Assessing Marshal Pétain and Vichy France
Introduction: Origins of Pétain and The Vichy Regime
Regimes born out of defeat often struggle with legitimacy. Weimar Germany is one such example most people are familiar with. Another was the French government at Vichy that came about after France's shocking defeat to Germany in June of 1940. By the time the armistice was signed on 22 June, Germany had occupied two-thirds of France. Two weeks later, on 9 July, France's parliament voted 569-80 to dissolve the discredited Third Republic and make Field Marshal Philippe Pétain the head of state with almost dictatorial powers (Jackson DY 132-133). What he governed was a small, quasi-autonomous region in southern France headquartered at the spa town of Vichy. For the next few years, this sad remnant was France. After the war, Vichy's vassal status to the Third Reich made it a hated symbol of French humiliation and defeat.
After all, the French debacle on the battlefield in 1940 contrasted sharply with its dogged defense against Germany in World War I. Many don't remember, or don't want to remember, that much of the French population, including most members of the armed forces, accepted defeat and even welcomed the right-wing authoritarian government set up by Marshal Pétain in the aftermath. That is largely forgotten. People instead remember the France of 1944 that welcomed Allied armies back onto French soil.
It was not always so, however. Before Charles de Gaulle became the symbol of universal French resistance to Nazi tyranny, he was a marginal exile dependent on his British hosts for material support. In contrast, Marshal Pétain briefly became the respected symbol of France after its defeat in 1940, though these were years stained by collaboration, national apathy, and a virulent antisemitism that sent tens of thousands of Jews to the death camps out east. However, at the time, he was seen as the only person with the credibility to guide France through its darkest days. But history was written by his victorious enemies. After the war, he was France's symbol of national shame and disgrace, a reputation that endures to this day.
How should we view Pétain in the context of his times? Was he the traitorous villain that history has turned him into? Or is the reality a bit more complicated than that?
Those are the questions I'm going to look at here.
How Vichy France and Marshal Pétain Seemed in 1940
Vichy's leader, Marshal Pétain, was still in 1940 one of France's most revered national heroes from the Great War. He was the great Lion of Verdun, the general whose dogged defense and leadership held the French together at a time when mutiny and collapse seemed imminent. During the interwar period, he remained influential, heading the peacetime Army and filling other roles in government. After France fell in 1940, he took over to broker the peace. He became the head of the new right-wing French government, a status most nations recognized, including the United States, who sent an ambassador to represent U.S. interests.
Roosevelt first offered the Ambassadorship for Vichy to retired General John Pershing, who had commanded U.S. forces in France during World War I. Pershing, who was friends with Marshal Pétain, declined the position because, at 80, his health and stamina were not up to such a job's demands. (Note: Pétain, 84 when he took power in 1940, would have been wise to do the same.) Retired Admiral William Daniel Leahy ended up getting the job and remained in Vichy until May of 1942.
Pétain is remembered today as a hapless Nazi collaborator. But this retrospective condemnation conceals a very different perception in 1940. At that time, he was seen as an elder statesman, a unifying presence, a steady rock, and a trusted grandfatherly figure who could help guide France through its national nightmare. His firm hand on the rudder seemed a welcome change to the zigging and zagging chaos of the late Third Republic which had left France so fatally unprepared for war.
There was also the feeling that Pétain and other collaborationists had stuck it out, rather than fleeing abroad as Charles de Gaulle had. By staying in France in its darkest hour, he showed that he was willing to put his nation's welfare over self-interest. This set an example that most of his fellow countrymen followed. Julian Jackson writes,
"The core of Pétain's appeal to the French people in 1940 was his decision to remain on French soil and to defend his compatriots, to defend French lives, while de Gaulle left France to defend what he later called his 'idea of France'" (Jackson CD 120).
Indeed, there was a kind of courage in this willingness to face the music. He made the tough call to take an impossible job that no one wanted. Of course, this only goes so far. Pétain was also staunchly conservative and saw this defeat as an opportunity to steer France back to its more traditional values, at least as he saw them, and away from the decadent excess that had brought about defeat.
But Were Pétain And His Vichy Regime Fascist?
Fascism is notoriously hard to define and has come to be more an epithet than a precise term. The consensus among many historians was that the Vichy government was not fascist, though there were shades of it in practice. Vichy Historian Robert Paxton makes some useful distinctions between the far-right regimes of the mid-20th century that are worth highlighting here.
