Early in 1945, with Nazi Germany disintegrating, France knew that it could not face the post-war world until accounts had been settled with Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval; but both men were still in Germany.
In the meantime, the trial of traitors who had betrayed the Resistance provided a false assurance that the basic issues were clear. Most of the public eagerly followed court proceedings in the press. The trial that preoccupied everyone for the first eleven days of December 1944 was that of the notorious Bonny–Lafont gang, otherwise known as the ‘Gestapo Française’.
Lafont was one of several criminals serving prison sentences who were released by the Germans, who had a use for their talents. In return for cars, petrol, guns and false identity papers, they kept the Gestapo and the Abwehr well informed and did much of their dirty work. Lafont became a member of the Gestapo and took German nationality in 1941. His right-hand man was an ex-policeman called Bonny, who had been involved in several pre-war scandals. With their henchmen, they formed one of the most hated gangs in Paris. Protected by the Gestapo, they rounded up and denounced hundreds of people and grew rich on blackmail, robbery, racketeering and terror. In their headquarters in the rue Lauriston, they tortured and sometimes killed their victims.
In the murky society of collaborationist Paris, Lafont became a person of some consequence. He acquired a town house in Neuilly, where he entertained his well-connected friends and mistresses, and among his guests was Bussières, the Prefect of Police whom Luizet replaced at the Liberation. He mixed with the journalist Georges Suarez and Jean Luchaire, the press baron and later ‘Minister of Information’ at Sigmaringen. Maurice Chevalier was said to have been another friend, but Chevalier quickly issued a statement saying he had met him only once. Lafont even boasted that he had acted as intermediary between Laval and Otto Abetz.
He was betrayed at the Liberation by one of his own followers, a certain Joanovici, who joined the Resistance at the eleventh hour to save himself, even providing weapons for the police defending the Prefecture on the Île de la Cité. Joanovici, who allied himself with the new Communist element in the Paris police, was to cause their undoing two years later, when the government fought back against their encroachment.
The twelve principal members of the ‘Gestapo Française’ were tried simultaneously. The charges against them ran to 164 pages and took three hours to read. At one point during the trial, Lafont complained about being beaten up in custody, which earned the police a rousing cheer from the courtroom. All but two of the gang were sentenced to death. Muggeridge, who had interviewed him, fantasized about the guillotine slicing off ‘his neat, sallow head with the blunt Mediterranean back to it’ like a thistle’s. In fact Lafont faced a firing squad on 26 December, watched by his defending counsel and arrogant to the end.
Of the other traitors brought to trial, their motives varied, but not very widely. Jacques Desoubrie, a fanatical Nazi-sympathizer who betrayed the ‘Comet’ network in Paris in June 1943, proclaimed his belief in National Socialism at the Court of Justice in Lille and was executed. But most traitors did not have the courage of any conviction. Prosper Desitter, the German-recruited spy known as ‘the man with the missing finger’, and his mistress Flore Dings were also sentenced to death for helping the Gestapo destroy the ‘Comet’ network. The night before his execution, Desitter was said to have howled with terror in his cell.
‘The purge trials preoccupied us all that year,’ wrote Susan Mary Patten, ‘and the incoherence with which justice was meted out did much to cause the crise morale, or crisis of conscience, among the French.’ The mood of the populace was not the only obstacle to a fair trial for those accused of collaboration at that time. The Cours de Justice set up by the provisional government were, in a sadly ironic way, a new form of the Cours Spéciales of Vichy. The problem was that nobody had ever envisaged one version of France putting another version on trial for treason, so the principal law used against collaborators was Article 75 of the Penal Code, which covered ‘intelligence with the enemy’.
In the eyes of the provisional government, it was better to have juridical imperfections than no courts at all. As one of de Gaulle’s entourage put it, ‘it was not possible to administer justice serenely’ in the situation which existed after the Liberation. If collaborators were not judged and sentenced, people would simply take the law into their own hands, with revolutionary tribunals and lynchings. But the Minister of Justice should never have permitted a jury system in which the jurors were members of the Resistance and relatives of those who had been in camps in Germany.
