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How good and patriotic men could support Vichy - at least for a time
on 5 June 2017
The story is told by Étienne de Balafré at various stages of his life. He was born in Provence in 1930, the son of a French father, Lucien, and an English mother, Polly. When war broke out in 1939, she left Lucien and, with her nine-year old son, went back to England. After Lucien’s death, she married Roddy, a South African, and went with him and Lucien to South Africa. She never talked about Lucien, and for years no one would answer his questions about how he had died – merely that he had died a hero’s death. Étienne went to Cambridge, and at the age of 19 went back to visited France for the first time since he had left it. There he attended a dinner party at which one of the other guests, unaware of who Étienne was, made disobliging remarks about Lucien. Later on his trip, Étienne visited Lucien’s mother in Provence. She had kept Lucien’s journals, which Étienne began to read and which, fleshed out by Étienne, make up a very substantial part of the book. They were mostly about his political and cultural ideas.
Born in 1902, wounded in the First World War, he flirted with Communism for two years; then warmed to Maurras’ ideas, though not to his politics; joined the French diplomatic service; supported the League of Nations; was posted to the Berlin Embassy in ion 1930; empathized with Prussian Junkers who had lost their lands to Poland; deplored what Versailles had done to Germany, but abhorred Hitler; established an important friendship with an idealistic young German aristocrat, Rupert von Hulenberg, who believed in Franco-German friendship and also abhorred Hitler; resigned from the diplomatic service and in 1934 started a magazine – political, cultural, but until 1936, unaligned. Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland then persuaded him that a political and moral crisis faced Europe; and at that time he asked Marshal Pétain to contribute his ideas the magazine. He instantly revered him as incarnating the virtues of eternal France. Pétain was impressed by Lucien, and after the fall of France appointed him to his staff and then to a ministerial post. He was also occasionally Pétain’s speech-writer.
Lucien had already written in his journal of his dislike for socialism, finance capitalism and Jews, and had expressed a hankering after an older, more traditional and especially provincial and Catholic France. These were of course the ideas that distanced many Frenchmen from the Republic; but of course as proud Frenchmen they saw the German victory as a national humiliation. Such people were divided after 1940: as anti-communists many of them turned to Pétain, while others, like Lucien’s younger brother Armand, supported De Gaulle as a matter of patriotism.
Lucien, an idealist, was himself torn; but he had decided that his duty was to support Vichy. The novel is mostly about showing how Lucien, Pétain and many of his supporters were not bad people. Lucien did not like the devious Laval, but acknowledged that he, too, was a French patriot. But of course they would all be put into increasingly intense dilemmas as they had to acquiesce in German demands and even, after the Allied invasion of Algeria in 1942, to the German occupation of Vichy France. That occupation made Lucien feel that he could no longer serve Vichy, and he resigned from the government. Laval, too, sought an understanding with De Gaulle and with the German opposition of which Rupert von Hulenberg was a part. Lucien accepted from Laval a diplomatic mission which nearly led to his death at the hands of the Vichy milice. Even so, when the Liberation came, he was so well known as a former Vichy minister that it was only a matter of time before he would be arrested. He had been prepared to stand trial and explain his thinking, but it never came to that. It still remains uncertain at the end of the book whether he was shot or committed suicide.
“Balafré” means “scarred”: an appropriate surname for both Lucien and Étienne; for Étienne was scarred, too, as the novel reveals.
There is a great deal more in this dense and complex book than I have discussed in this review: many references to French and occasionally English literature, as well as to French history which may be unfamiliar to many readers; philosophical reflections on individuals caught up in history; reflections on biographies and fictions; several subplots – a few of them unnecessary, in my opinion; a host of beautifully described people (several of them real historical figures) I have not mentioned, and character sketches of those I have; sexual and homosexual connections; fine descriptions of rural and urban settings.
A remarkable book.