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Marshal Philippe Pétain was, in the words of historian Andrew Roberts, ‘the most controversial Frenchman of the twentieth century.’ A truly distinguished soldier who rose from humble origins, he commanded French forces at Verdun in 1916 and became a national hero. But though by 1940 he had become French Deputy Prime Minister his political abilities were meagre. And after France fell to the Nazis it was Pétain who signed the armistice and, from the spa town of Vichy, ruled over the Etat Francais Hitler had left him.
Richard Griffiths tells this sorry story in outstanding detail, all the way to Pétain’s ignominious end, and not stinting to show his culpability in the Vichy persecution of French Jews and its suppression of the internal Resistance.
‘Petain, utterly obscure until the age of 58, was hurled to fame by his defence of Verdun in 1916. This saved his country’s bacon (he would say her honour) at a crisis point of the Great War. Thereafter he became an almost monarchical figure, more revered than any living Frenchman, even after the disaster of 1940. But then, as head of the puppet Vichy government, he slid into ignominy after failing to square honour with military humiliation. Griffiths’s durable biography… paints not a devil but a courageous, misguided man with a hole where others keep their political acumen.’
Robin Blake, Independent
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