Being Defined by History

Sixty-seven years ago this morning The Guardian newspaper in London used this opening sentence to report an astounding story: “Pierre Laval was shot to-day at 12.32 after a vain attempt to poison himself had delayed his execution.”

The man who had twice been Prime Minister of France, an international statesman, a friend of Herbert Hoover and TIME’s Man of the Year in 1931 had been executed by a firing squad in a Paris prison, convicted of treason for collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Laval, a shrewd and capable politician, had to be revived to face the firing squad. He had attempted suicide by taking cyanide in his prison cell. Once well enough to face death, Laval tied on his trademark white necktie and wrapped a scarf of the French tricolor around his throat. He refuse a blindfold and yelled Vive la France as he died.

The trial and guilt of Pierre Laval is still a controversial subject in France, which in many ways has never completely come to terms with the country’s collapse in 1940 followed by four years of occupation and, for many French, collaboration with the Nazis. The still unresolved French history during World War II still finds troubling connections to the present where serious levels of anti-Semitism remain an ugly fixture of French life. The story of Laval is mixed up in all of it.

Charles de Gaulle personally refused to order a new trial for Laval, even amid mountains of evidence that he 62 year old lawyer had been badly treated by a sham proceeding. The once very successful trial lawyer thought given a chance to really defend himself he could have talked his way out of the firing squad.

Laval came to power in wartime France at the side of the World War I hero of the Battle of Verdun Marshall Philippe Petain. By 1940, Petain was in his 80′s and, while an immensely popular figure, was quickly eclipsed by the energetic Laval. Petain, too, was tried and convicted of treason, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, a decision that left many to conclude that Laval had been made the symbol of all that France and the French had done – or not done – to accommodate Nazi Germany.

The great de Gaulle did much to rehabilitate the French psyche by inventing the attractive, but largely mythological notion that French partisans had liberated Paris following the Allied landings at Normandy in 1944. It’s true that many French men and women took to the streets to battle their German occupiers as the Nazi’s prepared to leave Paris, but it’s also true that many quietly adapted to life under the occupation and, as a recent and excellent book by Alan Riding points out, the cultural and social life of Paris went on pretty much as if nothing had changed, while Nazis officers got the best tables at the best cafes.

Reviewing Riding’s book – And the Show Went On – Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the New York Times:  “Though Charles de Gaulle insisted on the execution of Pierre Laval…he said he did not want vengeance on those who were merely ‘misled.’ And yet de Gaulle bears indirect blame. He above all people purveyed the healing notion that the French had been united in their resistance except for a few traitors and weaklings. This helped make possible the creation of a new democracy, but it was preposterous all the same.”

Picasso lived and worked, quite comfortably, in Paris during the occupation, as did Maurice Chevalier and Gertrude Stein, who devoted time during the occupation to translating Petain’s speeches with the hope that they might be published in the United States. They never were.

Pierre Laval went to his death protesting that he had done all he could to make life as tolerable as possible under the Nazis and he may still be the most hated man in French history.

Picasso, who exercised excellent timing in joining the French Communist Party just as the Germans were being thrown out of France, is widely remembered for his great anti-war painting Guernica and has a state sponsored museum in Paris that honors his work. Stein, who the great Kathy Bates played in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, is mostly remembered today not as a publicist for Petain, but as an intriguing experimental writer and Ernest Hemingway’s muse.

History can be a strange thing. How one is treated by history can be even stranger. Winston Churchill had it right. He once said he wasn’t much worried about how he would be treated by history since he planned to write the history himself.

 

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