains to palm off shame as honor, cowardice as courage, pusillanimity and ignorance as wisdom, humiliation as virtue, and wholehearted acceptance of the German victory as moral regeneration." Gamelin's age and frailties were not enough to account for his errors: "We are forced to indict the straitened military universe he gradually imprisoned himself in, like a turtle in its shell. It was a world of three dimensions, whereas the German world had four or five." Daladier had "the bull's thick neck, but certainly not the bull's taste for rushing straight at an obstacle." Though he was weak and irresolute, events made him a dictator. "That was one of life's tricks. He was a dictator in spite of himself." And after dealing with the lies and asininities that crowded the French press, Pertinax asks: "In this tidal wave of insane words, how tell where fanaticism ends and knavery begins?"

As an example of how this historian of yesterday connects his story with events of yesteryears, I quote a fine passage which concludes an analysis of why Laval was able to exploit the moral fissure in the French soul:

"Two Frances which lost no love on each other have lived side by side for one century and a half. The seamless garment of the nation has never been thoroughly rewoven. Whatever mending was attempted never amounted to more than patchy and ill-sewn darns. Under varying battle flags -- those of the king, of the Church, of the Bonaparte pretender, and even of some general on horseback -- strong minorities always fought against the Republican idea, against parliamentary democracy, neutrality of the state in religious matters, social reform, loud in their boasts that they were going to drive the rascal politicians out and replace them with a clean, resolute and national government. . . . They were brought to ground only under the impact of the Dreyfus case (1898-1902), when they staked whatever moral and political conceptions they stood for on the guilt of a Jewish army officer who was being tried for treason, on what should have been considered merely a question of fact; when they shattered themselves against the ranks of the Republicans, whose discipline had firmer roots than their own makeshift solidarity."

So much for the sallets. But Pertinax's play is also set with modesty as well as cunning. Of the period that preceded the Bordeaux decision, he can say quorum partem magnam vidi. Fewer publicists have had a wider acquaintance with or easier access to statesmen. To be sure, one can write accurately and even intimately about an unfolding political drama, and rarely or even never see the principal characters. Ofttimes it may be more useful to learn from the men with whom the leading statesmen had business than to listen to the statesmen themselves. Periodic interviews with the Prime Minister or President may be less revealing than reports of apt remarks that have been made to this or that person, of antagonisms that have developed in respect of particular persons or policies or of petulances shown when in cabinet or conference policy was challenged. The French used to refer to la cuisine de la chambre. There was a cuisine of the Quai d'Orsay and there is a cuisine of Downing Street, of the White House and of the State Department. Anyone who has a wide circle of official acquaintances and merits a measure of confidence can quickly learn a great deal more about the truly great than if limited to occasional interviews with them. Pertinax knew the people on whom his judgments are rendered. He was also an authority on French cuisine, politique et diplomatique.

But during the period, say, when he had the confidence of Weygand, did Pertinax see the weaknesses which were later known to the world? When he was on terms of intimacy with Flandin (whom he saw on three successive days, for example, in October 1934), did he think that Flandin deserved his admiration or was he just using him as a source of information? Pertinax now describes Flandin as the man who "lost the Rhine" because he feared to use "rights which the Treaty of Locarno conferred on France." Opinions remained consistent in respect of the foreign policy best adapted to French interests. Have his opinions changed in respect of the intelligence, character and integrity of some of the gravediggers? This would be natural, for even the best statesmen give their admiring supporters occasional disappointments. It is difficult to believe, however, that gravediggers on whom verdicts can now be so final and for whom so few extenuating circumstances can be cited ever seemed of truly statesmanlike stature to an experienced clearheaded publicist. Reticence at the time may be put down to the natural inclination of those who seek to mould public opinion, to give some support to those in office, and to encourage them to do better. That often seems and is wiser than frankness and forthrightness on weaknesses.

It has repeatedly been pointed out that France was far less fortunate than Great Britain or the United States in her political leadership. To the support of this truth Pertinax brings ample testimony. The men who were patriots first and politicians second were rare, almost non-existent. The salvation of Great Britain and the United States has been that at the critical moments in their history a benign political providence has provided leaders who were not only intelligent but courageous. France's leaders were the gravediggers, and in the run-of-the-mine ministers there were few who were not either weak or corrupt, and there were many who were both. But the fault was not only of men but of a system.

For twenty years the Radical Socialists had dominated French politics and to their weaknesses Pertinax devotes several masterly pages. The two decades produced Daladier "as a tree produces its fruit." The party acted as a pendulum. "Absorbing the shock of violent pressures from both left and right, it swung to and fro but always with a tendency to return to center. It gave the nation a sense of balance. And, to vary the metaphor, it was also the crucible in which violent differences were composed through a process of compromise -- and compromise is the soul of a régime based on public opinion." Compromise, however, cannot win a war.