On the fascist end of the spectrum of far-right ideologies, you find Hitler's Third Reich, followed by Mussolini's Italy. On the other end are the ultra-conservative governments. Two examples of these contemporary to Vichy France were Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal. Both were far to the right but not predominantly fascist.
Conservative regimes like those of Franco and Salazar emphasized tradition, despised liberal modernity, embraced an ultra-conservative form of Catholicism, and enforced strict social hierarchies. This resembled Pétain's Vichy regime as well.
Fascist governments, by way of contrast, promoted pagan myths of national origin and preached revolutionary mass movements towards some kind of vague glorious new order representing a clean break with the past. Conservative regimes recoiled from these aspects of fascist ideology, seeing them as either heretical or destabilizing to social order (Paxton 288-294).
But make no mistake, Pétain's Vichy regime was still a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship, and its true nature would soon burn away those initial feelings of goodwill and reverence for the old marshal. Vichy was anti-democratic to the core, ultra-conservative, and virulently anti-Semitic (more on that below), reflecting its leader's own views.
Pétain Takes Charge And The French Follow
By his reckoning, selfish egotism and liberal decadence had doomed France just as much as Hitler's panzers. Those had merely delivered the death blow to a society already rotten to the core and about to collapse. He called for a return to those traditional French virtues forsaken during the interwar years (1918-1939). These emphasized the traditional nuclear family and the spiritual rewards of a well-developed work ethic which, when combined, would work together to restore the vitality of France. On that note, whereas Republican France's famous motto had been "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," Pétain changed it to "Work, Family, and Fatherland."
The French were not necessarily opposed to this line of thinking, especially after the social chaos and instability of the Third Republic's demise. Also, keep this in mind: Pétain's initial popularity was not an aberration that had to be coerced at gunpoint, at least not to begin with. After the defeat, most French soldiers and sailors caught abroad after the armistice chose repatriation to France rather than continuing resistance with de Gaulle's fledgling Free French.
For example, French soldiers in British custody after the failed Narvik campaign in Norway were given the choice of repatriation or joining de Gaulle's London-based government in exile. Guess what? The vast majority chose repatriation (Jackson DG 137).
Similarly, of the 500 naval officers and 18,000 sailors in British custody in June 1940, all but 50 of the officers and 200 sailors chose repatriation to France (Paxton 56). During the first couple of years after the French defeat in 1940, de Gaulle struggled to fill his ranks. Most Frenchmen just wanted to go home and be done with the war.
People tend to see a past event through the lens of how it ended and not how it began. In this way of thinking, Rome fell because it was decadent, never mind the 600 years of hegemony that preceded it. We only remember how it ended, and that defines our perception of the entire history. Most Americans don't know that pro-German sentiment remained strong before the U.S. entered the war in December of 1941. Only Hitler's declaration of war after Pearl Harbor galvanized public opinion against the Nazis. Today, we only remember the good versus evil crusade against the Axis that took place after Pearl Harbor. Our default narratives about historical events often merge around how they ended and not how they began.
Likewise, we tend to remember the French efforts in World War II as they played out later in the war when Charles de Gaulle was the face of French resistance and resurgence. The flawed impression is that the French remained united in their struggle to shake off the Nazi occupiers. We're familiar with the images of the French welcoming the Allies when they returned to France in June 1944, while assuming that before D-Day, everyone in France was a member of the Resistance courageously fighting the Nazis. That was not the case. The truth is far more complicated and less flattering to French pride.
According to Max Hastings,
"The Resistance until June 1944 engage only a small minority of French people, and incurred the hostility of many more. After liberation service with de Gaulle became a badge of pride. Throughout the occupation, however, many French people treated his followers as troublemakers and traitors, and frequently betrayed them to the Vichy authorities or the Germans" (Hastings 123).
The fact is that most of the French population made peace with defeat in 1940 and even found another cause to rally around: hostility toward former ally Great Britain (Hasting 124).
France vs. Britain: Fighting Between (former) Allies
But why Britain?
The French needed a scapegoat to explain their rapid collapse in 1940. And what better scapegoat than France's erstwhile ally and centuries-long rival, Great Britain. To be fair, the Brits gave plenty of fuel to ignite this hostility. Several brief but intense skirmishes of Franco-British combat are a little-known chapter of World War II.
