Death of Marshal Pétain

Philippe Pétain died on 23 July 1951, aged 95.

Philippe Petain in the 1930s (Library of Congress)

In June 1951 President Auriol of France issued a decree permitting Philippe Pétain, now 95 and senile, to be moved for humanitarian reasons from the fortress on the Ile d’Yeu in the Bay of Biscay, where he had been held since 1945, to a house at Port Joinville nearby. Earlier, in February, the anniversary of the 1916 battle of Verdun, in which Pétain had won heroic fame, had moved General de Gaulle to suggest that he be allowed to end his days with dignity. In April the prisoner was so ill that he was given the last rites of the Church, and three weeks after the move to Port Joinville, he died. He was buried there on July 25th in the presence of his wife, Marshal Weygand and other former associates. The authorities allowed him to be described on the death certificate as ‘Philippe Pétain, Marshal of France’ rather than ‘Philippe Pétain, without profession’, as originally intended.

Pétain derived his immense reputation from the defence of Verdun against a massive German onslaught, and his ability to inspire his soldiers to stand firm in a battle – for a fortress of almost no strategic importance – which inflicted casualties of a quarter of a million men on each side. He was then already 60 years old. When the Germans invaded France again in May 1940, he was 84. He was made a vice-premier to Paul Reynaud to bolster national morale and in June, with German troops overrunning the country, he was put in charge. ‘I make France the gift of my person,’ he announced on the radio, and asked the Germans for an armistice. They agreed and the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies, meeting in the liver-cure spa of Vichy with the Germans occupying two-thirds of France, unhesitatingly made Pétain chief of state.

Pétain’s job was to get France out of the war and he did. Upright, dignified, ultra-conservative and calm, he was considered a saviour by most French opinion: an archbishop called him ‘the incarnation of suffering France’. He assumed that the Germans would swiftly defeat the British and finish the war, and then he would return to Paris. In the longer perspective, Pétain saw his duty as the rescue of his country from near-destruction by leftwing ideology. He and those round him wanted to restore old-fashioned respect for religion, patriotism and the family. ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’ was the slogan.

The immediate requirement was Franco-German reconciliation. Spurred on by Pierre Laval, the regime’s principal architect, Vichy propaganda was vehemently anti-British and, after a meeting with Hitler, Pétain publicly called for collaboration with the Germans. In October Jews were banned from the civil service and from teaching and Jewish entry to the media and the professions was limited. Vichy France was a fascist state and in 1942 the German ambassador minuted that the Vichy authorities ‘would be happy to get rid of the Jews in any way whatsoever, without too much fuss.’

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Pétain hailed him as civilisation’s defender against Communism, but the practical effect of the attack  was to inspire the Communists in the French Resistance, which was further strengthened by ruthless German exploitation of France. Pétain began to doubt whether the Germans would win the war after all, but maintained his collaborationist stance because he feared that otherwise the Germans would annex the whole country. Gradually opinion hardened against the Vichy regime and the collaborationists, and 1944 saw a virtual war between the Resistance on one side and the Germans and collaborationists on the other.

In August 1944 the Germans carried Pétain, Laval and other Vichy ministers off to Germany.  A titular French government was set up in an ex-Hohenzollern castle at Sigmaringen. It soon collapsed and the marshal returned to France to be tried for treason. He refused to recognise the authority of the court and how much he was able to take in of the proceedings by this time is uncertain. In his defence it was argued that in appalling circumstances he had done his best to protect French interests and had in fact enabled France to survive. By a majority of twenty votes to seven he was found guilty of treason and conspiracy to overthrow the Republic and was sentenced to death, confiscation of property and indignité nationale. By a majority of only fourteen to thirteen the judges recommended mercy and de Gaulle as prime minister commuted the sentence to imprisonment for life.