By Sir DESMOND MORTON
THE VICHY REGIME, by Robert Aron, trans!. by Humphrey Hare (Putnam & Co. Ltd., 412s.),
THIS highly important book presents for the first time, in English a vivid and connected story of that tragic period from July 1940 when_ defeated in battle. broken in spirit and bewildered by the swiftness of her ruin. France seemed about to disintegrate.
It describes how for four years the nominal government. cut off from free intercourse with those who fought on, cast aside democracy and lost hope. as those they claimed to govern regained it.
Apart from a short epilogue. it ends in August 1944 when. after the liberation of Paris, General de Gaulle. invited to restore the Republic, refused, declaring that the Republic had never ceased to be, thereby denying not only legitimacy but even all reality to the government of Vichy.
No friend ROBERT Aron was no friend of Vichy. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, he escaped and
joined de Gaulle. One might
expect a biased account, On the contrary. he confines himself to a recitation of facts, culled and confirmed from a vast documentary record. while some of these facts afford some explanation of horrid acts for which the Vichy government must be held responsible.
The first two chapters necessarily •show how the regime came about and therefore deal briefly with esents immediately preceding the Franco-German
Armistice and M. Paul Reynaud's resignation. During these few hectic days direct contact still obtained between the French and British governments.
It is incorrect to suggest that misunderstandings between represent...Ayes of these two governments were responsible for the bombardment of French warships by the British Navy at Mers el kebi r.
Nor was that grave decision taken through distrust in the good faith of Admiral Darien. who, at the operative dales. was in no position to guarantee anything.
It arose from clearer foresight and better understanding of Nazi behaviour than that shown by the distraught French government, whose odd constitution inspired little confidence in its stability. apart from its nall belief that Nazis would allow any agreement to he carried out contrary to their interest.
wHETHER the continued belligerence of a French government transferred overseas would have helped the Allies, is a hypothetical question; but a decision to take this course was reversed at the last moment through M. Alibert, then Undersecretary to Marshal Main, who is recorded as describing how he
achieved his aim, and incidentally that of Laval, by lying to his Chief about the military situation and then, without authority, cancelling the order to move.
Little wonder that a politician of such versatility achieved high rank under Laval,
As for Pierre Laval himself. who refused to join the Marshal's first government, but was shortly to instigate the dictatorship "and thereafter to become the virtual chief of State, what was the force driving him on save a lust for power ?
That he with other Vichy leaders anticipated a German victory, or at least a negotiated peace leaving them the masters of what was left of France, seems certain.
Despite earlier denials. Laval came to believe in dictatorship, so long as he was the dictator. From the record it is hard to believe that even his most odious actions were wholly forced upon him hy German intransigence.
APOI. Y must have some end
in view and there is no doubt that the policy of Laval differed iit all times in its aims from that of any other Vichy politician of importance.
During his four months' eclipse. from December, 1941, there was unity of intention among members of the government: but upon his return, in April. 1942, on German insistence disintegration again so
i n t
Laval exercised real power. though others, including the aged Marshal, tried, not always unsuccessfully, to outtrianueuvre him. Yet by 1943, metropolitan France had become little more than a German satellite State. and so it continued until the Allied landings in June. 1944.
Apart from I.aval and a few less significant men. at what did they aim, those others who "governed"
at Vichy ? Presumably their prime
object was to protect the interests of their fellow-countrymen in so far as might be contrived.
If so, they had little success to their credit. though history may find on their behalf somewhat to plead in mitigation. None betrayed great brilliance or marked valour, but in a German satellite State the place for genius or heroism was prison or the grave.
Fach claimed to work for France, but none showed deep
attachment to French democracy. Events proclaimed their plans miscalculated, their intrigues futile.
Surrounded by treachery and surely not unaware of the contempt in which they were widely held. maybe they lost not only their way but faith in themselves and their mission.
LACKING physical means of
resistance, the men of Vichy might well fear the ruthlessness of • their conquerors. They had. too, cause to fear the possible consequences to themselves of a triumphant return of " Free France."
Men they had condemned to death as traitors and whose supporters they had handed over to the mercies of the Gestapo. would hardly overlook such conduct.
They were jealous of de Gaulle, who had perchance indicated the road they should have followed. The British they envied bitterly in the memory of old rivalries and for the freedom to fight on unconquered. They distrusted the Americans who, while disliking de Gaulle, seemed to patronise and even tolerate the policy of Laval. Come .what might the future held out for them little hope of a happy outcome. There is room for pity without patronage.