Paris, France July 23, 1945

Following the military defeat of France by Nazi Germany in June 1940, World War I hero Maréchal (Marshal) Philippe Pétain pro­claimed a new French govern­ment on July 10, 1940. Pétain held the title of “Presi­dent of the Coun­cil” instead of Pre­si­dent of France. His govern­ment, which accorded him extraor­di­nary powers, was offi­cially called the French State, L’État français. Unoffi­cially, it was called Vichy France after the resort town where Pétain and the National Assem­bly met. Paris, the French capi­tal, remained in Ger­man-occupied North­ern France, zone occupée. Vichy governed the zone libre, or “Free Zone,” as the south­ern rump of France was called (see map below), but it had admin­is­tra­tive authority in both zones, subject to German inter­ference and veto in the zone occupée. Even in the zone libre, where Pétain in theory exer­cised full exec­u­tive power under the terms of the Franco-German armi­stice, the Germans could interpret the armistice any way they liked.

When the Allies landed in Vichy-administered North Africa in Novem­ber 1942 (Opera­tion Torch), German and Ital­ian troops moved in to occupy the rump French state. On August 24, 1944, after four years of Vichy collu­sion in the occu­pa­tion of their country, a Free French armored divi­sion under the com­mand of Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc, which had landed on Utah Beach in Normandy at the top of that month, liberated the French capi­tal. The next day Free French head Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had set up a pro­vi­sional govern­ment (Gouverne­ment provi­soire de la Répub­lique fran­çaise­) on French soil during the Nor­mandy Cam­paign, entered Paris and within a week had installed his government in the liberated capital.

De Gaulle soon pressed a program of national recon­cili­a­tion on his country­men by pushing his myth of France as a nation of united resis­ters be­trayed by a hand­ful of traitors. The ugly truth was, most French, espe­cially those in mili­tary and govern­ment ser­vice, ini­tially supported the reac­tion­ary Pétain regime and the Maréchal’s “contract with the devil,” i.e., Nazi Germany. During the Vichy years author­i­ties received a mil­lion letters wherein French­men denounced other French­men, partic­u­larly if the others were Jews—that’s 1,500 denunciations a day. Most often the letters were signed “un bon Français.” Author­i­ties paid informers on the spot if the denounced per­son or per­sons turned out to be Jewish, with money pried from the victim(s). That said, over 300,000 sus­pected French col­lab­o­rators—including some of the more than 40,000 men who had joined Vichy’s para­mili­tary force Milice fran­çaise (or simply Milice) and the 200–220 French police­men who joined the Paris-based Brigades spéciales, scourge of the French Resis­tance—were turned over to various courts of justice. Some 38,000 were given prison sen­tences and more than 7,000 were con­demned to death. Of those con­demned, just 764 were exe­cuted. At least 4,500 more persons were sum­marily put to death by tribu­nals set up by the Resis­tance as resistants them­selves settled old scores outside the established court systems.

On this date, July 23, 1945, former Vichy head Pétain appeared before the French High Court of Justice and three weeks later was sen­tenced to death. De Gaulle com­muted the 89‑year-old’s sen­tence to life impri­son­ment. Pierre Laval, Prime Minis­ter of Vichy France, and Milice chief Joseph Dar­nand were exe­cuted. Many collab­o­ra­tors—for instance police who had orga­nized raids to cap­ture Jews and others con­sidered “unde­sir­ables” by the Germans in both French zones—soon resumed offi­cial duties. In 1955 am­nesty fever broke out and ten years later all jailed French collab­o­ra­tors were free persons. The crimes and embar­rassing moral com­pro­mises made by many French men and women during the German occu­pa­tion—a morally complicated time for sure—were swept from national memory.

