The French general and statesman Henri Philippe Pétain (1856-1951), a military hero in World War I, headed the collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II. Officially considered a traitor, he is admired by many of his countrymen as a supreme patriot.
Philippe Pétain was born to peasant parents on April 24, 1856, at Cauchy-à-la-Tour. After a private boarding-school education, he entered Saint-Cyr in 1876 and graduated 2 years later. An advocate of defensive rather than offensive strategies, he became an instructor at the école de Guerre in 1888. Nearly 60 years old and without active-duty experience in 1914, Petain had had a far from brilliant career. World War I changed that radically.
Hero of Verdun
Promoted to brigadier general on Aug. 31, 1914, Pétain distinguished himself at the Battle of the Marne (1914) and in June 1915 was named a full general and given command of the 11th Army. When the Germans decided in 1916 to end the war with a massive concentrated attack on the French line at Verdun, Pétain was ordered to stop the offensive at all costs. Promising that "they shall not pass, " he held Verdun but at the enormous cost of 350, 000 men. Subsequently a great popular hero, he became chief of the general staff in April 1917, and a month later he succeeded Gen. Robert Nivelle as commander in chief.
Pétain assumed his command over a French army near disintegration. Years of indecisive war had sapped morale, and mutinies were endemic. Combining harsh disciplinary measures with humane redress of grievances, he very quickly reestablished order. Without these reforms the French army would not have withstood the final German offensives of 1918.
Between the World Wars
Named marshal of France on Nov. 21, 1918, Pétain emerged from the war second only to Ferdinand Foch in prestige. It was only natural that Pétain was regarded as a high military authority, but the consequences later proved catastrophic. Vice president of the Supreme War Council after 1920 and inspector general of the army after 1922, Pétain used his influence to orient French military planning along defensive lines. He favored the construction of heavily armed fortifications along the Franco-German frontier. Against the protests of such young rebels as Charles De Gaulle, who urged a strategy of mobile mechanized warfare, Pétain's influence was decisive, and the Maginot Line was constructed on the Franco-German border. French government and military leaders were determined to prepare France for any future war.
Retiring from the army in 1931, Pétain entered politics in 1934 as minister of war in the short-lived authoritarian government of Gaston Doumergue. Increasingly contemptuous of parliamentary politics and such Socialist experiments as the Popular Front, and a known partisan of dictatorial regimes, Pétain provided a figure in the late 1930s around which right-wing opponents of the Third Republic could rally.
Ambassador to Spain at the outbreak of World War II, Pétain was recalled and appointed vice-premier in May 1940 by Premier Paul Reynaud in an attempt to bolster his foundering government. With the fall of France imminent, Reynaud resigned on June 16, 1940, and President Albert Lebrun asked the 84-year-old Pétain to form a new government whose first task would be to negotiate an armistice with the Germans. No one seemed to care that the rapid collapse of the French army in 1940 had been largely due to the outdated principles on which Pétain had organized it and to its lack of mechanized equipment, whose supply he had opposed.
On June 22 Pétain concluded an armistice with the Nazis that divided France into two zones: the north and the Atlantic coastline under German military occupation, and the rest of France under the direct administration of Pétain's government. Militarily, France retained control of its fleet, but its army was drastically reduced to 100, 000 men.
Meeting in national assembly at Vichy on July 10, 1940, a rump parliament voted full constituent powers to Pétain. The next day he was named chief of state, and with Pierre Laval he then began the task of constructing a hierarchical and authoritarian regime under the formula of his so-called National Revolution. Little more than empty rhetoric ("Work-Family-Fatherland") and the cult of Pétain, his Vichy regime was a scarcely disguised client state of Nazi Germany.
Of necessity, Pétain's central principle in foreign policy was collaboration with the Third Reich. Above all, he wanted to keep France out of the war and to keep Germany as faithful to the armistice terms as possible. Opposed, however, to the all-out collaboration urged by Laval, Pétain replaced him with Adm. Jean Darlan in 1941. Under pressure from Berlin, Laval returned to office in April 1942.
The crisis of the Vichy regime occurred in November 1942 following the Allied landings in North Africa and the German occupation of Vichy France. Urged to flee, Pétain refused, believing that it was his duty to share the fate of his countrymen. He still refused even after ultracollaborationists were imposed upon him by the Germans, and thus he implicated himself in their treason. Arrested by the retreating Nazis on Aug. 20, 1944, and sent to Germany, Pétain voluntarily returned to France in April 1945. Immediately arrested and brought to trial by the provisional government of his onetime protégé Charles De Gaulle, Pétain was convicted of treason, militarily degraded, and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by De Gaulle, and Pétain died 6 years later, on July 23, 1951, on the Île d'Yeu.
Estimates of Pétain's Career
Pétain remains an acutely controversial figure in recent French history. He is the object of an as yet unsuccessful effort at rehabilitation, his right-wing admirers depicting him as the "crucified savior of France" and claiming that his self-sacrifice after 1940 "will one day count more for his glory than the victory of Verdun." Not only did Pétain save France from the fate of Poland, they insist, but by playing a double game he tricked Adolf Hitler into staying out of North Africa, which made possible the eventual Allied victory in 1945. Preposterous as these claims are, the impression they give of Pétain is only slightly more misleading than that given by official Resistance historiography, which unfailingly portrays him as an arch-villain and as a criminal traitor to France.
Further Reading on Henri Philippe Pétain
A well-researched and interesting work on Pétain is Richard Griffiths, Pétain: A Biography of Marshal Philippe Pétain of Vichy (1972). For the period before 1940 the major work is Stephen Ryan, Pétain the Soldier (1969). For the Vichy period there is an enormous partisan literature whose purpose is either to condemn or exonerate Pétain. An example of the first is Robert Aron, The Vichy Regime, 1940-1944 (1955; trans. 1958); and of the second, Sisley Huddleston, Pétain: Patriot or Traitor? (1951). Recommended for general background are Denis W. Brogan, The Development of Modern France, 1870-1939 (1940; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1966), and Paul Marie de La Gorce, The French Army: A Military-Political History (trans. 1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Lottman, Herbert R., Pétain, hero or traitor: the untold story, New York: W. Morrow, 1985.
Smith, Gene, The ends of greatness: Haig, Pétain, Rathenau, and Eden: victims of history, New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.