Jean van Heijenoort writing as Marc Loris

The Riom Trial: The Truth About French “Democracy”

“The Riom Trial—the Truth about French ‘Democracy’” Fourth International, April 1942, pp.108-110, under the name “Marc Loris”. (3,348 words)

The political life of unoccupied France is one of prostration. “Sit tight and don’t budge,” seems to be the official watchword. The press submissively follows the instructions of a censorship which oversees everything even to deciding the size of type for the headlines. All polemic is frowned upon, and there is no response except silence to the raging campaign which the Nazi-inspired press of Paris leads against the “Vichy gang.” The octogenarian Petain appropriately heads this senile paternalism.

The Riom trial unexpectedly caused a break in this pattern, from the middle of February to the first days of April. The court sessions were more like a parliament than a judicial tribunal. All the political questions of the recent past and of the present were dealt with. Moreover, the trial seriously affects the French-German relations at the present moment.

The history of the trial is very long. Since the military debacle, that is to say for nearly two years, its preparation has been going on. An entirely new category of law and a special court of justice were created by Petain with the aid of the so-called “Constitutional Acts.” Petain also created a Council of Political Justice which in October 1941, without a public session, rendered what amounted to a verdict on the five men accused at Riom, declaring them guilty and condemning them to “detention in a fortified enclosure.” Many actually believed that this was all of the trial and that the business was finished. But it soon became apparent that this was only a preparation for the trial.

The reasons for the trial are simple. The revenge of the bourgeoisie for the great fright of June 1936, the attempt to compromise definitively the “democratic” ideas of those charged with the military defeat. This blind hate of the revolution led the prosecution to pure idiocy. Thus the indictment charges that Daladier “opened facilities for foreign invasion in peace time, notably through the entry into French territory of thousands of dangerous Spaniards and their leaders.” How this “invasion in peace time” of “dangerous Spaniards” could bring on the very real invasion of the German troops is a mystery which the prosecutor would have difficulty in explaining.

An equally important reason for the trial is to give a badly needed appearance of authority to the Petain government. Immediately after the military debacle, the team of Petain-Weygand-Laval brushed aside the entire republican and democratic apparatus and took the power into its own hands with absolute disregard of constitutionality. The trial must serve as a justification and a sort of post factum consecration of this coup d’etat by juridically establishing the incapacity of Petain’s predecessors.

Gamelin’s Silence The silence of Gamelin, Commander-in-Chief of the French Armies, revealed immediately the purely political character of the trial: it was the trial of democracy and not the trial of the Army. At the very first session Gamelin, who should know something about the causes of the defeat, declared that he would remain silent during all the debates. His reason: he could not permit that the army be judged! And during all the debates up until the present moment, Gamelin has stayed silent, with the exception of one or two episodic declarations on secondary questions. The Commander-in-Chief has obstinately refused to participate in the discussion on the causes of the military defeat.

But the plot thickens when we learn that the decree by which the special court was created had been slightly altered a short time before the trial, in order to enable the court to prevent the discussion of military operations. In other words, the Vichy government directly permitted, if not ordered, Gamelin to keep his mouth shut.

The Truths Told by Leon Blum Leon Blum’s defense is as simple as it is explicit: “M. Blum took credit for having saved France from civil war, which he said at the time was a far more imminent threat than that of war with Germany."[1] That which is true is true. Blum does nothing more now than repeat what the Trotskyists had charged as early as 1936. Blum is also reported to have said that when he took power the situation was not “pre-revolutionary but practically revolutionary.” This phrase seems to be taken word for word from the 1936 documents on France of the Fourth International. Blum’s declarations also confirm the estimation that the Trotskyists always gave to all those who saw in Blum a man of good will poorly understanding the needs of the revolution and who tried to enlighten him and convince him: Blum is a perfidious agent of the enemy, perfectly conscious of his role, and he must be denounced as such. Blum himself has just settled this controversy.

