The Youth of Vichy France 
by W.D. Halls.
Oxford, 492 pp., £20, May 1981, 0 19 822577 6
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Halls’s book opens with a Wagnerian vision of the 1940 defeat. ‘Ignominious’, says the English historian, who is usually more cautious in his moral judgments. I should like to point out to my eminent colleague that, had it not been for the Channel, the ignominy might well have extended as far as Scotland. But let that pass. This big book is admirably informed and, with that one exception, strictly objective, even in its harshest assessments. Set up in 1940, le mauvais Vichy was quite incapable of solving the problems it was faced with, be they those of French youth or any other kind. The statut des Juifs excluded so-called non-Aryans from holding any teaching post, and this, as we know, was the worst aspect of the Pétain system, its ‘original sin’. The anti-semitic wishes of the Germans were not merely granted but even, at first, anticipated by the French authorities. Halls, who is always fair and objective, considers that Carcopino’s reforms nevertheless contained certain interesting elements, in that they were a continuation of some of the Popular Front’s ideas, and looked forward to post-war changes. Carcopino, a Roman historian, was Minister of National Education until April 1942. He often tried to prevent the worst, but was reproached for a certain laissez-faire with regard to the persecution of the Jews.

From April 1942 to August 1944, National Education was in the hands of Abel Bonnard: some of his initiatives concerning technical education, Halls concedes, were likewise not without interest. On the whole, though, Bonnard acted as a zealous servant of the Germans: he connived, for instance, in the transportation of young French men and women to forced labour beyond the Rhine. On the other hand, his homosexuality is judged less severely nowadays than was the case forty years ago. A comic note is struck by Bonnard’s typically French obsession with the proper conduct of traditional exams. The Bac, or Bachot, was still on the agenda in the Somme in August 1944, as the fighting raged all around.

Bonnard was a staunch collaborator, and an anti-clerical. The first year of the Vichy regime, before he appeared, was a triumph for the Church, which now took its revenge on the mangeurs de curés of the Third Republic. Generally speaking, from 1940 to 1944, private or ‘Papist’ schools were generously subsidised by Vichy: a short-term policy – the episcopate being unable to see any farther than the end of its nose! After the war, these exceptional privileges dating from the Pétain years were to give rise to a serious crisis of legitimacy, and the clergy have still not recovered from it today. For four years most ecclesiastics were too much concerned with their flocks and too little with the fate of the Jews. Certain admirable exceptions prove this rule.

After the curés, Halls properly gives a large amount of space to the primary-school teachers, ‘riffraff’ and ‘scum’ (as they were adjudged to be by the Vichy extremists, of course). And yet just as high a proportion were killed in 1940 as of any other profession, so on what pretext did the new regime of the summer of 1940 accuse them of all known sins – of being pacifist, anti-clerical, Freemasons, and totally unpatriotic? During the Occupation, they were also given such chores as going with their pupils to the potato fields to exterminate the Colorado beetle. It is true that the teachers were often left-wing. They rarely co-operated with the Vichy regime. A very small proportion (only 0.05 per cent, as against 2 per cent of secondary-school teachers) were ‘purged’ after the Liberation. On the other hand, Vichy’s épuration of the upper echelons of the teaching profession was not total: in 1943, several inspectors of education who can be presumed to have been Freemasons were still functioning.

Pétain’s entourage, inspired by Lamirand and his successors, also tried to regiment young people. But the organisations which the regime established were not able to accomplish a great deal, so well entrenched were the youth movements that came under the influence of the Catholic Church (in which 2,300,000 boys and girls were enrolled). They also met with hostility from the Germans, who didn’t want the youth of France to be amalgamated into a single movement, fearing that, however Vichyite, such a movement might eventually turn against them.

These developments were inseparable from the general feeling of guilt characteristic of the second half of 1940. France, it was said, had not been beaten by Guderian but by its own sins. In a cartoon by Sennep, a young marquis in plus fours says to some worthy peasants who had never even heard their names: ‘You’d read too much of those decadent writers, Proust, Gide, and Valéry.’ These guilt feelings seemed – wrongly – all the more justified in that juvenile delinquency was on the increase (as a consequence of the very special conditions created by the war – the black market etc). Naturally, all this was absurd, for the nation remained healthy (if we disregard the tragedies and crimes specifically attributable to the war, and condemned at the beginning of this article). The astonishing thing is that the Right should have ascribed the disintegration of moral fibre among French youth to the 1940s, when the changes in moral standards did not really begin until the 1960s.

After the things of the mind, those of the body: for Halls, some aspects of the ‘gymnastic’ policies of Vichy look like a continuation of those begun in 1936: Borotra, the tennis champion whom Pétain made responsible for sport, followed the same line as the minister assigned to the same problems at the time of the Popular Front. The ‘national sports certificate’ was the logical successor of the ‘popular sports certificate’. It is true that this sports policy came up against all kinds of obstacle: the Germans had no wish for the French to become a nation of athletes; the Church didn’t like the idea of the sexes mixing in the stadium; the village mayors, in the Clochemerle tradition, showed not the slightest enthusiasm for turning cornfields into football grounds or swimming-pools. In any case, dietary deficiencies were a decisive obstacle to the development of sport.

The basic problem remained: young people were patriotic. Carrying on a long tradition, Vichy channelled their passions in the direction of authentic, but ready-made heroes: Joan of Arc, of course, who, fortunately, was ambiguous – ‘anti-German’, because she was a patriot, but also anti-English; Turenne, thrashed and brought up the hard way by his tutor, though a future Marèchal de France; Bournazel, who charged the Riffs in a red tunic and whose widow visited Philippe Pétain; Branly, who, as a child, used to have to break the ice on his water jug (the mystique of cold water) and who later invented the radio and became a professor at the Institut Catholique, the Sorbonne’s religious equivalent.

