Much of the history of France in the last century is embodied in the strange trinity of Philippe Pétain, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. Pétain, born in 1856, was old enough to remember the humiliation of France at the hands of Prussia in 1870, and like other French officers of his period, spent his entire military career in anticipation of what he believed would be the inevitable revenge for that defeat. By the time the young second lieutenant Charles de Gaulle joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras in 1912, Pétain, the regiment's colonel, was on the point of retirement. The war intervened and gave Pétain an extended military life. In 1925 the hero of Verdun and Marshal of France appointed the promising young de Gaulle to his staff and repeatedly intervened to promote his protégé, even raising his marks when de Gaulle graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre. Pétain then imposed him on the School as a lecturer, and insisted on going along to introduce him. De Gaulle dedicated his writings to Pétain, acted as his ghostwriter, and called his own son Philippe. But Pétain, presumed too far and de Gaulle, his pride wounded, asserted his independence. The relationship had already grown cool when de Gaulle ended it: on 18 June 1940 he condemned the deal Pétain, had done with Hitler and appealed for resistance. It was a war to the knife. De Gaulle made resistance to Pétain, such an absolute principle that he overcame his previous prejudices and joined forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. Pétain, had de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia, while de Gaulle had Pétain, live out his last few years of life - by then he was over ninety - as a prisoner on a windswept little island in the Bay of Biscay.
LRB 4 August 1994 | PDF Download