Should Petain Road be renamed?

Dear professor Tommy Koh,

I refer to your 20 Mar 2012 Straits Times article “Should Petain Road be renamed?”

You said the French Army had been progressively degraded after the First World War due to budgetary cuts. But between 1920 and 1938, French military spending was 4.3% of GDP, higher than Germany’s 3.3% over the same period [1]. Between 1920 and roughly 1934, French real military expenditure exceeded that of the German’s [2]. French military spending started to increase in 1930 whereas German military spending started to increase in 1933 [3].

In the second half of 1936 French premier Leon Blum launched the biggest arms programme ever attempted by a French government in peacetime [4-1]. The army and national defence minister Daladier spoke compellingly for accelerated arming because the French already knew from their secret service that the Germans were preparing for total war [4-2]. When Germany doubled its standing army in Aug 1936, France replied with a plan for a 21 billion franc army, navy and air force [4-3] and the cabinet authorised a 14 billion franc army programme on 7 Sept 1936 [4-4].

Thus, France was actually more ready for war in 1939 than in 1914 [5] but French general staff did not foresee the new type of armoured warfare developed by the Germans [5]. Even the British army, which fought alongside the French was no match for the Germans at the start of the war and were lucky to have been evacuated at Dunkirk. Signing an armistice with Germany when the military situation was hopeless was probably the best thing any general could have achieved. Petain probably saved millions of French lives in doing so. French human losses were so much lower in World War 2 compared to World War 1.

There was more to just the Petain government collaborating with the Germans. Until mid-1942, one-sixth to one-fifth of French people favoured collaboration [6-1]. Collaboration and self-interest existed at every level in Vichy France [6-2] and there were no shortage of French non-Jews ready to fleece their compatriots through confiscation of Jewish properties [6-3]. In practice, everyone in France was in a state of moral disarray [7]. Support for Vichy was widespread and collaboration was active and extensive [8]. Distinctions between resistance and collaboration were often less sharp than assumed [8]. Regular, average citizens sent thousands of letters identifying members and supporters of the resistance, black marketers and Jews [9].

Thus, eradicating the name ‘Petain’ won’t eradicate the complicity of the French people in their collaboration with the Nazis. The French has no more reason to be ashamed of Petain than they have of themselves. Even our own Lee Kuan Yew worked for the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation. What happened in France demonstrated widespread anti-semitism in Europe then [10], [11], [12]. If there is any community that should feel offended by the name ‘Petain’, it would be the Jewish community, not the French.

[1] Unifying the European Experience: Vol. 2, Chapter 6, “War and Dislocation, 1914-1950”, Jari Eloranta, page 17, Table 2

[2] Military expenditures and economic growth, Jasen Castillo, Julia Lowell, Ashley J Tellis, Jorge Munoz, Benjamin Zycher, page 20, Figure 3.2

[3], Military Spending Patterns in History, Jari Eloranta, Figure 3 and Figure 4

[4] Cry Havoc, the arms race and the Second World War 1931-1941, Joe Maiolo
[4-1] page 160
[4-2] page 161
[4-3] page 165
[4-4] page 163

[5] The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Julian Jackson, page 199

[6] We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France During the Holocaust, Patrick Gerard Henry
[6-1] page 4
[6-2] page 3
[6-3] page 13

[7] France and the Second World War: occupation, collaboration and resistance, Peter Davies, page 6

[8] War, nation, memory: international perspectives on World War II in school history textbooks, Keith Crawford, Stuart J. Foster, page 82

[9], Occupied France – Resistance and Collaboration, French Authorities and Citizens Betrayed their Country, Ivan Castro

[10] Collaboration with the Nazis: public discourse after the Holocaust, Roni Stauber, page 3

Jews who escaped from ghettos to the forests ended up being hunted down and murdered by local Polish peasants and partisans.

[11] Organizing rescue: national Jewish solidarity in the modern period, Selwyn Ilan Troen, Benjamin Pinkus, Merkaz le-moreshet Ben-Guryon, page 276

Polish survivors faced murderous hostility from the local population, a large majority of whom would not accede to the reappearance of Jews on Polish soil.

[12] Antisemitism: a historical encyclopedia of prejudice and persecution, Volume 1, Richard S. Levy, page 27

The high tide of anti-Zionist persecution came during the purges and trials staged in the USSR and its satellite states between 1948 and 1953. Jews were proportionately overepresented amongst the victims of these purges.


One Response to “Should Petain Road be renamed?”

  1. Barry Song Says:

    In addition to Mr Lee, Mr S R Nathan also worked for the Japanese!

    I can imagine, when Japan became restive, these two gents started learning Japanese. When the Japanese arrived, these two gents immediately signed up with the Japanese army.

    Such foresight and a “can do” spirit!

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