The trials of journalists and writers had shown that timing, just as much as the evidence, could play a decisive part in a prisoner’s fate. The lack of chronological logic in the trials of senior Vichy officials was even more flagrant. ‘One sees more and more,’ wrote Pastor Boegner in his diary during the trial of Admiral Esteva in March 1945, ‘that the trial of the Marshal should take place before those of men who only obeyed him.’ This question of following orders revealed fundamental flaws in the new legislation. Article 3 of the decree of 28 November 1944 acknowledged that no crime had been committed if the accused had followed orders – ‘la stricte exécution exclusive de toute initiative personelle’ – but another piece of legislation stipulated that any order coming from the ‘so-called government of the État Français’ had no validity.
The spring of 1945 began beautifully, with wisteria, chestnut blossom and lilacs out early. Yet almost every foreigner in Paris at the time was struck by the unhappy, haunted and often bitter faces they saw in the streets. The sight of the first deportees and prisoners to return from the camps in Germany had created a profound sense of shock. This was then augmented by film footage of liberated death camps such as Belsen and Dachau, shown in cinemas. Pierre-Henri Teitgen, the Minister of Justice, recorded that crowds stormed two jails, those of Dinan and Cusset, and lynched several collaborators.
The sense of shock was renewed whenever a deportee was seen in Paris. They were instantly recognizable. Liliane de Rothschild recalled how pathetically hunched and thin they were. Their teeth were black with decay, their skin sallow, clammy, and constantly sweating. In the métro, even the most elderly lady rose ‘silently to surrender her seat when one of the skeletons entered the carriage’. The change in mood since the Liberation had been gradual but striking. In September 1944, no more than 32 per cent of the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique’s sample had expressed a belief that Pétain should be punished. Only 3 per cent wanted the death penalty. By the time Pétain’s trial started eleven months later, the proportion demanding punishment had more than doubled to 76 per cent, and those wanting the death sentence for the old Marshal had risen from 3 per cent to 37 per cent.
The Communist Party, knowing that it could tap this anger and that the other parties would be forced to support it, began an intense and sustained campaign, demanding the Marshal’s execution. Meetings with star speakers like Louis Aragon were called ostensibly to commemorate the Resistance, but the true purpose was clear.
Proceedings were started against Marshal Pétain in his absence in Germany at the beginning of April 1945. Pétain, hearing of this on the wireless at Sigmaringen, wrote to Ribbentrop, demanding to be allowed to return to France to face his accusers. He received no reply.
On 20 April, General de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1st Army reached the Black Forest. The next morning, before dawn, Pétain was taken from the castle of Sigmaringen to Wangen, and then on to another castle to escape the advancing armies. His German escorts acknowledged that the only sensible course was to take himover the frontier into Switzerland at Bregenz.
Pétain reached the border with joy and relief. The Swiss authorities allowed him to enter the country and then to cross to France to surrender to the jurisdiction of the High Court. On 26 April, after taking the salute from a Swiss guard of honour, Pétain crossed into France at Verrières-sous-Jougne in a limousine. The reception committee awaiting him on the French side of the border included General Koenig and the local Commissioner of the Republic. Pétain offered his hand, but Koenig remained rigidly at the salute for forty-five seconds and refused to take it, despite the Marshal making two more attempts.
The Marshal, impervious to all these signs, talked on quite casually, congratulating Koenig on his war record. Koenig was ‘furious with de Gaulle for sending him to meet Pétain’, particularly since the Resistance press was outraged that he had saluted the Marshal at all.
There was also considerable bitterness over the fact that the Pullman carriage in which the new prisoner was brought back to Paris was given priority over the far less luxurious wagons repatriating the deportees, who had been sent to Germany in cattle trucks. But any comfort which the Marshal may have enjoyed was disturbed by demonstrations along the way, organized by the Communist Party. At Pontarlier, a crowd of 2,000 threw small stones at the carriage and shouted: ‘Shoot the old traitor! Pétain for the firing squad!’