It all began in the weeks after France surrendered. By the terms of the armistice, France was to retain control of its navy. Pétain, for his part, tried to reassure the Brits that Germany would not use the French navy against it. But Winston Churchill wasn't taking any chances, ordering the Royal Navy to seize French naval assets abroad.
French ships in British ports were then interred (mostly) without incident. However, the large French squadron in Mers-el-Kabir, Algeria, refused the Royal Navy's demand to hand over its ships. The Royal Navy then opened fire, killing around 1,300 French sailors in the lopsided exchange. French pride and public opinion were outraged. Less than a month after fighting as allies, the French and English were now shooting at each other.
You see, even after its defeat, France still saw itself as a sovereign nation and not a reluctant puppet of Nazi Germany. Most French colonies stuck with Vichy and defended themselves against Allied encroachments over the next three years. After all, sovereign France felt it was out of the war, and therefore any attempts by its former ally to seize its colonial possessions were viewed as acts of war.
For example, the British move to occupy Vichy-held Syria in 1941 was met with fierce resistance from the French garrison, which inflicted hundreds of casualties on the British before finally agreeing to a ceasefire. When the fighting finally stopped, 32,032 French servicemen chose repatriation. At the same time, only 5,668 decided to enlist with de Gaulle, another reminder that most French simply wanted to go home and not keep fighting for what looked like a lost cause that was no longer theirs (Hastings 125).
Moreover, when the British took over strategic Madagascar, the French defended themselves much more than anticipated, holding out for several months before agreeing to a ceasefire. As historian Julian Jackson wryly notes, "The French held out longer against the British in Madagascar in 1942 than they had against the Germans in 1940" (Jackson 213).
This French hostility was evident as late as November 1942 when Operation Torch launched to retake North Africa from Vichy. British intel expected that French resistance to the American landings in Algeria and Morocco would be minimal. They were wrong. The Americans actually had to engage in several days of heavy fighting with the French to overcome their resistance, sustaining about 1,500 casualties when it was all said and done (Hastings 364).
It is strange to say, but from July 1940 to December 1942, French forces engaged in combat against the Allies more than the Axis, despite calls to switch sides. The French just about everywhere remained steadfastly loyal to Pétain's regime in France until late 1942. It is no coincidence that this was the year that the fortunes of war shifted inexorably toward the Allies.
Shifting Fortunes Of War: de Gaulle's Rise And Pétain's Fall
By late 1942, the writing was on the wall. Overextended German forces were getting hammered in the Soviet Union and North Africa. By early 1943, the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Germany was going to lose.
As the fortunes of war shifted, Pétain's star waned while de Gaulle's ascended. When the Allies landed in North Africa, Germany responded by occupying southern France, removing any pretense of French autonomy. Likewise, the Resistance gained momentum throughout France as popular support for Vichy dropped because of its repressive policies. As a result, Pétain found himself increasingly marginalized and at the mercy of events far beyond his control.
On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle's stock only rose from its 1940 nadir. Then, exiled in the aftermath of France's defeat, he was little more than a low-ranking flag officer of a defeated ally with no official position and dependent on his British host's hospitality and resources. Actually, he was also a fugitive according to the Vichy regime, which as you will remember, was the internationally recognized French government at the time. Few could have predicted the meteoric rise to follow.
It's worth pausing to note the contrast between Pétain and de Gaulle. Pétain was the clear-eyed pragmatist who looked in the face of defeat, accepted it, and then built his new reality around that fact; most of his fellow citizens followed his lead. On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle was an idealist about France - or at least the idea of France - believing that as long as he and other true patriots refused to quit the fight, then the war wasn't lost.
In de Gaulle's mind, only a single battle had been lost in 1940, not the entire war. That war would continue until France was liberated and retook its rightful place among the world's premier powers.
I'll put it more succinctly.
Pétain had eyes to see the situation and acted accordingly, even rationally, given the circumstances.
But Charles de Gaulle had vision.
This is the critical difference between the two men and explains how one ended up a national hero and the other a condemned war criminal. It's why I pass a giant statue of de Gaulle on my way to work every morning.
Still, in the dark days of that long summer of 1940, de Gaulle's vision of France unbeaten seemed laughably contradicted by the facts on the ground. Pétain was not the only pragmatist of defeat then. Most of the dying Third Republic's leaders demonstrated just how psychologically conditioned they had become in accepting defeat in 1940 and how unready they had been for war in the first place.
