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The Franco-French & European Civil Wars

2,159 words

ob_b97f05_philippe-petainTranslated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note:

The following is the epilogue to Dominique Venner’s Histoire de la Collaboration (Paris: Gérard Watelet/Pygmalion, 2000), 522-26. The title is editorial.

[. . .] Throughout this book, I have sought to place the years of the Occupation and the variegated phenomenon of Collaboration in the wider context of the time, that of the French disaster of 1940 in which future “collaborators” played no part, and that wider still of the great European trauma born of the carnage of the First World War and of the revolutions it birthed: Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany.

More than any other European nation, France was struck to the heart and bled by the catastrophe of 1914-18. Dr. Destouches – Céline in literature – had predicted that a new war would entail the biological extinction of the French, the annihilation of the “livestock,” as he said in his provocative language. Born of this fear, pacifism was however powerless to prevent a new conflict which was felt coming since the Stalinist turning point of 1935 [in which France and the Soviet Union signed a pact to encircle Germany]. Failing that, it was the yeast of the future Collaboration.

Under the pretext of protecting Poland and without helping her in any way, French leaders in 1939 chose the worst possible moment to throw their country into the mad adventure of war against a Germany at the top of her form. England did not take the same risks, sheltered as she was by her insularity and the power of her fleet and air force. We know the result. In six weeks from the spring of 1940, the country went without transition from an orgy of boastful speeches to a sudden, shameful, and crushing defeat. Before the panic of the discredited politicians, under the shock of defeat and misfortune, what could the French do? They could have hung those responsible, hunted them down in the streets. No doubt they were too despondent for such violence. They were also turned away from this by the recourse to the old Marshal, whose human and glorious past answered to everything. There was therefore no bloody épuration, nor manhunts as in 1944, only political and professional exclusions defined by law. Detestable in their principles and their effects, they were accepted by the best jurists and answered the expectations of a wounded people. Shortly before her death in London in 1943, the young philosopher Simone Weil gave credit to this people in its misfortune:

One must say, because it is true, that after the disaster France’s first reaction was to be repulsed by her own past, her recent past. This was not an effect of Vichy’s propaganda. On the contrary this is what initially gave the National Revolution an appearance of success. And this was a legitimate and healthy reaction. The sole aspect of the disaster which could be seen as a good, was the possibility of violently rejecting a past of which [defeat] had been the conclusion.[1]

The composite system, put in place at Vichy during the summer of 1940, in total improvisation, had only a narrow and conditional freedom. It remained subject to the war, to the defeat, to penury, and to the occupation of three fifths of the metropolitan territory by a brutal victor, engaged in a fight to the death. Judging Vichy’s acts by the standards of peacetime and of a society of abundance is obviously an absurdity.

Despite an aversion of principle to “Pétainism,” [academic] historical research has on this point been sharply at odds with the obsessions of the media. Little by little, it discovered and recognized that the Vichy regime and Collaboration were much more complex phenomena than had been said.[2]

Like the Resistance, Collaboration was born at Vichy.[3] It was the result of a foreign policy choice mad by Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval in the autumn of 1940. It was hoped that France would be allowed to escape asphyxiation and the consequences of her defeat, by working to take a place in a Europe which would long be under German leadership. The Montoire meeting [between Hitler and Pétain] and then the chief of State’s radio message gave credence the word, giving it a resonance which Pétain had certainly not either imagined or wished. Safeguarding the future and wishing to keep the French people at a distance from the war, the Marshal opposed to the end his boldest ministers, notably Benoist-Méchin [who advocated joining the war with the Axis], with an absolute refusal of waging war against the former Anglo-Saxon allies.

By chance, the idea of a “collaboration” resonated personally with the young and ambitious Reich ambassador, Otto Abetz. This Rhenish francophile, of a pacifist and social-democratic tradition, by his personal preference, instinctively approved Hitler’s directives prescribing him to obstruct any [French] national awakening.

His first interlocutors, mandated by Laval, were journalists of the left. Abetz and Laval’s pacifist and socialistic affinities constituted the initial cement for an ideological collaboration in polar opposition to Pétain’s purely Machiavellian idea of it.

Machiavellian thought had an even more confirmed discipline in the person of General de Gaulle. From various accounts, we know that at least during the first two years, the leader of Free France hesitated several times on the legitimacy of his choice, notably in the autumn of 1941, as his reported by his chief of defense staff, the future General Billotte:

During the Soviet debacle of 1941 and before Pearl Harbor, De Gaulle often asked himself around me on the soundness of the action he had undertaken. He told me: “If the Germans win, it is Pétain, Laval, and Déat who will have been right, and I will have undermined France.”[4]

The statement is doubly interesting. It suggested that in 1941 one could in good conscience make a choice for France other than that of London and Moscow. In addition, De Gaulle implicitly brushed aside any moral criteria, basing himself only on the political imperative. It goes without saying that to be an ally of Stalin and his criminal system was not more defensible morally than to be that of Hitler.

Among the parliamentarians, the machine men, activists, or journalists, the first to express enthusiasm for Collaboration were, in their overwhelming majority, from the socialist, radical [centrist], and pacifist Left. Marcel Déat was its dominant figure. He was surrounded [. . .] by a large number of socialist and trade-unionist MPs, but also by intellectuals who, like him, had once belong to the Comité de vigilance antifasciste.[5] It is a fact that one found, at least until 1943, many more socialists gravitating around Vichy or Collaboration than around the Resistance.