On arrival, Pétain was taken to the fort of Montrouge on the perimeter of the city. A suite of cells had been hastily prepared for him and his wife. As a petty touch of humiliation, a portrait of General de Gaulle surrounded by tricolour ribbon had been hung in his main cell.
The bâtonnier, Jacques Charpentier, the head of the Paris Bar, received a request that he should choose a defence counsel for the trial. So Charpentier came to discuss the matter. Pétain appeared completely lucid on banal matters, but when it came to the question of his defence, he was clearly out of touch with reality.
‘Why do you not plead my case?’ Pétain suddenly said.
‘Because I took a position against your government,’ Charpentier replied.
Pétain was astonished. He could not believe that a reasonable man could have done such a thing. Charpentier found Pétain’s armour of complacency, strengthened by an old man’s facility for blocking out the world, breathtaking.
Pétain’s return caused deep unease in Paris, acting as an uncomfortable reminder that the mass of the population had considered him their saviour in 1940. His presence now was seen as a direct threat to national unity. The centre-right and right feared that his trial would be used as a stick by the Communists to beat conservatives of every hue, while left-of-centre Resistance papers such as Franc-Tireur saw Pétain’s return as Germany’s secret weapon against France. The majority feared the washing of dirty linen that was about to begin. Only those who thirsted after ‘popular justice’ showed any relish.
The torrent of abuse in the Communist press campaign never slackened. But the incident which best demonstrated the mood occurred in the third week of June 1945 at the congress of the Communist-dominated Union of French Women. A resolution demanding the death of Pétain was proposed, to fervent applause. But when it came to the vote, a handful of Catholic women from the Christian Democrat MRP voted against it.*
‘The assembly exploded in anger,’ Comrade Popova, the leader of a delegate of Soviet women, reported to the Kremlin a few weeks later. ‘It demanded that the women who were against the motion should go up on the podiumand explain why they voted that way – whether it was their own opinion or that of their delegation. One of these women was dragged by force on to the podium. “Pétain is old,” she said. “What is the point of killing him? He is not the only guilty one and as I am a Catholic, I am against killing him.” The assembly was outraged. Only when somebody began to sing the Marseillaise did things calm down again.’†
On 23 July, in debilitating heat, the trial of Marshal Pétain opened in the Palais de Justice. Several hundred policemen were on guard in and around the building. The courtroom had room for only 600 people, not nearly enough for those who wanted to attend, so cafés in the neighbourhood were packed. The jury consisted of twelve members of the Resistance and twelve members of the National Assembly who had refused to vote full powers to Pétain in 1940.
The ninety-year-old prisoner, accompanied by guards, entered in uniform to emphasize that he was still a Marshal of France. He wore only one medal, the Médaille Militaire. The marmoreal face, according to Galtier-Boissière, ‘makes one think of his wax effigy in the Grévin Museum’. After the president’s opening remarks, Pétain read out a three-page statement in a clear, firm voice.
He began by saying that he spoke to the people of France, who were not represented by the court convened to try him; and that once he had made his statement, he would remain silent for the rest of the trial. Pétain argued that everything he had done was in France’s best interests. If the court found him guilty, its members would be condemning an innocent man, and they would have to answer before the judgement of God and of the future. After the hearing, he said to his gaoler: ‘I made a fine speech.’
His words made little difference to the jurors. For them, Pétain’s guilt was plain. When the defence exercised its right of veto on the selection of the jury, one of the many Communists disqualified shouted that his exclusion would not ‘save Pétain fromgetting his dozen bullets from a firing squad’. Several other members of the jury were heard to say that the death penalty was inevitable.