De Gaulle was right to view these weak little men of the Third Republic with acid contempt, a sentiment he shared with Pétain. However, the similarity ends there. Pétain provided the role model for coming to grips with France's defeat, making it okay for everyone else to admit defeat as well. Meanwhile, De Gaulle went on to become the symbol of French resilience and resistance.
Remember, in 1940, Brigadier General de Gaulle was a relative nobody compared to the legendary Field Marshall Pétain. Who would have thought how dramatically this situation would reverse itself in four short years? As the Allied tide rose, de Gaulle surfed it like a wave and rode it to victory. By 1944, he had become the de facto leader of France, even if the Allies were reluctant to grant him that title without the stamp of a free and fair election.
Meanwhile, Pétain's power was fading along with his 88-year old mind. He served out the remainder of the war as little more than a puppet in a show that the Germans now controlled.
What About Pétain's Antisemitism And Role In The Holocaust?
To say that Pétain remains controversial to this day would be an understatement.
For example, emotions stirred in 2018 as France commemorated the 100th anniversary of World War I's end. French President Macron said it was okay to honor Pétain for his role as a "great soldier." Macron added, "I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory." And then, "You can be a great soldier during World War I and then go on to make disastrous choices during World War II.
The backlash was instant, forcing Macron's spokesman to issue a correction a few hours later clarifying that Pétain would not be among those honored.
So is it fair to condemn Pétain for his actions during the war? Is it possible to compartmentalize Pétain's pre-WWII career like Macron was doing? No, not really. We don't look back at Hitler and compliment him for all the jobs he created in the 1930s or how he made the trains run on time. No, what came after far, far outweighed that.
As I've shown, Pétain was hardly the only one who threw in the towel in 1940. Most of the French did so as well. If that were all, if he were only guilty of quitting too soon, then we could perhaps take a more global view of Pétain's career like Macron was trying to do.
But that is not all. Pétain's enthusiastic antisemitism and his role in sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths are permanent stains on his reputation.
The truth is that Pétain's regime was virulently anti-Semitic from the outset. No goading from the Nazi occupiers was needed to strip France's Jewish population of its civil liberties. Within days after taking office, in July 1940, foreigners naturalized after 1927 lost their French citizenship. This impacted 6,000 Jews who lost the protective shield of French citizenship. Foreign-born naturalized French citizens who fled France during the German invasion had their citizenship revoked and property confiscated. In August of 1940, the 1881 Marchandeau Law was repealed. The purpose of this law had been to protect members of racial and religious groups from abuse in the press. Now, they were fair game for public attacks (Cesarani 307-8).
In October, Pétain's government created the Jewish Statutes. Jews were banned from most white-collar professions like teaching, law, civil service, and journalism, just to name a few. More than 40,000 stateless Jewish refugees were put into camps where around 3,000 died during the winter of 1940/41 from the awful conditions.
Again, the Vichy government, led by Pétain, did this on its own initiative.
The Nazis didn't make them do it.
And this was only the beginning.
Deportation to the extermination camps in Auschwitz began the following year, in 1942. The quota for France set by Adolf Eichmann was 40,000. With the costly and embarrassing internment of so many Jewish refugees, Vichy believed it had a Jewish problem, and the Nazi offer of deportation seemed like the perfect solution. When France's occupied zone failed to meet the quota, Jews from Vichy's unoccupied "Free Zone" were rounded up by French police and sent to Auschwitz. By November 1942, 11,012 Jews from the "Free Zone" on seventeen trains were transported first to the concentration camp at Drancy, outside of Paris, before being sent to Auschwitz, where most perished (Cesarani 552).
Overall, Vichy France oversaw the deportation of 75,721 Jews to the death camps in Poland. Of these, less than 2,000 survived. Latent antisemitism among Vichy's officials had made the German offer to rid France of its stateless Jewish problem an offer too good to refuse.
Therefore, Vichy's actions in abetting the Holocaust are damning. That they tried to take some protective measures later doesn't negate the fact that tens of thousands of Jews were murdered with the help of Pétain's regime. They could have done better. Other Nazi-occupied governments in Europe slowed down or avoided altogether the mass deportations of their Jewish populations.
Take Denmark, which managed to protect almost all of its Jews from deportation to the death camps. Pétain's efforts are paltry in comparison and were limited to safeguarding full French citizens. The Vichy authorities only protected Jews if they had been naturalized before 1927 or acquired French citizenship by birth. Everyone else was on the table for deportation and "resettlement" out east in Poland (Cesarani 545).
