Vichy France: Old Guard, New Regime, 1940-1944. By Robert O. Paxton (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).
For the twenty-five years following the end of World War II, explanations of the development and policies of Vichy France focused on the discontinuities between the Third Republic and the Vichy regime. Robert Paxton argues against this trend, insisting that Vichy policies and ideology originated from within French traditions, not those of the Nazi conquerors. The desire to find someone to blame for France's difficulties infused both Vichy and the post-war reaction to its policies. After Liberation, opponents charged Vichy leaders with wanting Germany to defeat France in 1940, while in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, Vichy leaders had blamed the Popular Front's alliance of the the Catholic Left, Communists, Masons, and Jews for weakening France, and then leading her into an ideological war. For its part, the Left blamed profascist politicians and officers for the defeat, while those on the right blamed the panic of militia units drawn from Paris on May 13 for allowing the Germans to cross the Meuse at Sedan.
The French Army of 1940, though, was the product of French society of the late Third Republic. no conspiracies were needed to explain its collapse in the face of the German onslaught of the Spring of 1940. Paxton argues that the new regime was not a cabal bent on overthrow, nor was it based on German or Italian policies, alliances or ideals. The Vichy government began with popular support and the participation of the same groups of elites as the Third Republic. In order to understand both the creation of Vichy and the French origins of its programs, you have to examine the domestic political and economic tensions that plagued the Third Republic.
The last government of the Third Republic was formed on constitutional grounds to request an armistice with Germany on June 16, 1940. The new government was headed by Marshal Pétain, who convened a cabinet in the style of the Third Republic by including both conservatives and socialists. Only those opposed to an armistice were excluded. This led to both elite and public support of the Vichy government, which prepared to continue to fight from North Africa even while asking for an armistice. Hitler feared a French government in exile using the French Empire and its resources to fight alongside Great Britain, and chose the option of a relatively lenient armistice. On the French side, because there as no charismatic leader arguing against the armistice and no positive decision to continue to fight Germany, Paxton contends that the armistice happened almost by default. No active choice for an armistice was made.
Most of the French public and leadership viewed those few who wanted to continue to fight as a threat to national survival. In any case, war to the end made little strategic sense because there was no reason to believe that Great Britain would survive the war. British ground forces in France had already withdrawn through Dunkirk after a less than stellar performance. The resolve shown during the Battle of Britain was nowhere in evidence during the defense of France, so the French believed that a final peace would occur in weeks rather than years.
The result of the armistice was a fragmenting of French society. The real fear was not of the Germans, but that the war would weaken Germany enough that it could not oppose Stalin in the East. The French also still held the painful memory of the lost generation of World War I, and feared that another 20 million casualties would completely destroy France. Fear of revolution, as had occurred after the end of the Franco-Prussia War in 1871, also confronted French military and civilian leaders. Restoring and maintaining order became the key concern. Petain addressed this concern by promising order and stability, and contrasting it to the negative aspects of a continued war: reprisals, full occupation by Germany, guerrilla warfare, and hardship. So soon after the end of fighting, it was hard for the French people to contemplate starting again. Paxton believes that the quick collapse meant that the people were psychologically unready to resist - a long campaign like that of World War I would have stripped away the mental and physical comforts of life, and given people the wherewithal to fight. He cites USAF analysis of the effects of bombing on German cities that found that they became more productive after significant damage than they had been beforehand because ephemeral parts of life vanished.
Saving the state became a positive good on its own. To do this, Pétain needed to maintain order to ensure the survival of France. Collaboration was a key component of this effort, because by continuing to administer France, he was able to maintain its sovereignty. His goal to ensure France's continued Sovereignty worked well with Hitler's initial goals for an easy armistice, and played upon the French desire to return to normalcy. To do this required first a level of collaboration with the Germans that sometimes became an active partnership in the war effort. The goals of the varying levels of cooperation with German desires were always to ensure France's sovereignty, to maintain the overseas empire, and to regain administrative control over occupied France.
In addition to these core goals of maintaining order and ensuring the continuation of French sovereignty, the Vichy regime also embarked on a revolution of institutions and values. The Third Republic had lost its last remaining shreds of legitimacy by losing the war. Defeat was an addition to the self-doubt that France had suffered since the 1890s, which had only increased after the tragedy of World War I. The French worried about their national vitality, especially the low birth rate, and suffered under the comments of German soldiers who claimed that their farms seemed old-fashioned and inefficient. Clearly, France needed something different.
While prosecutors later blamed Pierre Laval for leading a conspiracy to end the Third Republic and establish a pro-fascist regime in France, Paxton dismisses this as incoherent and contradictory. Petain chose Laval as Deputy Prime Minister because he was a prominent Third Republic politician and would help sell the new constitution to the National Assembly. When presented with a new constitution, the decision to end the Third Republic was almost unanimous - a 25 to 1 decision among the French electorate. This level of agreement hardly points to a cabal at work.