Pierre-Henri Teitgen, the Minister of Justice, had a clear idea of how the case against Pétain should be presented. France’s defeat, Pétain’s elevation to head of state and the armistice were to be avoided altogether, and the prosecution would concentrate on Pétain’s actions after the North African landings in November 1942. From that moment, when he had given the order to fire on the Allied forces and had not opposed the German invasion of the unoccupied zone, it could be proved that Pétain’s claims to be acting in France’s best interests had collapsed. Teitgen had outlined this plan to Jefferson Caffery, the American ambassador, at a meeting they had on 27 June. Yet to judge by events, Teitgen was overruled by de Gaulle, who was determined that Pétain’s trial should prove that Vichy had been an illegal regime whose chief crime had been to dishonour France. De Gaulle, not for the first time on a matter too close to his heart, committed a major blunder. *
The chief prosecutor was Procureur Général André Mornet, the man responsible for Mata Hari’s sentence of death before a court martial in this same building twenty-eight years before. Her trial had been a miscarriage of justice, both brutal and incompetent. The conduct of the Pétain trial was to prove less brutal but even more incompetent. Given de Gaulle’s probable interference in the case, this was not all Mornet’s fault, but soon the prosecution was irretrievably bogged down in the events of 1940.
‘They are putting the armistice on trial,’ wrote Charpentier scathingly. ‘The prosecution seems to think that the Marshal lost the war in order to overthrow the Republic… Never does it tackle head-on Vichy’s real crime, the appalling ambiguity which, cloaked in the unequalled prestige of the head of state, led so many of the French into treason.’
The trial consisted of long and largely irrelevant speeches, which the president of the court, Mongibeaux – who, like most of the judiciary, had sworn an oath of allegiance to Pétain – made little effort to bring back to the point. The politicians, who were the first to be called, were more interested in defending their own reputations than condemning Pétain. Only the Socialist leader Léon Blum was impressive, his moral authority increased by his imprisonment in Germany. Pétain, said Blum, told the people of France that the humiliating armistice ‘was not a dishonourable act, but an act in accordance with the interests of the country’. And because the Marshal, being who he was, spoke in the name of honour and glory, people believed him. ‘His atrocious moral confidence trick, yes, that I think is treason.’
The politicians were followed by diplomats and generals, but few who came to the witness stand had anything specific to say. In several cases, the defence – especially the youngest and brightest member of the team, Maître Jacques Isorni – managed to indicate that the prosecution’s witnesses were just as compromised as the old man in the dock; if not as traitors, then as fools.
As witness after witness droned on, Pétain sat in silence and the public seethed with impatience. It was not politicians and officials they wanted to see, but the victims of Vichy – particularly the déportés. The first déporté to appear was, however, far from typical. Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, skeletal and on crutches after his time in Mauthausen, was a former aide-de-camp to Marshal Pétain and had remained loyal. Loustaunau-Lacau, the founder of the ‘Noah’s Ark’ intelligence network with Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, was a rarity in the Resistance: he was ferociously anti-Communist. Glowering at the court, he condemned the trial and its witnesses. ‘I owe nothing to Marshal Pétain but that does not stop me from feeling sickened by the spectacle of those who, in this room, try to pass all their errors on to an old man.’
It was not until Pastor Boegner, president of the Protestant Federation of France, was summoned that one of the most important facts emerged: Pétain had been informed of the atrocities and injustices that were committed by the Vichy regime. Boegner had from the start protested against the racial laws and the deportations, and he continued to do so. He had brought to the Marshal’s attention the fact that France was deporting German Jews who had sought refuge in France in the 1930s, and on 22 August 1942 he had written to the Marshal, telling himof the deportation of Jewish children from the station of Vénissieux, near Lyons. Boegner testified that Pétain had always expressed horror and indignation; but he had never lifted a finger to stop the crimes.
Not all the witnesses were for the prosecution. A great many generals were called who were for the most part loyal to their old leader. To the embarrassment of the American Embassy, Maître Isorni read out a letter from Admiral Leahy, Roosevelt’s ambassador to Vichy, who wrote that in his opinion Pétain had always had the best interests of France at heart. Yet foreign observers were unimpressed at the general conduct of the trial. Almost anybody, including jurors, seemed to have the right to make remarks, even insults, without any reproach from the president of the court, and purely hearsay comments were accepted as evidence. Caffery reported in a signal to the Secretary of State in Washington that Americans with legal training who had followed the trial were of the opinion that the great bulk of evidence so far submitted would have been thrown out by an American court.
