In This Review

Pétain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History
Pétain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History
By Charles Williams
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 320 pp.

A former banker and politician, Williams wrote an excellent biography of Charles de Gaulle, and he has now written one of de Gaulle's erstwhile superior and protector, Philippe Pétain. It is similarly a good read. During World War I, Pétain rose from the rank of colonel to that of marshal of France; he became known as "the savior of Verdun," admired for his concern for the lives of his soldiers and, as the real father of the Maginot Line, respected as "the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army." But Williams sees him as "forever the outsider -- a peasant in the company of swordsmen, a bachelor in the company of husbands, a lapsed believer in the company of devout Catholics." After World War I, his political career began. He was appointed deputy premier in May 1940, when defeat at the hands of Germany was imminent. When Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned the next month, Pétain, who had argued for an armistice, succeeded him, dispatched the Third Republic, and set up the Vichy regime. Williams' account of Pétain's gradual mental decline and of his many blunders as a political leader is impressive and fair, but this book is not, in fact, a revision of previous condemnations of Pétain's role in Vichy. Williams shows how flawed his trial in 1946 was, but all the evidence he produces confirms the judgment of most historians: that Pétain behaved as a misguided patriot who, in those awful years, did not have the strength of character that he needed. De Gaulle's quip -- that the marshal died in 1925 -- is cruel but justified.