On this day in 1940, Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, World War I hero, becomes prime minister of the Vichy government of France.
As Germany began to overrun more French territory, the French Cabinet became desperate for a solution to this crisis. Premier Paul Reynaud continued to hold out hope, refusing to ask for an armistice, especially now that France had received assurance from Britain that the two would fight as one, and that Britain would continue to fight the Germans even if France were completely overtaken. But others in the government were despondent and wanted to sue for peace. Reynaud resigned in protest. His vice premier, Henri Petain, formed a new government and asked the Germans for an armistice, in effect, surrendering.
This was an ironic position for Petain, to say the least. The man who had become a legendary war hero for successfully repelling a German attack on the French city of Verdun during the First World War was now surrendering to Hitler.
In the city of Vichy, the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies conferred on the 84-year-old general the title of “Chief of State,” making him a virtual dictator–although one controlled by Berlin. Petain believed that he could negotiate a better deal for his country–for example, obtaining the release of prisoners of war–by cooperating with, or as some would say, appeasing, the Germans.
But Petain proved to be too clever by half. While he fought against a close Franco-German military collaboration, and fired his vice premier, Pierre Laval, for advocating it, and secretly urged Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco to refuse passage of the German army to North Africa, his attempts to undermine the Axis while maintaining an official posture of neutrality did not go unnoticed by Hitler, who ordered that Laval be reinstated as vice premier. Petain acquiesced, but refused to resign in protest because of fear that France would come under direct German rule if he were not there to act as a buffer. But he soon became little more than a figurehead, despite efforts to manipulate events behind the scenes that would advance the Free French cause (then publicly denying, even denouncing, those events when they came to light).
When Paris was finally liberated by General Charles de Gaulle in 1944, Petain fled to Germany. He was brought back after the war to stand trial for his duplicity. He was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in solitary confinement. He died at 95 in prison. The man responsible for saving his life was de Gaulle. He and Petain had fought in the same unit in World War I and had not forgotten Petain’s bravery during that world war.