In the two decades the party had only three Presidents: Herriot, for whom Pertinax has a great deal of respect; Chautemps who, along with Pétain and Weygand, merits being called the "father of a separate armistice;" and Daladier, whose "easygoing complacency called the tune." Everything went along on a basis of good fellowship. Cabinet followed cabinet -- six of them between June 1932 and February 1934 -- but these crises in government amounted to little more than "reconstructions." From ministry to ministry the same men remained in office; they were satisfied to change portfolios. It was a game of ministerial puss-in-the-corner, with many ministers getting into corners ten, twenty or even thirty times. A President of the Council would be displaced and be a humble cabinet member, or, after a political holiday, sometimes brief, he would reappear as minister or even Prime Minister. "The story of the three dirty shirts," Pertinax remarks, "is more valid in France than it is elsewhere. A tramp owns three shirts but cannot pay to have them washed. Irresistibly he thinks that the shirt he wore three days ago is cleaner than the other two." That was the view that Parliament and the country seemed to take of French ministers.

Again France suffered badly because of the lack of articulation between civil and military authorities. A similar disunion during the war of 1914-18 was disastrous and might have been fatal had not Clemenceau and Foch formed a team which got along in ways not dissimilar to those used by Lincoln and Grant. The relations between Hitler and his generals may have determined the course of this war. By 1940 Daladier knew that military matters were going from bad to worse but did not have the courage to interfere. "The weakness of democracies," he pled, "is to make immovable the general who has imposed himself on public opinion." But how did Daladier know that Gamelin had imposed himself on public opinion? He did not try to find out and he ignored Clemenceau's belief that war was too important a business to be left to the generals. He left them alone and boasted of himself as a War Minister who had husbanded French blood. Speaking in the Chamber in December 1939, he recalled that, by December 1914, more than 450,000 Frenchmen had fallen. That was staggering, and in the current war the number was "too great for our hearts to accept without sorrow." By the end of November the Army had lost 1,136 men, the Navy 256 and the Air Force 42. "I still prefer," he declared, "the situation as of December 1939 to that of December 1914," and the Chamber gave him loud cheers -- cheers for a man who in the last war had been better than a good officer, "a fine soldier"--and who was now helping to ready France's grave.

Daladier did not lack legal authority. Parliament repeatedly granted him pleins pouvoirs. But there was no dynamism in his use of the authority. When Reynaud succeeded him he intrigued to cause his fall. Both men made the mistake of ignoring Parliament and not seeking its support for the measures they took. An executive to whom great power is transferred strengthens himself enormously if he invites his legislature to scrutinize his use of the power constantly and if he seems to act only as its servant. In Great Britain, Churchill has not been unmindful of this truth. Indifference during the war to the French Parliament -- mediocre and in some cases venal though its personnel may have been -- meant that prime ministers had no legislative support and that finally when decisions had to be taken at Bordeaux there was no really representative body to be consulted. Had the Cabinet summoned a hundred or so deputies and senators and asked for advice, the decisions taken might well have been different. Instead, Laval summoned parliamentarians of his own ilk and they helped weight the scales in favor of complete and ignominious capitulation.

In the matter of generals, as Pertinax points out, France fared even worse than she did with her politicians. The large proportion of septuagenarians was in itself a prima facie case of incompetence in the High Command. There were almost no outcries in Parliament and the press over the fact that Pétain, Gamelin, Weygand and the rest "enjoyed the privileges of a sort of apostolic succession and perpetuated themselves by a kind of co-optation." Promotion came not because of merit but because men were aged and safe. This army group, quarreling within itself, but united against the politicians and seldom interfered with by them, kept down all dissentients. Of these the ablest, and subsequently the best-known, was Charles de Gaulle. "The generals," Pertinax says, "left to themselves for twenty years, escaping any serious scrutiny, were capable neither of organizing an adequate defense nor of directing its operations." They furnished a triumphant demonstration of the truth of the saying that the only thing more difficult than getting a wrong idea out of a military mind is to get a right idea in. The Germans prepared for a new kind of war. The British began to prepare for it too late. When the Americans prepared they were for a period uncertain as to whether they should look to 1917 or to the future. Fortunately they did not delay their decision too long. The French prepared definitely for a war like that of 1914.