In the end, the unpopularity of Vichy's anti-Semitic policies forced it to alter course. By late 1942, the French public had some vague idea that resettlement in the east was a euphemism for mass murder. Sending Jews to the east meant something much worse than mere resettlement. As the public backlash grew, the authorities reconsidered their strategy of collaborating with the Nazis, especially on issues related to France's Jewish population.
The very public roundups of Jews had eroded support for the Pétain regime as well as the growing realization by late 1942 that the Third Reich's days were numbered. The Vichy authorities had to begin thinking about a future Allied victory and what that would mean. After that, until liberation in 1944, the Vichy government was less willing to help the Germans institute their Jewish policies. Rather than any pangs of conscience, these more calculating considerations are the reasons for Vichy's shift in its Jewish policy (Cesarani 556).
Pétain's story is increasingly pathetic after the Germans occupied the "Free Zone" in November 1942. He lingered on as the titular head of Vichy, but his power was more symbolic than real. In August 1944, the Germans removed him from French soil as Allied armies raced across France. He sat out the rest of the war in a castle outside Sigmaringen, Germany, where he remained, the head of state without a state, an 88-year old man now as irrelevant as he was disgraced.
In April 1945, with the war's end in sight, Pétain presented himself at the French border and was arrested. Soon after, he was tried for treason and sentenced to death, though the court commuted the death sentence to life in prison. He lost all of his military ranks and honors except for his title as Marshal of France. He spent his final years in a fog of dementia before he finally died in 1951 at 95.
Yet, this dislike was not universal. Abroad, foreign leaders took a more compassionate approach to the old marshal's plight. They remembered the man before Vichy, the honorable soldier and staunch French patriot. President Harry Truman offered to grant Pétain asylum. The British Royal Family and Franco in Spain made similar offers (Williams 520).
Even Pétain's old enemy, Charles de Gaulle, felt pity for the broken old man. Echoing Macron decades later, he lamented how this now harmless, senile old man, who had 'rendered great service to France,' should spend the rest of his days in prison without ever being able to see the 'trees, flowers, and friends' (Jackson DG 420).
But the French government wouldn't agree to this. Many were not ready yet for reconciliation. They needed a scapegoat to make sense of the last five years, and public opinion demanded that the old marshal pay for his crimes.
Perhaps he should have shown the wisdom of General Pershing and remained on the sidelines in 1940. If he had, France today would be adorned with monuments and street names commemorating Verdun's heroic defender, the man who rescued France in its darkest hour in World War I.
But we know that's not how it played out. Pétain hobbled back onto the historical stage and infamy.
In response to Macron's faux pas during the 2018 anniversary, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions summed up the position of many in France by stating: "The only thing we will remember about Pétain is that he was the embodiment of the national shame of the French people during his trial in 1945."
Yes, that pretty much sums it up.
NOTE: Video supplements are provided below.
Blakemore, Erin. “Why 90 Percent of Danish Jews Survived the Holocaust.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Jan. 2019, www.history.com/news/wwii-danish-jews-survival-holocaust.
Cesarani, David. Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-1949. St. Martin's Press, 2016.
Chan, Amy. “Admiral Leahy: U.S. Ambassador to Vichy.” HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 12 June 2019, www.historynet.com/admiral-leahy-u-s-ambassador-to-vichy.htm.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “António De Oliveira Salazar.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Antonio-de-Oliveira-Salazar.
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945. Penguin Press, 2009.
Hastings, Max. Inferno: the World at War, 1939-1945. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Jackson, Julian. Charles de Gaulle: a Life. Belknap Harvard, 2018.
Jackson, Julian. France: the Dark Years, 1940-1944. Oxford University Press, 2003, Amazon Kindle Edition, www.amazon.com/France-Years-1940-1944.
Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. Knopf; Distributed by Random House, 1972, Amazon Kindle, www.amazon.com/Vichy-France-Guard-Order-1940-1944.
Payne, Stanley G. “Francisco Franco.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Francisco-Franco.
Vandoorne, Saskya. “France Says It Won't Honor Pétain after Macron Comes under Fire.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2018, edition.cnn.com/2018/11/08/europe/france-macron-petain-intl/index.html.
Webster, Paul. “History - World Wars: The Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/jewish_deportation_01.shtml.
Williams, Charles. Pétain. Little, Brown, 2005.