Pétain, Philippe (1856–1951)

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PÉTAIN, PHILIPPE (1856–1951)


French soldier and politician.

Had Marshal Philippe Pétain died honorably in 1939, on the eve of World War II, at the age of eighty-three, some prestigious Parisian boulevard would today bear his name. He would have a secure place in history as the hero of Verdun, the battle most closely identified with the terrible violence of World War I and the suffering of the men and women who fought in it. By the time he was appointed commander-in-chief of the French army in May 1917, battles had become so deadly that soldiers began to mutiny. Pétain reestablished discipline that was strict but humane, concerned by the soldiers' fate. During the war Pétain developed a clear preference for a defensive rather than offensive strategy, and his great popularity was in part due to his image as the commander who shared the hardships with his troops.

After the victory that won him the supreme rank of marshal, Pétain became one of the most influential military chiefs in French history, advising right-wing and left-wing governments alike. After putting down riots in Morocco in 1925 and 1926, he continued to play a major role in military policy, and he served briefly in 1934 as minister of war. He had a major role in devising a strategy to fortify France's northern and eastern borders. The Maginot Line was thought to be inviolable; but the Germans, when they invaded France in 1940, merely took care to circumvent it.

Pétain was serving as the first ambassador to Spain after General Francisco Franco's victory in the civil war when he was recalled urgently to return from Madrid on 18 May 1940. With the German offensive under way, Pétain was appointed vice premier. A month later, the French army suffered total defeat. The wartime fate of the country was sealed in Nazi hands, and so was Pétain's. Succeeding Paul Reynaud—who wanted to pursue the fight against the Germans from North Africa—Pétain, as head of the government, signed an armistice with Germany. The Nazis occupied the larger part of the country that included Paris, the western coast, and industrial regions in the north and east. German authorities left the southern half of the country free of troops, leaving putative sovereignty there to the Vichy government (so named because its headquarters were situated in the small spa town of Vichy). But about one and a half million French prisoners of war remained in German captivity, and the French government paid the Reich huge sums for the daily cost of occupation.

On 10 July 1940 the National Assembly granted Pétain all powers—executive, legislative, judicial, and constitutional. He made immediate use of them by abolishing the Third Republic and establishing a dictatorial regime. Suspending parliament, he arrogated to himself the right to make law. Several months later, in October, he launched a formal policy of collaboration with Germany and set out his program for "regeneration," known as the "National Revolution," a movement that combined the reactionary traditionalism of the far-right Action Française with the social conservatism associated with the Catholic Church and well-placed individuals known as notables. These partners planned a third path that was neither capitalist nor socialist, which became the basis for a major social program from the summer of 1940 to the spring of 1942. Essentially, apart from a few social reforms such as a campaign against alcoholism and pension reform, the program was antidemocratic and antirepublican, suspended civil liberties, segregated foreigners, and excluded Jews.

The Vichy social program won wide acceptance among the French, who were suffering a crisis of identity in the wake of their demoralizing defeat at the hands of the Germans. With the help of propaganda, Pétain was perceived as the father of the nation, an old man who had come out of a quiet retirement to save his country yet again. The obscure Charles de Gaulle's calls for resistance were sometimes heard but rarely avidly followed, and Pétain could occasionally be an energetic leader. He had the help of Pierre Laval, a politician of the Third Republic embittered after he was forced to resign from the government in 1936; later came Admiral François Darlan, a serious Anglophobe whose plan for France's recovery was to make of it essentially a German protectorate.

Collaboration with Germany quickly developed into a one-sided affair. The Nazis took the opportunity to loot the country while subduing the Resistance, which grew in strength after 1941 with support of the communists, and became a real power in 1943 after its reorganization by de Gaulle's delegate, former prefect Jean Moulin. The mass arrests and deportation of French Jews gave no relief, whether in terms of food supplies or the return of prisoners or war. Pétain continued his policy of collaboration even after the allies landed in North Africa, and the Vichy government was enfeebled by Nazi occupation in the south in November 1942. The Vichy government had no army or naval force, no colonial empire or unoccupied territory to call its own, yet Pétain continued to lend his name and declining legitimacy to the worst sorts of activities. Under the authority of Laval, to whom Pétain delegated all power, Joseph Darnand's pro-Nazi militia (milice) hunted French resistants, many of them being men who were trying to escape forced labor in Germany, and Pétain supported the Nazis and the milice in their increasingly brutal fight against the Resistance.

After the Allied landing at Normandy on 6 June 1944 and in southern France on 15 August, the Germans in their disorderly retreat brought Pétain out of France. After the final defeat of Germany, he met with the new French authorities in April 1945 to stand trial, which began on 23 July 1945. Found guilty of treason, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison by General de Gaulle. He spent the rest of his life in the jail on the island of Yeu, off the Brittany coast, where he died in July 1951. Since his death, his supporters and defenders of the fantastic thesis of the blade (de Gaulle) and the shield (Pétain) have continually requested that his ashes be transferred to Verdun, where in 1916 he helped secure victory. The government, in spite of some ambiguity under the presidency of François Mitterrand, who had worked for the Vichy regime before becoming active in the Resistance, remained opposed to such a move, in consideration of the moral stain that Pétain's leadership from 1940 to 1944 had inflicted upon the country, never to be forgiven.

See alsoCollaboration; Gaulle, Charles de; Laval, Pierre; Maginot Line; Mitterrand, François.


Burrin, Philippe. France under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New York, 1996.

Griffiths, Richard. Marshal Pétain. London, 1970. Reprint, London, 1994.

Miller, Gérard. Les pousse-au-jouir du maréchal Pétain. Paris, 1975. Reprint, Paris, 2004.

Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944. New York, 1972. Reprint, with new introduction, New York, 2001.

Marc Olivier Baruch