The high point was the appearance of Pierre Laval on Friday, 3 August, in the second week of the trial. The spectators were agog at the sight of Pétain and Laval together again. The two men had each described the other as a ‘dungheap’. Laval’s entrance, however, was not impressive. He came in, uncharacteristically ill at ease, hugging a brown attaché case against his chest and seemed confused about where he was supposed to sit. He still carried his grey felt Homburg, and wore his other trademark, a white gangster-like tie. Yet it was the change in his physical appearance that struck people most. ‘The fat of his face is now gone,’ wrote Janet Flanner, in court for the New Yorker. ‘His oily, Moorish hair is now dry and gray and his mustache is the color of tobacco juice. His crooked, stained teeth make a dark cavernous background for his large lips…[His] rumpled gray-and-white-striped suit was so large for his frame that it looked borrowed.’
Although Laval seemed cowed and nervous at first, the sound of his own voice brought back his self-assurance. He spoke brilliantly, but everything he said was addressed to the public and the journalists. The gist of his message was indignation that he should be cast as the black side of the Vichy coin. He reminded the court of Pétain’s statement five days after the Normandy landings: ‘Monsieur Laval and I walk hand in hand. Between him and me there is perfect agreement both in thought and act.’ Yet Laval did not answer a single question directly.
His presence roused Pétain from his long silence. The old man described his shock when, on 22 June 1942, he heard Laval announcing on the radio: ‘I hope for the victory of Germany, because without it, Communism will spread throughout Europe.’ Laval countered by saying he had shown the draft of the speech to Pétain. By that stage, nobody knew who to believe.
The jury sentenced Pétain to death, although not with the overwhelming majority that people expected. The incompetence of the prosecution and Jacques Isorni’s performance had sown many doubts among those who had possessed none before. The jury also put in a request that the sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Maître Isorni claims that this was to prevent de Gaulle fromtaking the credit for sparing the old man, who was to remain in prison on the Île d’Yeu until his death in 1951.
The trial failed to penetrate the enigma of Marshal Pétain. Did he really believe that he had outfoxed Hitler with a ‘double game’? That he had served the Allied cause, as he pretended, even when giving the order to counter-attack the American landings in North Africa, or when writing to Hitler after the Anglo-Canadian raid on Dieppe to congratulate him for sweeping clean the soil of France? Did he believe all this or had he managed to convince himself of what he needed to believe?
Marshal Pétain recorded in a letter to Laval of 6 August 1944 – two months to the day after the Allied landings in Normandy – his horror at the accounts he had been hearing ‘for several months’ of the crimes of the Milice, including rape, murder and theft. He went on to express his dismay at the ‘deplorable effect produced’ by the Milice handing ‘to the Gestapo their own compatriots and working closely with it’.
Joseph Darnand, the head of the Milice, replied to Pétain’s reprimand in a telling fashion: ‘For four years, I received your compliments and your congratulations and you encouraged me. And today, because the Americans are at the gates of Paris, you start to say that I am going to be a blot on the history of France. One might have made up one’s mind a little earlier.’ Darnand at his own trial was equally forthright: ‘I am not one of those who are going to tell you I played a double game. As for me, I went ahead. I went all the way.’
Pétain’s main method of evading responsibility for his regime’s actions was to portray himself as a prisoner of the Germans. ‘Each day, with a dagger at my throat, I struggled against the enemy’s demands,’ he protested at his trial. But if he was, as he claimed, a prisoner of the Germans, then why at the end of May 1944, in his speech at Nancy, was he still asking the French people to continue to follow him? ‘Trust me. I have a certain amount of experience and I have pointed out the right direction.’ There was no disavowal of his regime, over which he later claimed to have had no control. There was no hint of regret at what had been done by Vichy in his name.