At Riom, Blum denounced the hypocrisy of the French bourgeoisie. He recalled that in June 1936 “he found himself considered by French employers and the bourgeoisie generally in the light of a savior, and he denied that anyone had ever appealed to him to use force in repressing sit-down strikes.” In June 1936, the French bourgeoisie, no less exactly than Blum, judged that the situation was “not pre-revolutionary but practically revolutionary.” The bosses hurried to sign the collective contracts, in fact without even an invitation from the government—the “invitation” of the workers was sufficient. The “social laws” were hastily passed the deputies, and the senators approved with a celerity unusual for them. The French bourgeoisie showed excellent political judgment. The slightest resistance on their part would have provoked an explosion. Instead the movement was vanquished by the conciliatory policy of Leon Blum. Without conciliation it would have been an open and armed struggle. The bourgeoisie was right when they considered Blum “in the light of a savior.” And Blum is right when he now denounces the hypocrisy of that bourgeoisie which today pretends to condemn him.

However, there is someone whose hypocrisy Blum forgets to denounce: Blum. In 1936 did Blum tell the workers that the situation was “practically revolutionary” but that he, Blum, was undertaking the job of preventing the revolution and of becoming the savior of the bourgeoisie? No, these truths are told only now and to the bourgeois judges alone. In order to defend himself before the Riom judges Blum was compelled to reveal in broad daylight what a dirty role he had played. We hope the workers will remember these confessions of a traitor.

The Military Preparation of France It was undoubtedly Daladier who transformed the trial, and from accused made himself the accuser of the High Command. Much more than to the personal efforts of Daladier, however, such a transformation was due to the enormous responsibility of the military chiefs for the defeat of 1940. This responsibility is so direct that one need only glance at this period to be struck by the fact.

Petain, however, did not neglect to take precautions. The first had been the understanding with Gamelin that he would remain silent. Another, so it seems, was the choice of witnesses. During six weeks the court saw not a few witnesses pass before it. They were all military men, colonels or generals. It would be hard to explain why they were chosen—why those and not others. For although some of them are important, they are not the foremost figures of the French army. That is clear. Petain wished to leave the real chiefs out of the trial. This explains the non-appearance of Weygand, head of the army for a number of years and Commander-in-Chief at the moment of the debacle. The witnesses came to the bar to tell their petty personal experiences in their own sectors. It seems that Petain chose those who could throw the responsibility for their particular difficulties on some scapegoat. However, after several questions, the picture becomes perfectly clear: the prosecution is absolutely incapable of showing that the lack of preparation was due to the insufficiency of credits, to the bad will of the government or to the time lost in strikes. The obvious and immediate fact is the incapacity of the High Command, and not only of Gamelin but of his predecessors, Weygand and Petain. The last in particular, president of the Commission of National Defense from 1934 to 1939, made in those years precise and well-known declarations against a too great motorization of the army, against a too great utilization of aviation, against the use of tanks as the main offensive force, against the fortification of the Sedan breach.

Some declarations taken at random show the state of the French army. “General Requin said that tank maneuvers had long been under study but were theoretical, without materiel on the field. General Hering declared that he had always espoused the formation of motorized units and at one point in his testimony exclaimed: I only succeeded in converting one disciple, and that was General von Brauchitsch!” On March 24, “several of the generals professed entire ignorance of German preparations and progress in military science. General Huret declared . . . that they were unaware of the German use of rubber boats. ‘The use of these rubber boats came to us as a great surprise,’ he told the court.” If the use of rubber boats was a surprise, what a greater surprise was the combined use of tanks and planes!

After the experience of Poland the High Command started to wake up a bit. Daladier declares: “Armored divisions were only formed in 1940, but they might have been organized with the material already manufactured long before the war. The obstacle was this singular timidity of the High Command in approaching the question of tanks.” The communications among the different parts of the army on campaign were assured by pigeons or messengers as in 1870. The French High Command wasn’t yet acquainted with the use of the radio. This is certainly not the fault of the forty-hour week.