The French military collapse was so sudden, so unexpected that the multitude cried treason. But in Pertinax's story there is little that smacks of almost the only crime which, when the fate of a great and loved country is at stake, is worse than a blunder. Unintelligence, apathy and negligence were, in Pertinax's view, more important than the work of disloyal groups. The vast majority of French people were always disheartened and pessimistic. The Communists and some Socialists who did not move with Blum and were plus pacifiste que les pacifistes counted for little. But the forces on the Right were important: conservatives who thought that Fascism would be safe for them; financiers and millionaires who had feared the Front Populaire and who now feared the consequences to themselves of a prolonged war more than they did the consequences of a German victory. As always, most of the press was venal, and an obscurantist censorship kept information from the public. Fifth columnists existed but were relatively unimportant. Those who perhaps not technically but in reality were traitors -- the Lavals, the de Brinons, the Baudoins -- might have lost their misguided supporters had they been decisively dealt with. Daladier's vigor was reserved for the Communists. He never moved to squelch the enemies of the Right.

Pertinax thinks that only one élite had a clear vision of approaching dangers. Historians of the origins of the second World War will be able to treat the permanent officials of the foreign offices better than the historians of the origins of the war of 1914 treated their predecessors. Then there were legends of "éminences grises." Baron von Holstein, who had reigned long and disastrously in the Wilhelmstrasse, still cast his shadow and the theory was that the career men were more war-mongering than their political chiefs. The historians of the 1939 conflict seem apt to agree that the chief architects of ruin were the amateurs -- Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, Daladier and Bonnet -- and not the professional under secretaries or ambassadors (though Sir Nevile Henderson will be remembered as an exception). The officials of Downing Street and of the Quai d'Orsay saw the interests of their countries far more clearly than did their political chiefs. They had wanted to scotch the German menace before it became so threatening. After that opportunity was missed they wanted to implement the Russian alliance which Louis Barthou had constructed and which Laval sabotaged.

The rapidity of the disaster which came was more striking than the fact of its coming. Even if the gravediggers had not worked so well, France with a population half as large as Germany's and with a far lower industrial potential might not have been able to withstand the Nazi hordes for long. Critics of France should remember that no democracy seems to be willing to prepare its armaments on a sufficient scale. They should also remember that it was the good fortune of magnificent leadership that enabled Great Britain and the United States at last to change from the defensive to the offensive.

The French people, who proved themselves 25 years ago by accepting unlimited sacrifices on the battlefields, now are proving themselves again by resistance within their country. They are showing that they are wiser today than their élites were yesterday. The crime of the élites, as M. Breandos' brilliant "Lettre aux Anglais" points out, is that having emptied the war of 1914-18 of all its content of idealism they preached in 1939 that the new war was for nothing more than to keep Germany from occupying French soil. During the occupation the French people have been self-taught. The people now know that it is not enough to get Germany out of France by agreement. National Socialism must be crushed.

The invasion which the French people calmly await will be the sixth in hardly more than that number of generations. That it will be welcome and that the invaders come as friends will not prevent it from being perhaps even more horrible than any of the previous ones. Four times Paris has fallen into the hands of the enemy. Now it is about to be relieved, but the cost will inevitably be terrible. How, in Maitland's phrase, can yesterday and today be kept from paralyzing tomorrow?

To this problem Pertinax devotes much of an eloquent epilogue. "The counterrevolutionaries of 1940 have deepened the schism of 1789. If the authors of defeat and dictatorship remain intact in any corner of the French world this aggravated schism will become permanent." Hence clemency cannot win the day. Unhappily the Quislings have been far more numerous and prominent in France than in Belgium or Holland. Retribution is inevitable and necessary. France's future leadership must not be tainted by any connection with the principal gravediggers or their assistants.

For a time a constitutional vacuum will exist. It would be folly to seek too soon to consult an electorate which has been denied enlightenment, which has been indoctrinated with propaganda and in which there are few who have not been hungry and ill and exiled and homeless. Any "timorous, wobbling, hastily improvised government would be much more likely to lead to Fascism than a group of men gathered around a definite plan, having set up months in advance a consultative assembly which in its methods of discussion conducts itself as a parliament of the usual pattern." By this test General de Gaulle can claim to have achieved a large measure of legitimacy. The movement which he started and which has triumphed over formidable obstacles is "the imperative action of French patriotism with the restoration of republican institutions as its aim."

People are said to have as good a government as they deserve. Judged by the gravediggers and their satellites the deserts of the French people would be exceedingly small. But it also is true that a government has no better an electorate than it deserves, because the men in the highest places have it in their power so to poison the public mind and so to misstate alternative courses of action that public opinion has difficulty in informing and expressing itself. Under the occupation the French people have demonstrated that they deserve good leaders. Finding them will be a much more difficult task than the elaboration of new constitutional laws. But until they are discovered France's future will be uncertain; and until France's future is clear there can be no real recovery for a continent whose broken pieces will not fall together quickly like bits of a jigsaw puzzle.

[i] "Les Fossoyeurs." New York: Editions de la Maison Française, 2 v., 1943.

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  • LINDSAY ROGERS, Burgess Professor of Law at Columbia University; Assistant Director of the International Labor Organization; author of "Crisis Government" and other works
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