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Hero of WWI. Traitor of WWII. Honored in Milltown, NJ.
March 7, 2010 10:55 PM   Subscribe

A Local Street and a Lesson in History

Background: Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain was a revered and honored hero of WWI in France, but after the War, "the glorious savior of Verdun (pdf)" rose to head the Vichy state, which collaborated closely with the Nazis.

After WWI, a Milltown, NJ street's name was changed to Pétain, in honor of his military leadership. (See: "What's a Name.") But a recent campaign by a local teenager asking that the name of the street be changed gave borough officials something to consider: should Pétain's subsequent actions as head of the Vichy government outweigh his prior heroism?
posted by zarq (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
should Pétain's subsequent actions as head of the Vichy government outweigh his prior heroism?

Is that even a hard question?
posted by rodgerd at 11:27 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Battle of Saratoga was one of the first big victories of the American revolution. One of the American commanders in that battle was Benedict Arnold, and he performed superbly.

But we don't name streets after him. (Or anything else, either.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:33 PM on March 7, 2010


Is that even a hard question?

I wouldn't have thought so. But the town voted unanimously to leave the street name alone.

There's a neat quote from a retired Columbia University history professor towards the end of the Times article:
Professor Paxton said he understood why people would take offense, but that if we want to understand history, remembering Pétain’s fall from glory to infamy is more worthwhile than effacing his name. “His story is so much a part of the way history unfolds,” he said. “I don’t think obliterating it adds to our understanding in any way.”


Perhaps the example his life represents can come to be more important than revoking the honor?
posted by zarq at 12:01 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


That's kind of a nasty rhetorical trick, to conflate "don't think this street name should be changed" with "don't think his later evil outweighs his prior heroism". Changing a street name is a major pain in the ass, and it sounds like most people there haven't even heard of the guy. A referendum on changing the street is not the same thing as a referendum on Pétain.

Mind you, if I lived there, I'd vote to change it. But I don't think these people are crazy for deciding that the inconvenience of changing it outweighs the injustice of honoring a nasty dude in this particular case. (If it was Hitler or Stalin, that'd be different. If it was a more important street, that'd be different. If there were neo-Nazis in the neighborhood and the street name could be perceived as tacit endorsement of them, that'd be different.)

Hell, how many streets do we have named after Columbus? Or Cortez?

Easy solution, though: rename it after some other Pétain.
posted by equalpants at 12:26 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fascinating post, thanks. If you're a Beatles fan (even if you're not) you might also find the story about the proposed name change of Penny Lane, named after a slaver, which also ended up keeping its controversial name.
posted by Dim Siawns at 12:38 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bollocks, you might find the story interesting.
posted by Dim Siawns at 12:39 AM on March 8, 2010


Wow, I never knew that about Penny Lane. Crazy.
posted by equalpants at 12:54 AM on March 8, 2010


“I don’t think obliterating it adds to our understanding in any way.”

Well, that's nonsense. Taking books out of a library is obliterating history. A street name is not there to be a history lesson. When it's named after a person or place, it has a different purpose: to commemorate or to honour, in such a way that people might feel good about having their lives attached to it.

I don't think anyone's suggesting forgetting about the war. But you know who else you don't want your street named after?
posted by bicyclefish at 1:17 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fascinating comment from the linked article:

The article was interesting, but historically, there is another side to this debate.

Petain was indeed a collaborator, but historically, there were many who thought he did so only to protect France, and that he secretly funded the French underground.

The best—and most ironic—evidence of this comes from the diaries of Joseph Goebbels.

In his diaries, Goebbels repeatedly states how much he hates Petain, and how he is positive that Petain is secretly fighting the Nazis. He wanted to put Petain to death because he was sure of this, but without proof, was unable to convince Hitler to give him permission to have Petain executed.
Petain was certainly no saint….but he WAS trying to fight the Nazis.


I know nothing about this topic, but - if true - it certainly adds another dimension. I love how something so simple as a one word street can unfold like elegant origami, revealing dimensions, characters, emotions, debates and ambiguity. What an beautiful lesson in taking things at face value. I think they should keep it.
posted by smoke at 2:44 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another recent renaming (this one successful).
posted by equalpants at 2:50 AM on March 8, 2010


"All wars are a nightmare to those involved. Thank God, most of us don’t know what it is like and have ever been involved in the fights. Most of us have never suffered from hunger, from invaders, or had no home, no clothes and no hope. In most countries of the world, the present generation has no idea about War World II, or they judge it from shots published by Life magazine. There’s another side you have never seen. These photos were taken in the former USSR during World War II in the occupied territories. The authors of most of them are not known — these are photos from family archives posted online by grandchildren of those who took part in the war. Some of the photos belong to the Soviet journalists of that time - Vladimir Lupejko and Dmitri Baltermants. The photos are shocking and cruel, but they should teach us to respect others’ lives and dignity. We are equal and we are not born to be slaves."
posted by netbros at 3:18 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


History is such a mess.

We really should tidy it up.
posted by srboisvert at 5:42 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Easy solution, though: rename it after some other Pétain.

Better yet, honor our longstanding friendship with Canada by renaming it Poutine St. The sound is close enough, and poutine would never collaborate with the Nazis.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:42 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I agree that there are more egregious examples, including Columbus circle, or all the Jefferson Davis Counties and Lee Counties in the South. I mean this is a small side street in a small suburb. makes you wonder how many streets like this there are.

How about this mining town in Ontario? So-named long before Hitler, but still, not exactly tourist brochure friendly.

Historical marker.
posted by xetere at 6:24 AM on March 8, 2010


Any Alberta/BC Mefites want to weigh in here?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:34 AM on March 8, 2010


I may be a bit out of the loop, but when did everybody decide that Columbus was a horrible dude?

Granted he was not really an exemplar of 21st century ideals, especially once he got to Hispanola, but I hardly think he could be described as a monster, or be held directly accountable for the actions of those who followed in his footsteps (Cortez was a huge dick, and I fully agree with things not being named after him).

The fact is that very few of the great historical figures can stand up to our modern ideals for behavior, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, its called progress. Columbus did many things that would be completely unacceptable today, but that does not diminish the fact that for pure accomplishments he is probably right up there with any human being who will ever live.

Great article, and this is a thought provoking discussion.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:15 PM on March 8, 2010


Columbus did many things that would be completely unacceptable today, but that does not diminish the fact that for pure accomplishments he is probably right up there with any human being who will ever live.

Yeah, I mean since he was able to steal the charts compiled by the Portuguese based on the accounts of Basque fishermen riding the trade winds to and more importantly FROM the north Atlantic cod nurseries in order to capitalize on the fishing conflict between the Hanseatic League and the English. Nobody else could have done that.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:50 PM on March 8, 2010


I'm wondering how residents pronounce the name of the street. I would guess puh-TANE, but street-name pronunciations can get pretty wacky. Anyone know for sure about this one?
posted by gubo at 5:51 PM on March 8, 2010


Should Schools be Named for Slaveowners?
...thousands of public schools are named after our founding fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Franklin — names that make many Americans proud. But some of the fathers owned or traded slaves.
posted by dhartung at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2010


The article was interesting, but historically, there is another side to this debate.

Petain was indeed a collaborator, but historically, there were many who thought he did so only to protect France, and that he secretly funded the French underground.


Petain narrowly avoided being tried as a traitor and executed, which was the fate of many of the senior Vichy collaborators; his reputation was marred beyond repair. I find it hard to believe that if there was so much as a single shred of evidence that he had been involved in supporting the resistance groups that none of it would have come out by now.
posted by rodgerd at 10:34 AM on March 14, 2010


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