Alex Massie Alex Massie

Petain, de Gaulle and Patriotism

As part of an excellent back-and-forth with Daniel Larison on the question of patritism, Noah Millman asks:

Can one hold that both Marsall Petain and General de Gaulle were French patriots? I think the answer to this one has to be “yes.” You can’t hold that both were right, but you can believe that both were acting sincerely out of patriotic motives – that both were doing what they felt was best for France as France.

I rather agree with this, but would go further and argue that you can hold that both Petain and de Gaulle were right. That is, if one imagines onself as a Frenchman in the summer of 1940, one might think easily that Petain was right to save what could be saved – albeit at great cost and damage – to preserve something of the idea of France and avoid the humiliation of seeing the entire country occupied by German forces while also hoping that de Gaulle and his followers would eventually prevail. Vichy, in this view, would be nothing more than a holding operation – albeit one that was often craven and squalid – before the eventual Allied victory.

Granted, such a victory seemed impossible in 1940 and for many it must have seemed that having lost 100,000 men in the Battle of France there was little point in wasting more French blood in a hopeless cause. Vichy was a matter of expediency in a desperate situation. That there were willing collaborators doesn’t mean that every Frenchman who served Vichy was doing so enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, Petain’s patriotism also relied upon de Gaulle for it was the existence of the Free French in exile that afforded the possibility that the nightmare of occupation might, however unlikely it seemed, be temporary.

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