Contrary to many arguments, Paxton contends that Vichy initially strove for an early peace treaty with Germany and strict neutrality toward the belligerents. Most importantly, Paxton argues that Vichy was not passive in promoting its interests, in courting German favor, or in establishing its own restrictive laws regarding Jews. The idea that Vichy was passive, or that its actions were forced on it by Germany was an invention of Pétain's defense in court after Liberation. According to Paxton, Pétain was only half true in this because it obscures Vichy's actions taken in the absence of German pressure. This is the core of Paxton's argument. His goal is to restore Vichy's initiatives to the record. Especially during the first hundred days, Vichy operated virtually without German control. Germany vetoed Vichy plans, but did not impose policy or officials. This changed only after the Resistance began assassinating Germans during the summer of 1941.
Collaboration, then, was not imposed by the German victors, but a French proposal that was repeatedly rejected by Hitler who wanted a passive France that he could use to attack Great Britain, not an equal partner. France's location and resources were all he wanted - that, and to impose a harsh peace on France in revenge for the Versailles Treaty that so harshly punished Germany after the end of World War I. Vichy's continued efforts to come to an accommodation with Hitler in its efforts to preserve the Empire and France's sovereignty rested entirely on Hitler's perception of whether he needed something from France. When it became obvious that invading England would not work, and Hitler turned East, Vichy found itself pursuing an uninterested suitor.
Petain sent Hitler a constant stream of requests, first as a neutral, and later seeking alliance. Hitler was tempted to allow France more freedom and a larger military role in the fall of 1940 and in May 1941 when it appeared useful, but ultimately saw the armistice, negotiations, and collaboration as just cheap ways to keep France docile. When England didn't fall the the Germans, the full terms of the armistice were enforced, including a 20 milliion Reichsmark daily fee to pay for the occupation. France had to pay the occupation fee at the artificially high exchange rate of 20:1 - a third higher than market exchange rates. Rather than releasing French POWs, they were sent to German stalags for the duration of the war.
Economics an the impossibility of gains in Europe forced Vichy to focus on its empire. French goals were to maintain the integrity of the Empire in the face of advances by both Axis and Allied powers, especially Italy and de Gaulle. As its price for assisting Hitler, Vichy expected colonial gains, not just in maintaining the Empire, but in colonies seized from Great Britain. Germany wanted the use of bases in French North Africa to attack British interests in the Middle East and to provide support for Rommel. The broad negotiations on its status that France expected in return never materialized.
After the Liberation, Vichy's ministers were prosecuted for collaboration with the Germans. The first trial ended in the execution of Pierre Pucheu. Other executions and imprisonments followed. In part, the trials were meant to strike the legacy of Vichy from history, an aim of Liberation writers. Paxton argues that not only that did this not happen, but that building on the foundation of Vichy was unavoidable. To show this, he focuses on the continuity of Third Republic trends in Vichy, and then Vichy trends after Liberation. Examples include that Pétain's defense attorney was elected to parliament in 1951, the general amnesty of 1953, and return of Vichy officials to office from 1953-58.
Punishment of alleged collaborators was uneven, and fell most heavily on propagandists, intellectuals, and leaders of the Vichy regime. Businessmen, experts, technicians, and bureaucrats mostly escaped punishment. In contrast, the officials of the Third Republic continued to be rejected by the French public after liberation. The vacancies created in government ministries by post-war purges were mostly filled from below by career bureaucrats that carried out Vichy policies. Paxton argues that this happened because like their Vichy predecessors, Liberation leaders wanted control and order, not revolution. To these ends, most of the judiciary survived both trials and purges. The main exceptions were the members of the Special Section of the Paris Court of Appeals who punished French citizens for the assassination of Germans. More than half of the diplomatic corps continued to work for the French government - two-thirds served both Vichy and the Fourth Republic.
Similarly, Liberation did not do away with all Vichy laws. A list of laws attached to the 9 August 1944 ordnace were repealed, but most Vichy legislation was maintained in order to preserve order. These included the old age pension la of 1941, allowances for large families, and limits on consumption of alcohol by minors in bars. Vichy measures in public administration, modernization, and planning all survived Liberation. These measures included rationing and price controls, which continued through the late 1940s. Experts gained ground over politicians in civil service, especially in the budgetary process. Liberation also maintained the Vichy move toward regional, not department, organization for administrative purposes, and increased central authority.
The post-war period also continued the Vichy technicians' vision of a more urban, planned, productive, and impersonal society that developed during the war economy. The techs survived the post-war purges and built on their ideas of a managed economy, paternal state, and planned economic expansion. They viewed the United States and Soviet Union as threats and try to build France's industrial economy to compete.
Paxton bases his analysis on contemporary documents and diaries, arguing that post-war memoirs can't be trusted because they include too many excuses for collaboration born out of the need to protect the authors from post-war prosecution. It was common for memoirists to claim that they new that Hitler would not last, and that they were just playing for time in their collaboration. While some people undoubtedly did this, it was not the case with high officials like Pétain.