Ogre or Scapegoat?
SWART, FROG-FACED PIERRE LAVAL had the look of a man born to play a horrid role. And in the popular Gallic fairy tale that still passes for the history of France during World War II, he has always made an ideal ogre—a sinister greasy eminence who bamboozled the National Assembly into capitulating in 1940 and dragged Marianne in the muck by collaborating with Germany. When gallant Charles de Gaulle returned to slay this monster and (with some small American help) deliver France from thralldom, his countrymen threw Laval into a traitor's grave, hoping that five years of national guilt and failure might be buried with him.
Since then, not surprisingly, most of the writing about Laval has been wildly partisan. Now, nearly 20 years after Laval's execution, a British editor turned historian has made a levelheaded but phlegmatic try at the first full-length biography of Laval written in English.
Hubert Cole's Laval is neither traitor nor hero. Instead he is a complex, unprepossessing peasant, skillful but overwhelmed by pride, brilliant but narrow, who gambled his life (plus what was left of his country's honor) in the hope of horse trading with Hitler to ease the pangs of the occupation in France. "If I succeed," Laval said prophetically in the dark days of 1942, "there won't be enough stones in this country to raise statues to me. If I fail, I will be shot."
As the sharp-tongued, terrible-tempered son of a butcher from the poverty-parched Auvergne, Laval scrabbled his way to the top through law and politics. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1914. In 1931 he became, at 47, one of the youngest French Premiers ever. He freely switched parties (far left to right) and party bosses. But what looked like vacillation was really a form of tenacity. By nature a disputatious loner who hated abstract ideologies and fixed positions, Laval wanted to be free to bargain practically.
What he worked for (besides his own fortune) in the doomed years between the wars was a hard currency at home and peace in Europe. Laval, Cole insists, had an almost psychotic revulsion against violence and a pinchpenny peasant's hatred of war for its waste of blood and cash. In 1944 he defended Vichy with a startling comment: "These four years of occupation have cost less than three months of war."
White Tie & Tales. An early and devoted disciple of Peacemaker Aristide Briand, Laval was a tireless negotiator of disarmament treaties. When these failed, he turned to his own grand design—a chain of mutual assistance pacts between France and all the countries that ringed Germany. As French Premier and later as Foreign Minister, Laval haggled his way through the capitals of Europe. Wearing his famous white tie and eternally rumpled blue suit as a trademark, he was a grotesque but effective figure, despite a deplorable tendency to try to cap anyone else's punch line. (When he praised the Pope to Stalin and the latter sneered, "Yes, but how many divisions has he got?", Laval snapped back: "I'm not asking you to make a treaty of mutual assistance with him—just a non-aggression pact.")
Laval's chain was never totally forged, in part because the British helped drive Mussolini into Hitler's arms during the Abyssinia crisis, in part because disputatious Deputies back in Paris sabotaged his efforts. Laval never forgave either. Ironically, France's No. 1 traitor-to-be fell into views that precisely paralleled those of hero-to-be De Gaulle. He despised the French Parliament, thought France needed a new constitution, and was convinced that he alone could bring all this about.
"A Dozen Bullets." Apologists for Laval's World War II behavior too often get lost in justifiable (but not entirely relevant) outrage at the conduct of his trial in 1945. (Nothing was proved against him; he was allowed almost no chance to make a defense; the jurors kept shouting things like "Skunk! A rope for his neck! A dozen bullets for his hide!") Cole avoids this by calmly letting the chilling facts of the trial speak for themselves. But in describing Vichy, he falls into another trap: the tendency to feel that Laval is somehow less guilty because Pétain, Darlan and others—who have not borne nearly so much blame—were just as guilty, and a lot less honest than he.
The key question, of course, is Laval's motive for official collaboration with the Germans, which he never denied. And what, if anything, he accomplished for France. Laval, to the last, insisted that he made the occupation easier—by keeping Hitler from planting a terrorist German regime in France as he did in Holland, by dragging his feet in dispatching conscript French workers to Germany, by getting prisoners of war repatriated, by fighting to protect French Jews. "You don't save France," he reproached the Gaullists, "by quitting her soil."
"An Egg & a Smile." Cole does not pursue these estimates as carefully as he should. How many prisoners of war, for example, did Laval actually get repatriated, and at what cost in French workers sent to Germany? He concludes, however, that Laval tried honestly to do what he claims, though he did not succeed any too well. Laval was a skilled bargainer. "You ask Laval for a chicken," grumbled German Ambassador Otto Abetz, "and he gives you an egg and a smile." But Hitler was in a position to get pretty much what he wanted and eventually did.
Assessing Laval, Cole measures him mainly from a practical point of view—as a peasant trader who was out of his league and should have known it. Yet the verdict on Laval must ultimately be moral. Again and again, to preserve its identity as a government of France, Vichy had to order Frenchmen to imprison and deport other Frenchmen in order to keep the Germans from moving in and imposing even harsher demands. Does the hope of saving five men justify the death of one? Did France have a right to salvage what it could from the 1940 debacle at the expense of its allies?
Defeat by a ruthless foreign power imposes impossible dilemmas upon those who try to negotiate with the enemy. Laval could have safely sat out the war as a private citizen in Auvergne. However history may finally judge him, it is difficult to argue that in doing what he did, he chose the easiest way out.