WITHOUT the aid furnished by a conquered and eventually fully occupied France, it is doubtful that the Nazis could have continued fighting so long as they did. During 1941-44, France provided the Third Reich with as much food as did the entire occupied East; more than a million Frenchmen toiled for the German war effort -- including large contingents of skilled workers, unavailable elsewhere. By 1943 the French were supplying Hitler with enormous quantities of iron and coal, bauxite and building materials. Eighty-five percent of French rail traffic in 1944 was devoted to shipping goods to Grmany; occupation costs absorbed half of French national revenues, eventually fixed at a staggering 25 million marks a day. Throughout this period, France differed from other conquered states in Europe in that she had her own government, made up in part of outstanding prewar politicians and other personalities, operating with a measure of independence from Nazi control. Although subject to increasing German pressures and threats, and although their country was fully occupied after November 1942, French officials, headquartered in the provincial resort town of Vichy, actively collaborated with the Germans. And in perhaps the ugliest stain of all on Vichy's record, French police and officials participated in the deportation to Auschwitz of nearly 75,000 Jews -- one-third of them citizens of France.

After the war, the leading spokesmen for the Vichy regime -- notably the 88-year-old marshal of France, Philippe Petain, its head of state, and the wily Pierre Laval, government leader in Vichy's last two years -- protested that their efforts avoided even greater calamities. Cooperating with the Germans, they maintained, prevented even more resources from going to the Nazis, even more Jews being deported, and even more suffering for the French population. A single goal, according to Laval, had infused the whole sordid undertaking of collaboration -- "that France may live." After the Liberation, Frenchmen were in no mood to hear this argument. In disorderly trials, often a mockery of judicial procedure, P,etain and Laval were both convicted of having betrayed their country; both were sentenced to death. The old marshal received a pardon from his former junior colleague, Charles de Gaulle. Laval was not so lucky; dragged back to life after a suicide attempt, he was shot behind the Fresnes prison, protesting his innocence to the last.

Since then, the examination of the historical record has not dramatically altered the hasty judgments of 1945. P,etain and Laval, it is now clear, sought far more than merely to shield France against German exactions. Each believed that he was the indispensable instrument of his country's salvation. Each attempted to use the opportunity provided by defeat to reconstruct France according to his own political ideals. And each was encased in impenetrable vanity, which fatally weakened tactical judgment.

Universally acclaimed by a despairing population in 1940, the venerable warrior P,etain inspired the "National Revolution" -- a thoroughgoing effort to dismantle the republican order in France, creating instead an authoritarian, anti-Semitic, anti-Masonic society, with its social clock turned back to the turn of the century. Herbert Lottman's biography of the marshal draws upon new material, hitherto kept from the public eye. Much of this is private correspondence, including coquettish love letters as well as documentation of his hazy political views. Although the author hesitates to make a categorical judgment, the picture that emerges from his pages is of a weak, uncertain, and occasionally hypocritical autocrat, extraordinarily callous toward those victimized by his policies, increasingly adrift amid scheming political sharks. While generally in command of his faculties, P,etain exercised only shaky control of events -- particularly in the latter part of the war. Having cultivated an image of himself as shrewd and omniscient, P,etain seems to have genuinely believed himself the living incarnation of his nation. Stony-faced, he accepted gifts -- once, unblushingly, receiving baby lambs dressed in pink ribbons. Validating a puritan, clerical regime -- whose social ideal was a kind of boy scout summer camp -- he carried on absorbing love affairs with adoring mistresses many years his junior.

To my reading, the author treats his subject too gently. Moreover, had Lottman used the easily available unpublished German documents, his verdict might have been clearer and more harsh. For it turns out that the Nazis used P,etain readily for their own purposes -- dividing Frenchmen from one another and saving themselves much of the trouble of occupation while bleeding France white.

LIKE THE AGED head of state, Pierre Laval believed after 1940 that Germany would not be defeated, and sought to restore France's place in Europe through an association with the victor. In this effort, Laval recklessly overplayed his hand. As he put it in 1942: "I defy anyone -- and I've said this to the Germans -- to build a solid, articulated and viable Europe without France's consent." Hitler, of course, wanted no part of Laval's Europe, and constantly raised the price for the few crumbs of independence left to France. Laval fell into the Germans' trap: Nazi officials watched every step at Vichy, drawing the French deeper and deeper into collaboration without yielding anything of value.

In the second book reviewed here, Laval's son-in-law, Count Ren,e de Chambrun, chooses to ignore the evidence of catastrophic failure, presenting instead a scrapbook of testimony on Laval's behalf. This curious volume -- a remarkably tendentious and selective reading of events -- glosses over French complicity in Jewish deportations, mistakenly gives the impression that France fared better than fully subdued countries, and altogether avoids Laval's sincere efforts to accommodate France to the Nazis' New Order. Chambrun's justified outrage at Laval's trial and execution are hardly sufficient authority for his misreading of earlier events. His book seems a fading echo of postwar passions, increasingly inaccessible to a generation spared the dilemmas of Nazi occupation.