HITLER, PÉTAIN MEET, PLEDGE COOPERATION

Montoire, Occupied France October 24, 1940

After failing the day before to convince Spanish dictator Fran­cisco Franco to bring his coun­try into the war on the Axis side, Adolf Hitler met with 84-year-old Maréchal (Marshal) Philippe Pétain, respected military leader (“victor of Verdun”) and now head of state (chef de l’État Fran­çais), and Pierre Laval, deputy leader of Vichy France, on this date in 1940 in the rela­tively iso­lated town of Mon­toire-sur-le-Loir, about 80 miles south of Paris. The secret meeting between German and French leaders had been sug­gested two days ear­lier by Laval, an out­spoken pro­po­nent of state col­labo­ration with Nazi Germany, even pushing his view on Pétain that the Marshal formally enroll France in the Tripartite (Axis) Pact.

Hitler’s charm offensive took place in his pri­vate rail­car just out­side the town’s train station. For Pétain and Laval it was impor­tant to define a new political rela­tion­ship with Germany, even if it was an unequal one. On Pétain’s agen­da was a re­duc­tion in the war indem­nity France was obliged to pay the vic­tor­ious Germans. Pétain also wanted Hitler to release the 1-1/2 million French pri­soners of war who were still in POW camps, held hostage to enforce German terms on France. Pétain and Laval were assured that France could expect con­ces­sions if an acceptable agreement on collaboration was negotiated.

The famous hand­shake between Hitler and Pétain was photo­graphed, and Joseph Goeb­bels’ Nazi propa­ganda ministry made much use of the photo to gain sup­port from French civil­ians. A week later, when Pétain publicized his meeting with Hitler, the Marshal made collab­o­ra­tion Vichy state policy, declaring on French radio: “I enter today on the path of collab­o­ra­tion” (“J’entre au­jourd’hui dans la voie de la col­lab­o­ra­tion”), and in­viting his coun­try­men to join him on the jour­ney. Five years later, in 1945, Pétain was handed over to the pro­vi­sional French government headed by his wartime nemesis, Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Pétain’s radio address to the French nation was one of the crimes leveled against him at his post­war trea­son trial. In his defense, the in­creas­ingly senile 89-year-old Pétain claimed to have done his best to pro­tect the French people from the worst ex­cess­es of the Nazis, but he was sen­tenced to death along with Prime Minis­ter Pierre Laval. Later Pétain, but not Laval, was given a re­prieve by de Gaulle. In 1951 at age 95 Pétain died in his island prison, stripped of all military ranks and honors except that of Marshal of France.





Hitler and Vichy French Collaborators Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval

Pétain and Hitler at Montoire, France, October 24, 1940

Above: On the October 24, 1940, Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval con­ducted an his­toric meeting with Hitler at Mon­toire, France, where the two French leaders discussed the possi­ble direc­tions of Franco-German col­lab­o­ration. For Pétain and Laval, collab­o­ration (not simply accom­mo­dation) with Germany was the means by which France might secure a better place in Europe once peace had broken out or perhaps when an armis­tice had been arranged with Great Britain. Collab­o­ration would safe­guard Vichy govern­ment sover­eignty over the unoccupied southern (Vichy) zone and the German-occupied north and western French zones. Standing in the back­ground (between) Pétain and Hitler is Paul-Otto Schmidt, Hitler’s chief trans­later and Foreign Office press chief. To the right, in the white lapels, is German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Philippe Pétain. 1856–1951 Pierre Laval, 1883–1945

Left: Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was a French general who reached the distinc­tion of Marshal of France. From 1940 to 1944 he was the author­i­tarian Chief of State of quasi-fascist Vichy France (offi­cially known as État Fran­çais, or French State), a sover­eign terri­tory in the unoccu­pied zone of France whose capital was the back­water town of Vichy. Pétain’s war­time collab­o­ra­tion with Nazi Germany resulted in his post­war con­vic­tion for trea­son (by a one-vote majority) and death sen­tence. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who was Presi­dent of the Provi­sional Govern­ment of the French Republic, com­muted the sen­tence to life impri­son­ment owing to Pétain’s advance age and his mili­tary con­tri­bu­tions in World War I. The doddering former head of state was exiled to an island prison off the French Atlantic coast, where he died at the age of 95.

Right: Pierre Laval (1883–1945) was four-time Prime Minis­ter of France, twice serving the Vichy regime as head of govern­ment. An admirer of totali­tarian govern­ment, Laval em­braced the cause of fas­cism, the destruc­tion of demo­cracy, and the disman­tling of the demo­cratic Third Republic, whose National Assembly voted itself out of exis­tence several weeks after the Franco-German armis­tice was con­cluded on June 22, 1941. Laval signed orders sanc­tioning the depor­ta­tion of foreign Jews from French soil to the Nazi death camps. (To their ever­lasting dis­honor, French gen­darmes and police were deadly effi­cient in effecting this mas­sive round­up and incar­cer­a­tion of Jews, which included thou­sands of babies and young children; not a single French police­man is recorded to have refused to obey his orders.) On Septem­ber 7, 1944, what was left of the unsavory Vichy govern­ment moved to south­western Germany. After falling into U.S. hands, Laval was turned over to the French govern­ment in late July 1945. Tried for high trea­son and vio­lating state secu­rity, he was con­victed and sen­tenced to death. Only eleven days after the ver­dict and after a failed attempt at sui­cide, Laval was executed, half-unconscious and vomiting, by a firing squad on October 15, 1945.

Pétain Speaking of His Historic Meeting at Montoire, Where He Entered into an Agree­ment to Collab­o­rate with the German Occupiers (in French)


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