On 2 May, shortly after Pétain had passed through Switzerland, Pierre Laval had managed to escape from the ghastly chaos of Germany’s final collapse in a Junkers 88 trimotor aircraft. To avoid arrest, he had flown over France and landed at Barcelona. General Franco’s government, not wanting to provoke the Allies in any way, refused to offer the former Prime Minister of Vichy political asylum, but at the same time did not want to hand himdirectly over to the French.
Finally, after almost three months of tortuous negotiations via the United States ambassador in Madrid, Laval was flown to the American zone of Austria in the same Junkers 88 – this time with the Nazi markings painted out. On arrival in Linz he was taken into custody by the US army, and on 31 July, eight days after the opening of Pétain’s trial, he was handed over to the French military authorities. The following day he was flown to Paris and transferred to Fresnes prison.
Throughout Pétain’s trial, his defence had stressed that it was Laval, not the Marshal, who was responsible for the crimes of Vichy. Laval’s appearance as witness had done little to mitigate that impression, despite his exaggerated respect for Pétain and his insistence that he had never taken any major decision without the Marshal’s approval.
When Laval arrived in Fresnes, Benoist-Méchin caught sight of him from his cell. He too was struck by how much weight the short and solid Auvergnat had lost since the last time they had met. Laval, although suffering from cancer, continued to smoke five packets of cigarettes a day. He was amused to receive a request for his butts from the ‘gamins’ in the cell on the floor above. They were hoisted up one by one tied to a string.
A handful of devoted followers, most notably his wife and daughter Josée, continued to believe every word he uttered. Comte René de Chambrun, his son-in-law, made it his life’s work to clear Laval’s name. When asked what he most admired about his father-in-law, Chambrun replied that ‘he was incapable of uttering a falsehood, even a white lie’.
Laval slept little and smoked constantly – his nervousness increased by the fact that he was denied access to the documents he had so carefully saved and annotated in Germany. He had to put together his defence from memory and from a few copies of theJournal Officiel.
He was also denied access to any potential witnesses; and the inquiry into his case, which should have consisted of twenty-five separate ‘interrogations’, was suddenly closed after the fifth. This was because the provisional government wanted Laval’s trial, which would dominate the press, out of the way before the referendumon the creation of a new Constitution scheduled for 21 October.
The trial began on Friday, 5 October, and was a cross between an auto-da-fé and a tribunal during the Paris Terror. Once again the courtroom was full to bursting and all eyes were on Laval. He came in clutching his attaché case, on which was written: PIERRELAVAL PRÉSIDENT DU CONSEIL. He appeared alone, without his lawyers. A statement from them was read out by the president, Mongibeaux, saying that their absence was a protest at the abruptly curtailed inquiry into Laval’s case.
‘The examination procedure has not been hurried,’ Mornet, the chief prosecutor, replied. ‘It started five years ago, the day that Pierre Laval, with Pétain, seized power.’ At this point, both Laval’s fists came crashing down on to the table. His face contorted with fury, he shouted, ‘You were all under government orders, even you, Monsieur le Procureur Général! Condemn me straight away, that will make things clear.’
Things went frombad to worse, with those supposed to be conducting the trial completely on the sidelines. Laval never answered their questions directly. The basis of his defence was that he had played a double game, to deceive Germany and protect France. He claimed that his notorious statement, ‘I wish for a German victory’, was intended to lull the Germans into a false sense of security. This line excused almost anything: his support for Hitler’s New European Order and the Legion of French Volunteers sent to the Russian front in German uniform. Even the dispatch of Jews to concentration camps, and Frenchmen to Germany on forced labour, could thus be explained away as a stratagem to save many more from a similar fate. He also managed to give the impression that the reason his trial was so rushed was that he knew the truth, and those in high positions were afraid that he might reveal it.
The jury, however, were unashamedly out for his blood. They resisted his arguments, hurled insults and threatened him with ‘a dozen bullets in his hide’ – a phrase much in use during the épuration. At times the trial degenerated into a ferocious slanging match between the jurors and the accused. And these were the parliamentarians, not those picked from the Resistance.
