Petain, Marshal Henri Philippe Omer, 1856-1951

A remarkable and patriotic soldier, Petain was much honored for his defense of Verdun in 1916. In 1939 he was appointed Ambassador to Spain but was recalled to Paris by REYNAUD in 1940 after the German invasion of France and appointed Vice-President of Council. Convinced that Britain was destined to lose the war he rejected Reynaud’s proposal (which was supported by DE GAULLE and DARLAN) to ally with Britain and continue to fight the Axis invasion. Petain was heard to utter ‘To make union with England was fusion with a corpse.’ LAVAL and some Cabinet ministers supported Petain and Reynaud resigned on 16 June 1940. Petain assumed the Presidency and offered the Germans an armistice on 22 June. Laval petitioned the National Assembly to grant Petain emergency powers. Petain established his government at Vichy in the unoccupied part of France and pursued a policy of collaboration with the Germans who allowed him to have 10,000 men to keep the peace in his sector. In December 1940 Petain dismissed Laval because Laval not only wanted to be on peaceful terms with Germany but wanted to support the Axis actively and declare war on the United Kingdom. Although Laval’s influence was partially curbed, Laval was reinstated on the Germans’ insistence in April 1942. In November the Allies invaded French North Africa and the Germans occupied the Vichy-ruled part of France; Petain’s government became a puppet. At 86 Petain was unable to administer his government efficiently and his power declined. He was removed to Germany in August 1944 but voluntarily returned to France in April of the following year to stand trial. He was sentenced to death but de Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment as they had served in the same regiment in World War I. Petain died on the Atlantic island, He d’Yeu, at the age of 95. Petain was not a treacherous leader but one who suffered rather from defeatism; he inevitably chose the policy he thought best for France.

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