An X-Ray Picture of the Bourgeois State Independently of the will of the organizers, there appeared at the trial a new defendant: French capitalism. We suddenly learn (in 1942) of the role the big bourgeoisie played in curbing production. And there is plenty of testimony on the subject. General Bernard declares: “The private purveyors’ cartel did everything to hamstring the spreading out of orders among manufacturers throughout the country.” That is something our American readers understand well! One of the defendants, Pierre Jacomet, former Secretary-General of the French War Ministry, “advanced as a reason for the delay in rush contracts the fact the arms manufacturers, such as Renault, enjoyed a virtual monopoly and so demanded very high prices.” Another defendant, former Air Minister Guy LaChambre confessed that, although Minister, he was completely “dependent on plane manufacturers who could not always be held to their promises.” Daladier himself explained what was meant by nationalization of war industry. “M. Daladier declared that the measure had been limited to ten principal factories that had been working with antiquated methods .... Nationalization had equipped them with modern machinery and made it possible for them to triple their output. . . . He said that generous compensation had been paid by the government to the expropriated munitions makers.” One can believe Daladier that the capitalists lost nothing in the exchange!

However, what happened? “M. Daladier said the Schneider factory has built a wall across its premises to prevent access from the nationalized portion to private shops. He charged M. Brandt [another munitions maker] with having removed official records in the dead of night from one of the factories, so that it was necessary to take police measures to have the documents returned.” Of course, the police took the documents but were careful not to touch M. Brandt. Imagine what would have happened to a worker caught “removing official documents in the dead of night.” How revealing these accounts are. This is a real picture of the French boss, not only in his egotistic thirst for profits, in his blind hate of socialism, but also in his niggardliness and meanness. Schneider, one of the largest French capitalists, raised a wall in the middle of his factory! Brandt, another big boss, stole documents “in the dead of night"! One could not possibly invent more caustic traits with which to characterize a class that has outlived itself. And what to think of the Daladiers and the Blums, not to mention Thorez, who prevented the workers from sweeping away this rottenness!

The government was powerless not only in the face of the trusts, but also in face of the High Command. Daladier lengthily explains how in reality his position as War Minister gave him not the slightest power over the military chiefs, but that on the contrary he could merely act as a rubber stamp for their decisions. The former Air Minister, Guy LaChambre, explains that “Cabinet Ministers did not have full control over the functioning of their own departments.” From one side he had to submit to the decisions of the High Command, from the other “he was dependent on plane manufacturers.”

To complete this picture of the bourgeois state it is necessary to speak also of the attitude of the government towards the fascists in the army. Before the Riom court appears a witness, General Gerodias. “He testified a document reached his hands relating to the Spanish Civil War, describing mutinies against officers of the Spanish Civil War. ‘The document appeared interesting to me,’ General Gerodias stated, ‘and I had it circulated to the officers of the French Army for their information.’” In reality, the document was a piece of fascist propaganda, and the General actively distributed this propaganda in the army. What happened to the fascist general? Listen carefully: “I was relieved of my command on orders of General Gamelin. Six months later General Gamelin gave me another command of equal importance.” Imagine a simple soldier circulating a revolutionary leaflet among the soldiers “for their information"! Five years in prison would be the ordinary penalty. For a general and fascist propaganda it is a six-month vacation. One learns later that this General Gerodias, incidentally, had served on Marshal Petain’s staff.

“Another witness, General Montagne, said he had been removed from his command but was restored to favor and sent to another command in a few days. . . . General Montagne said, ‘The real reason was that I dared to say that if things kept on as they were we might as well give up.’” Imagine a simple soldier going before his general and declaring to him, “We might as well give up.” We doubt very much that he would be “restored to favor” in a few days!

The paradox of the dispute which unfolds before the Riom court is that the defendants can defend themselves only by revealing some truths about the past. By doing this they really condemn the regime of decadent capitalism and they condemn those who defended this regime—themselves.