In contrast, the former Communist Jacques Doriot and his comrade at the [Parti Populaire Français] were long reserved towards the Germans. Their mistrust only dissipated after the breaking of the German-Soviet pact and the beginning of the war in the east on June 22, 1941. We know that Doriot welcomed this day “like the captain who, after a stormy night, hails the dawn.” He immediately lança the idea of the LVF. By a political calculation, he himself donned the steel help and went to fight in Russia, all the while looking after the affairs of his party.

We will never say enough the extent to which the war changed meaning on June 22, 1941. By comparison, the landing in North Africa of November 8, 1942, though a critical event, did not have the same effects. From the USSR’s entry into the war, the underground Communist Party, which until then had been attentiste and hostile to England’s “imperialist war,” discovered it had a tricolor soul and completed engaged itself in the Resistance, modifying the latter’s content. On the other side, among many who saw communism as the threat of a new barbarism, still remembering the 7,000 priests, clergymen, and nuns murdered by the reds during the Spanish Civil War, there was a strong temptation to be spellbound by the anti-Bolshevik “crusade,” even if it meant allying with the devil himself. Neither Cardinal Baudrillart, nor Robert Brasillach, nor Philippe Henriot, nor Joseph Darnand, all previously hostile to Germany, would have engaged themselves as they did without the intense psychological pressure of the war in the east against Bolshevism.

The Reich’s propaganda sought to transfigure the German soldiers on the eastern front into valiant knights and crusaders.[6] After the disaster of Stalingrad, their stature only grew in proportion with their defeats and the unbelievable battles fought in the Russian winter, sometimes outnumbered ten-to-one. The admiration felt by some Frenchmen for the desperate courage of the German fighters slowly turned into a sentimental Germanophilia, which had deserted France in 1870. Of this new sentiment, we find numerous traces, right up to the last speech made by President François Mitterrand as head of state, in Berlin, on the fiftieth anniversary of the German surrender of May 8, 1945. Despite all the other painful memories, he had not forgotten the tenacity of these soldiers and of the German people up to the final days of the war: “I have not come to celebrate the victory for which I rejoiced for my country in 1945. I have not come to emphasize the defeat because I know what there was of strong in the German people, its virtue, its courage . . . And the uniform and even the idea which inhabited these soldiers is of little importance to me. They were brave. They accepted to lose their lives. For a bad cause, but they loved their fatherland . . .”

What the president said, many French veterans of the two wars could have said as well. In them, by unexpected pathways, the idea of European reconciliation had blossomed.

Despite the horrors and uncertainties of the moment, this idea acquired a force with some which it had never had in the past. We saw French nationalists raised in the hatred of the “Boche” forgetting their chauvinism and building friendship with the German people. Despite Hitler, enclosed in his pan-Germanism and his violence, we also saw the same emerge among some Germans who were not all Ernst Jünger.[7] Must we lament or rejoice if, in this way, as in the proverb, that evil had brought about good?[8]

We know that General de Gaulle himself, in time, made his choice. “The important thing,” he told Alain Peyrefitte on June 27, 1962 on the French and the Germans, “is that these two peoples, in their depths, exorcise the demons of their past; that they understand now that they must be united forever . . . The French and the Germans must become brothers . . . The Germans have only really been our enemies after 1870. That means only three wars and three quarters of a century [of conflict] between the Germans and the Gaullists, who have known so many wars and so many centuries.”[9]

Of course, the war which ended in 1945 had not only opposed Germans and Gaulish, all the while even bringing them together on occasion. For the German historian Ernst Nolte, it had been a “European civil war,” provoked by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. This is not false, even though other important factors were at play, as we have seen through the French example. This book has shown that in France the years 1943-44 were also the theater of a civil war. When time will have erased the deformations of passion, that is no doubt what history will remember. In its ferocity and in its effects, this Franco-French war, which pitted against each other so many men who were in no way mediocre, could be compared with the great tragedies of the past, that which tore Athens apart in the age of the “Thirty” or that which struck Rome in the age of Sulla. That the civil war of the French coincided with the decline of a nation which had once been one of the brightest of the Occident, contributes to conferring to it a tragic dimension which has never ceased to obsess me.


1. Simone Weil, L’Enracinement (Paris: Folio Gallimard, 1949), 249.

2. One can cite for example the nuanced analysis of the current historiography in the article by René Rémond in Le Monde of October 5, 1994. The president of the National Foundation for Political Science was answering a controversy launched in the same newspaper, on September 21, 1994, by the Israeli academic Zeev Sternhell.

3. [. . .] [T]his statement is not a paradox, but a reality proved by the sequence of events and recognized by General de Gaulle himself in his Mémoires de Guerre. [Venner is referring to a certain spirit of revanche and to various measures against the German occupier taken or tolerated by Vichy officials. – GD]

4. Pierre Billotte, Le temps des armes (Plon, 1972).

5. An antifascist group of intellectuals operating between 1934 and 1936, splitting apart due to differences on the issue of war or peace with the Third Reich. – GD

6. The following passages also appear in a slightly shortened form in Dominique Venner, Le Siècle de 1914 (Paris: Pygmalion, 2006), 397-98. – GD

7. That is, pro-French sentiment among Germans less well-known than Ernst Jünger. – GD

8. “[L]e diable portait la pierre,” an archaic proverb literally meaning “the devil carried the stone.” – GD

9. Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle, volume 1 (Éditions de Fallois/Fayard, 1994).


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One Comment

  1. Leon
    Posted October 27, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    ” That means only three wars and three quarters of a century [of conflict] between the Germans and the Gaullists, who have known so many wars and so many centuries.” ”

    What did Venner write in the original French I wonder? Did by “Gaullists” he mean “Gauls” (Gaulois), as in “the French”?, because that would make more sense here.

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