The bâtonnier, Charpentier, saw Laval as a wounded bull in an ignoble arena. ‘Like Andalusian urchins who leap into the bullring, members of the jury insulted the accused and intervened in the proceedings.’ ‘The Laval trial is a scandal beyond description,’ wrote Pastor Boegner in his diary. Charpentier went further. The whole exercise had become counter-productive. ‘In this way, a man universally hated, whose conviction, after proper proceedings, would never have raised a murmur, has been turned into a victim.’
There was no appeal beyond this court, where decisions were final. Laval realized he stood no chance of saving himself and on the third day refused to appear, remaining in his cell from then on. He wrote to Teitgen, the Minister of Justice, complaining eloquently and bitterly of his treatment. Teitgen advised Laval’s lawyers to urge their client back into the courtroomor he would surely be condemned.
Laval did not take Teitgen’s advice. He thought that absence from his own trial would become an insurmountable obstruction to its continuation, and persuaded his lawyers – who had long been under his spell – to agree with him. Wrapped in a cloud of self-delusion as thick as the cigarette smoke in his cell, he worked feverishly on a new defence for a new trial. On 9 October he heard to his stupefaction that the court had condemned him to death.
Four days later, Pastor Boegner went to the rue Saint-Dominique to ask for a commutation of Laval’s death sentence, since his trial had been such a travesty of justice. ‘If Laval is executed after what has happened,’ he said to de Gaulle, ‘will it really be an execution?’ Boegner watched his reaction carefully. Not a muscle moved on the General’s face. Laval’s lawyers had a similar experience. Their client could already have been dead. François Mauriac also wrote to Teitgen begging for a retrial, but received no reply.
Most executions took place at the fort of Montrouge, but Laval was shot at Fresnes. The official witnesses, including the Procurator-General, the presiding judge and Charles Luizet, the Prefect of Police, arrived at the prison soon after half past eight and went to the condemned cell on the ground floor. Laval, scorning his persecutors at the last moment, swallowed cyanide, which he must have kept concealed in his clothes. Almost immediately he went into convulsions. The official party panicked, not knowing what to do. The senior prison doctor called for a stomach pump. Céline observed later (in his other persona, as Dr Destouches) that the cyanide had almost certainly been spoiled by moisture. Others thought that Laval had failed to shake the phial.
It took over two hours to revive Laval sufficiently for execution. Half-carried, without his shoes, he was taken out and strapped to a chair. Laval apparently tried to rise to his feet as the firing squad took aim. Benoist-Méchin claimed that the soldiers were drunk with rum, given to steady their nerves during the wait. As the ragged volley was heard inside the prison, the inmates went into a rage, hammering on their cell doors with shoes and yelling: ‘Bandits! Salauds! Assassins!’
The government tried to keep the grisliest parts of Laval’s story from the people, but the news spread rapidly. France was split between those who felt that he deserved his fate, however it had been administered, and those sickened by the shameful episodes in court and afterwards. The question even provoked arguments within families. ‘The only time I ever struck my husband,’ said Liliane de Rothschild (her husband, Élie, had recently returned from his prison camp in Germany), ‘was when he said that Laval had been badly treated.’
Early in November 1945 a sale was held at the Hotel Drouot to dispose of the jewellery and furs confiscated fromprofiteers and collaborators. The prices obtained were far higher than expected in such impoverished times. A yellow diamond ring went for 4 million francs ($80,000 at the time). The audience was an extraordinary mixture of poor people come to see a bizarre form of justice carried out and ‘black-market queens’ in their new dresses by Lucien Lelong.
This event said much about the mood of the time. Nobody was satisfied, except for those who had profited and escaped the consequences of their actions. The épuration was both too harsh and too weak. The failure to pursue some of the greatest criminals, particularly those responsible for the deportation of Jews, compounded by an attempt to rewrite history and close the lid on the past, created greater trouble in years to come. Over a quarter of a century later, a new generation began to probe the shameful secrets of the Vichy years.