Partitioned France and Prominent Vichy French Collaborators

Occupation zones, France, 1940–1944

Above: In just six weeks in May and June 1940, France, a world power, descended into a sub­ject nation, par­ti­tioned between German and Italian occupiers and Vichy French collab­o­rators. The German-occupied zone included the northern three-fifths of France and a strip of land running down the whole Atlantic coast­line from Belgium to Spain. The German zone con­tained most of France’s popu­la­tion, indus­trial wealth, and best vita­cultural (wine-growing) areas. The unoccu­pied zone (Free Zone) in South-Central and South­eastern metro­pol­itan France was the poorest part of the country and was the head­quarters of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy govern­ment. After Allied landings in French North­west Africa in November 1942, German and Italian troops swept in to occupy Vichy France (renamed the Southern Zone) until killed, captured, or expelled from most parts of France between June and August 1944.

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

Left: Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was a French gene­ral who reached the dis­tinc­tion of Marshal of France, later autho­ri­tarian Chief of State of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944. Over the years the right-wing Pétain and his Vichy minions col­labo­rated ever more closely with their German masters, deluding them­selves into believing that if they showed Adolf Hitler they were “good collabo­rators” German occu­pa­tion would end sooner rather than later and France would there­fore enjoy a favor­able posi­tion in the new European order domi­nated by Nazi Germany. Pétain’s war­time actions 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 due to Pétain’s advance age and his mili­tary con­tri­bu­tions in World War I. Pétain 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. An espe­cially vicious Nazi col­lab­o­rator, he acquired the nick­name “Black Peter.” He signed orders sanc­tioning the depor­ta­tion of foreign Jews from French soil to Nazi death camps. On Septem­ber 7, 1944, what was left of the Vichy puppet govern­ment took sanc­tu­ary in Sigmaringen in South­western Germany. After falling into U.S. hands, Laval was turned over to the French govern­ment in late July 1945. Tried for trea­son and vio­lating state secu­rity, he was con­victed and sen­tenced to death. After a failed attempt at sui­cide (the cya­nide had lost its full potency), Laval was executed, half-conscious and vomiting, by firing squad on October 15, 1945.

Joseph Darnand, 1897–1945Jacques Doriot, 1898–1945

Left: A far-right veteran from the First World War, Joseph Dar­nand (1897–1945) founded a mili­tia in 1941 that sup­ported Philippe Pétain and Vichy France. Starting in Janu­ary 1943 he trans­formed the organ­iza­tion into the noto­rious Milice fran­çaise, whose mem­bers regarded them­selves as above the law, looted, robbed, and menaced the popu­la­tion at large. In Octo­ber 1943 Dar­nand took an oath of loyal­ty to Hitler and re­ceived the rank of Sturm­bann­fuehrer (major) in the Waffen-SS (ruth­less armed wing of the Nazi Party’s Schutz­staffel, or SS for short). In Decem­ber 1943 he became head of police and later secre­tary of the interior. Dar­nand expanded the Milice and by 1944 it had over 35,000 mem­bers, of which one in six was a woman. After the Allies’ Nor­mandy brea­kout and their break­neck advance through German-occupied France, Dar­nand joined Pétain’s govern­ment in South­western Germany in Septem­ber 1944. The next April he fled to North­ern Italy, where he was arrested and hauled back to France. Tried and sen­tenced to death, he was executed by firing squad on October 10, 1945, five days before his boss, Pierre Laval, met the same fate.

Right: Jacques Doriot (1898–1945) founded the ultra-nation­alist, pro-fascist Parti Popu­laire Fran­çais (PPF) in 1936. Doriot became a staunch sup­porter of the Nazi occu­pa­tion of North­ern France in 1940. He moved to Paris, where he espoused pro-Ger­man and anti-Com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda on Radio Paris. In 1941 he co-founded the Légion des Volon­taires Fran­çais (LVF), a French unit of the German Wehr­macht (armed forces). The LVF saw active duty on the East­ern Front. When the unit was all but destroyed, Doriot fought in the Wehr­macht and was awarded the Iron Cross in 1943. After France’s libe­ra­tion the PPF was involved in con­ducting intel­li­gence and sabo­tage acti­vi­ties by supplying men whom the Germans dropped by para­chute into libe­rated France. Doriot was killed in late February 1945 when his car was strafed by Allied fighter aircraft.

Treason Trials of Marshal Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval (in German; Interesting for the Lineup of Prosecution Witnesses)

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