The Attitude of Germany Berlin’s attitude toward the Riom trial reflects the dynamics of the French-German relations since the defeat. At the beginning the trial was far from displeasing to the German authorities. The very day after the armistice in June 1940, it is reported, there was German insistence on the establishment of “war guilt.” It was hinted by Daladier, indeed, that there would have been no trial at all had it not been for such insistence. Several different times during the very long preparation of the trial, the press of Paris, inspired by the Nazis, started a campaign against the Vichy government, saying it was seeking to stifle the trial.

Now the situation is completely reversed. The Nazis and their lackeys denounce the trial as a farce and a scandal and demand its suspension as soon as possible. The German attack started at the beginning of March, two weeks after the opening of the trial, with a long and violent dispatch from the diplomatic correspondent of the official German news agency D.N.B. The problem was clearly posed: “Definitely to clarify the atmosphere, a controversy in which the aim seems to be to ascertain whether this or that politician or this or that general is responsible for defeat, is immaterial. What matters is to have the answer to the question: Why did France declare war on Germany, knowing full well the Fuehrer’s desire for peace? That answer might well become an absolute necessity.”

The German opposition to the Riom trial found its expression most clearly in a speech by Hitler himself. The 15th of March, in a Memorial Day speech, the Fuehrer declared: “At present, proceedings are taking place in France which are characterized by the fact that those responsible for this war are not mentioned in a single word. The proceedings merely deal with insufficient preparations for war. This mentality appears to us incomprehensible, but it reveals perhaps better than anything else the causes for this war.” The last sentence is not distinguished by its logic, but one thing is clear: Hitler wants the French to acknowledge their “war guilt.”

This question of the responsibility for the war has always had a burning interest for Hitler. In Mein Kampf his principal grievance against the Versailles Treaty was that it proclaimed German responsibility for the first World War. Now, the bloody clown, in the midst of the carnage and wreckage, proclaims his love for peace: “I did not want this,” trying to convince himself. Besides this personal interest, very apparent in Hitler, the question of war guilt has an enormous political interest. If France’s guilt in starting the war were officially recognized, that would be a trump card in the hands of the Nazis in all the occupied countries and—this becomes important—even in Germany. Finally, the confession of “war guilt” would permit Hitler to extract from France many political and economic concessions. But that is also precisely why the French bourgeoisie cannot make such a confession. The pressure on Vichy is great. After Hitler’s speech, Fernand de Brinon, Vichy’s envoy to the German authorities in Paris, on March 19, came to see Petain especially about the trial. And one can imagine that this question was one of the principal topics of the recent rather mysterious interviews between Petain and Laval. Nevertheless, it is impossible at present for Hitler to get the French bourgeoisie to confess “war guilt.”

The Lessons of the Trial It seems impossible, however, that the trial will continue as it started. It is too scandalous a defeat for Petain.

It is more important to draw up the balance sheet of that which the trial has already revealed to us. Blum and Daladier by their declarations, Gamelin by his silence, have shown us the real structure of the bourgeois state, the impotence of the elected politicians before the cartels and the General Staff. Blum completely confirmed the analysis of the Popular Front given by the Trotskyists in the face of all the other tendencies of the working class movement.

For the present, the trial has shown the extreme weakness of the Vichy government, the fraud on which it rests. It remains to be seen what the repercussions of the trial are in France. Exactly what do the French know of what is going on in the little provincial town of Riom? Petain took good care of that. Daily instructions are given out by the Bureau of Censorship to the French newspapers indicating even the “commentaries” which are to accompany the reports of the trial. It is certain that from the daily press the French know less about the trial than the Americans. Nevertheless, with the lack of internal cohesion of the police apparatus of Vichy, the debates are probably widely known on the outside; the speeches will very likely be reproduced in the numerous illegal papers. The Riom trial, in revealing the emptiness and the fraud of the Petain government, may under present conditions, contribute to the regeneration of political life in France. April 8, 1942

[1]All Quotations are from the New York Times’ reports from Riom.