Kafkaesque political drama in which Laval was denied a fair trial without witnesses, documents or evidence. And his meeting with Hitler as Prime Minister and with Mussolini earlier held up as evidence of treason, collaboration and therefore guilty.
The great Athenian Historian, Thucydides wrote with great insight, nearly two thousand five hundred years back, "to fit in with the change of events, words too had to change their usual meaning." Ideology and political expediency demanded a new Hero and a new Church and the hero and the church required a sacrifice in blood and that was paid by Laval. On the night preceding his execution he tried to kill himself and it was decided to shoot him on a stretcher, if he could not walk. De Gaulle claimed that his "Fighting France" had "liberated" France from the Germans. The truth is that he was allowed to march a small contingent of 500 men at the head of the Anglo American column and thus the keystone of the Gaullist ideology rests on a piece of contrived propaganda. Gaulle did not liberate France and neither was Pierre Laval a collaborator or a traitor. De Gaulle with the help of the Communists and elements of the French Right whipped up a cloud of passion which cast deep doubts on the motives and actions of Pierre Laval. Unfortunately, the Gaullist State institutionalised the self serving ideologically potent myth and like marionettes Historians are dancing ever since to this absurdity. In fact anyone even suggesting a more nuanced and balanced opinion or assessment is usually hollered down by the rabid defenders of de Gaulle.
Few Historians recognise today that Pierre Laval was the first European statesman to understand the danger posed by Hitler. After becoming Prime Minister in 1931 he sought to bring Social Insurance and succeeded and to this day his scheme lasts. In 1935 as Prime Minister he met Mussolini in Rome and convinced him to accept the responsibility of defending Austria and when the Germans assassinated the Austrian Chancellor, Dollfuss, it was Italy that forced Germany and Hitler to back off from outright annexation. Recognizing the danger posed by Germany and responding to that danger by creating an international coalition with Italy and Britain fell through as Britain was going through it "appeasement" phase and when Britain accepted the remilitarization of the Rhineland without a whisper of protest, Laval realised that in any confrontation France would be left high and dry. The same fear took him to Moscow, but Stalin too was in no mood to confront Germany. Given this track record of diplomacy against Hitler's Germany, Laval can be termed a "fascist" and "collaborator" only by those who use History as a tool of political legitimation. Samuel Hoare the Foreign Minister of Britain signed an agreement with Laval but it created a storm in Britain which did not quite see Germany as an existential threat to civilization, and Laval clearly did. When Laval's policy of containment fell through, he became more prudent.
In 1940 when Germany invaded France and concluded an Armistice which was hugely popular, Laval had no role in this at all as he became Prime Minister under Marshall Phillipe Pe'tain after the Armistice. Does this transfer of power which took place with the concurrence of the National Assembly constitute treason. The charge of treason cannot be made unless we take into consideration the fact that the Armed Forces, Police and territory were firmly controlled by the existing Government. I hesitate to use the very word Vichy as it carries the stain of Gaullist invective. De Gaulle went to France where he was permitted to claim that he represented "Free France", the Cross of Loraine that Sir Winston Churchill and the Allies carried reluctantly. Pierre Laval was dismissed in 1940 and for the next two years he remained out of office. He was recalled in 1942 and held office until 1944. Only the retrospective judgement marinated in expediency and political need can lead to the imposition of the construct of Traitor and Collaborator on Laval.
Pierre Laval kept French institutions clear of German influence and all the judges on the hastily constituted a High Court of Justice including the chief, Paul Mongibeaux were all servants of the Vichy Government and they did not see the irony of sitting in judgement on a man who was its head. The fact is de Gaulle wanted Pierre Laval punished and executed so that he could build his political future on dead Laval. The jury consisted by Socialists who were politically opposed to Vichy and a death sentence was handed down and on 15th October 1945 Laval faced a firing squad. The trial and sentence were timed so that before the Elections in 1945, de Gaulle could appear before the French as the Grand H'omme the saviour of "Eternal France" and refurbish its image as a Great Power. And the removal of Laval did accomplish all this. France's defeat and neutrality (not collaboration) could be wiped clean and the Gallic Coq was free to strut its stuff on the world's stage.
An assessment of Pierre Laval must consider the circumstances of his regime and with the exception of Rousso few Historians have taken those under consideration. Pierre Laval preserved France as State and Country in the face of huge challenges. Nazification of French public institutions was resisted almost till the bitter end. German demands for labour was met but with reluctance and Jewish persecution was resisted till the end of 1943 when it became impossible for France to fight Germany.
An assessment of Pierre Laval must consider all these facts.