The sad realities of 1942, alas, were a long way from these baroque glories. The dismemberment of France was an affront to the patriotism of the young: Hitler (seconded by Mussolini) had split up the ‘hexagon’ into seven parts: an annexed zone in Alsace-Lorraine; a reserved zone stretching from north of Bar-le-Duc to south of Belfort; a zone attached to the German Command in Brussels (around Arras, in particular); a prohibited zone around Laon; the German-occupied zone; the free zone; the Italian-occupied zone. After which Germanic courtesies, one can only admire the ease with which France and Germany were reconciled after the war, and the leniency of the French given the degradation they had suffered.

The question of nationalism among the peripheral populations was not without interest either, in so far as it affected the 15-35 age-group. The Corsicans rejected Italy, whose immigrants and soldiers they treated as inferiors. Alsace-Lorraine belonged in theory to the ancient Germanic culture, but remained faithful to France. The Flemish and Breton nationalists went much farther than Vichy: they foolishly sympathised with the Nazis. The Occitans (Southerners) and other Provençals were more cautious: they had some regard for Pétain, but took good care not to support Hitler. Faced with movements aiming more or less at separation, national feeling remained strong in the young, whether they were Gaullist, Pétainist or neutral. After the Liberation, France was to be reunited without difficulty. People forget a little too readily that the attempts at territorial division did not come only from the Axis Powers. Roosevelt himself (yes, really!) had ideas of creating a kind of buffer state in the North-East of ancient Gaul. It would, notably, have joined Belgium with Alsace-Lorraine. It took the good sense of Anthony Eden to make the American President forget this insane idea. Roosevelt was a remarkable politician in his own country, but it is well-known that he had a very imperfect knowledge of Europe. Stalin took advantage of this ignorance to lay claim to vast parts of Central Europe. Imagine a European Roosevelt handing Alaska and Alberta to the Soviets on a silver salver.

A territory needs inhabitants, or rather it needs leaders. One of Vichy’s most curious creations, from this point of view, was the ‘Leadership School’ (École des Cadres) at Uriage. Another establishment of the same type became pro-Nazi, but Uriage came under the influence of Emmanuel Mounier, and also under that of the profound and enlightened patriotism of its students. So the school did a carefully controlled skid towards a consistent anti-Germanism, and towards plans for postwar reform. Many of its pupils militated against the conscription of young people into forced labour in Germany and took to the Maquis; Pierre Dunoyer de Segonzac, the school’s Commanding Officer, himself joined the Resistance. Some participants in the Uriage school, among them Hubert Beuve-Méry and Jean-Marie Domenach, were active in founding such major post-war publications as Esprit and Le Monde. A far cry from the Nazis’ ‘New Order’ or ‘Regenerated Europe’.

Uriage was an extreme case. Other groups went less far, while still deviating from the official line laid down by the Marshal’s government. The Compagnons de France were, in theory, neither pro-German nor denominational, but loyal to Philippe Pétain. And yet the logic of war, which on this occasion was well-advised, eventually drove them away from Vichy, although this did not mean that they rallied to de Gaulle. Their real hero was Géneral Giraud, who was hostile to the Axis, but whose followers retained a nostalgia for the ‘Work, Family, Country’ of the Pétainists. To the delight of the German Embassy in Paris, the Compagnons were dissolved by Vichy itself. Impossible contradictions.

Vichy also attempted to form its own organisation, which, if not paramilitary, would at least replace military service by non-combatant service. This was the Chantiers de la Jeunesse. Its director, General de La Porte du Theil, a kind of Vercingetorix, ‘the peasant with the long moustaches’, was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 after making an anti-German remark. This doesn’t make him a member of the Resistance, but it does show that the organisation which he led gradually began to keep its distance from the Nazis and Laval, if not from Pétain, or at any rate that it made a distinction between them.

Other youth movements are described in this book: in particular, several tiny groups dependent on various fascist, pro-Nazi or ‘franciste’ leaders such as Doriot, Déat, Bucart, Deloncle. The most striking associations were to be found among the Militia: here, young men recruited by Vichy persecuted, sometimes horribly, other young men sympathetic to the Resistance. Thirty years after the event, the word milice remains very much alive, with ultra-negative and tragic connotations, in the national memory. Even more extreme were the detachments of the Legion of French Volunteers who went to the Russian Front, and the handful of French SS. Some of these, after very tough training and appalling losses, ended the war as members of the last squad of Hitler’s defenders in Berlin. The thought of these incredible experiences brings to mind the remark of a former member of the Waffen SS, who had reverted to more peaceful ideas. Interviewed in the film Le Chagrin et la Pitié, he was asked what advice he would give to the youth of the day. He replied, simply: ‘I would advise caution.’ One can understand his point of view.

During the last years of the Occupation, forced labour in Germany also presented the youth of France with some knotty problems. Certain bishops, while showing remarkable caution, nevertheless let it be understood that they were not in favour of such an ‘exodus’. Despite its timidity, this gesture was held against the prelates by the Germans, and – occasionally – put to their credit by the Resistance.

Halls’s book, which has many good qualities, follows a middle course. The author does not join in the volley of execration justifiably aimed by historians such as Robert Paxton and Pascal Ory at those anti-semitic policies of the regime which at first anticipated but later fell behind those of the Germans. He shows little real interest in the basic continuities, even though they demonstrate the remarkable vitality of the country during those four difficult years. Though a little broken-winded, Halls has nevertheless built one of the wings of the vast building which will be called (in several volumes) ‘The Objective and Detailed History of the Regime of Philippe Pétain’.

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