In 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain was a national hero in France for his victory at the Battle of Verdun during World War I. Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, the well-respected eight-four-year old was asked to form a government. Seeing the French army defeated, the “Hero of Verdun” asked for an armistice. With the German army occupying two-thirds of the country, Pétain believed he could repair the ruin caused by the invasion and obtain the release of the numerous prisoners of war by cooperating with the Germans. He, however, opposed Franco-German collaboration advocated by his vice premier Pierre Laval, whom he dismissed in December 1940. When the Germans forced Pétain to take Laval back as premier, he himself withdrew into a purely nominal role. Yet he balked at resigning, convinced that, if he did, Hitler would place all of France directly under German rule.
After Allied landings in November 1942 in North Africa, Pétain secretly ordered his forces to aid the Allies. But, at the same time, he published official messages protesting the landing. His doubledealing was to be his undoing. When Pétain dispatched an emissary to arrange for a peaceful transfer of power, General de Gaulle refused it. Brought to trial in France for high treason, he was stripped for all rank and sentenced to death. The High Court requested that the sentence should not be carried out in view of Pétain’s great age, and later de Gaulle commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.
Old, disgraced, almost alone but Petain died under house arrest in 1951, at the age of 96. He was neither forgotten nor forgiven by the nation which had hailed him as a hero and denounced him as a traitor. His last request that he be buried along the soldiers of Verdun was refused. Initially, his tombstone was to read ‘No Profession’, but the government relented and allowed his title ‘Marechal of France’ to be put upon it.
The above photograph taken on October 24th 1940 at Montoire was a Scarlet Letter Petain would wear in his last days. The handshake was a matter of protocol but was exploited as an undeniable symbol of collaboration. Again, it was Laval who coerced Petain to go to this meeting. Two days before, Laval had a meeting with Hitler in the same location and he had suggested to Hitler that he met with the Maréchal.
Ironically at Montoire, Petain did his best to balk the German access to the French North Africa. German Minister von Renthe-Finck wrote that Montoire, “constitutes the greatest defeat of German policy …. if there had not been Montoire, there would probably have been no allied landing in North Africa.” Doctor Paul Schmidt, Führer’s interpreter, concludes, “I am inclined to regard the winner of Verdun as the winner in the duel of diplomacy at Montoire.” But when the secret meeting was announced to the French public on 30 October in a radio broadcast speech, Pétain fatally declared, “I enter, today, into the way of collaboration.”