The French politician Pierre Laval (1883-1945) served as chief minister in the World War II Vichy regime. He was later tried for treason and executed.
Pierre Laval was born on June 28, 1883, the son of a café owner at Châteldon. Financing his legal education by tutoring, he entered politics on the extreme left. After earning a reputation as a labor lawyer, he was sent to Parliament in 1914 as a Socialist deputy by the working-class voters of Aubervilliers. During World War I Laval first demonstrated the extreme ideological flexibility that marked his entire career. Aligned for 2 years with Joseph Caillaux, who advocated a negotiated peace with Germany, Laval was known as a defeatist. Sensing that Caillaux's views were increasingly unpopular, Laval adeptly switched sides in 1917. Soon he clamored for the return to power of the ultranationalist Georges Clemenceau, who became prime minister in November 1917 and immediately jailed Caillaux.
Laval was momentarily damaged politically by his association with Caillaux and was defeated for reelection in 1919. The next 5 years he spent amassing a substantial fortune in legal practice, journalism, and other business interests. Officially remaining a Socialist and an admirer of Lenin in the early 1920s, he abandoned his party shortly before the elections of 1924 and reentered the Chamber as an independent leftist.
Premier and Foreign Minister
In 1926 Laval was elected to the Senate and continued his movement to the right. Often a minister in the late 1920s, he became premier for the first time in January 1931. Brought down after a year in office over a question of fiscal policy, he served as prime minister once more from June 1935 to January 1936.
Before 1940 Laval had his greatest impact on French foreign policy. Four times foreign minister during 1932-1936, he steadfastly sought accommodation with Mussolini's Italy against resurgent Germany. Coauthor of the abortive Hoare-Laval Agreement, which was meant to appease Mussolini at the expense of Abyssinia, he was overthrown when the British Cabinet repudiated the arrangement. For the rest of his life Laval hated the British and was determined to exact his revenge. Realizing that a united Franco-Italian front against Germany had been rendered impossible by the British action, he did an about-face and began to urge the necessity of reaching an understanding with Hitler. France, Laval argued, could not survive the ordeal of another war.
Out of office after 1936, Laval in 1939 was an advocate of peace at any price. After the fall of France in June 1940, he joined the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain as the chief minister. Instrumental in securing parliamentary ratification of the armistice terms and the granting of full constituent powers to Pétain, Laval during the last 6 months of 1940 urged that France must accept the fact of German victory and through collaboration find its rightful place in Hitler's "New Order." Considered far too willing to collaborate by his fellow ministers, he was ousted from power in a palace revolt on Dec. 13, 1940.
Laval remained out of office until April 1942, when Berlin pressured Pétain into restoring him to power. The Germans rightly calculated that they could obtain from him greater supplies of French workers than they were getting from his predecessor, Adm. J. F. Darlan. Engaged massively against the Soviet Union, the Germans also knew that a frankly collaborationist regime in France under Laval guaranteed their security in the west. Laval responded by accentuating his collaborationism and said that he "hoped for a German victory to avoid the Bolshevization of Europe."
Realizing in the summer of 1944 that the end was near, Laval sought to call a national assembly at Paris to deal with the new situation. Intended to save his own skin as well, the maneuver was too little too late, and in the middle of the month he was ignominiously carried off in the baggage of the retreating Germans. Escaping his captors, he was found by the Americans in Austria and handed over to the French.
Laval's trial for treason by the provisional government of Charles De Gaulle began at Paris on Oct. 4, 1945. Even for a political trial it was a shabby affair: irregular, mismanaged, and—embarrassed by Laval's clever and effective defense—cut short by the government. Laval was convicted and sentenced to death, and Charles De Gaulle personally refused him a new trial. Nearly escaping Gaullist justice by swallowing poison, Laval was revived by a team of frantic doctors and a few hours later was executed by firing squad, on Oct. 15, 1945.
Pierre Laval is one of the most intensely controversial figures in recent French history. His detractors portray him as the archvillain of wartime France who sold his countrymen to the Nazis. His admirers claim he is the unsung hero who single-handedly kept French losses to a minimum after April 1942 by playing a double game with the Germans. There may be partial truth in both views. In any case, although so closely identified with the Vichy regime, Laval loathed the cultist idolatry of Pétain and scorned the high-flown emptiness of the National Revolution. Instead he had an instrumental view of French national interest and, because he was convinced of the finality of German victory, that necessarily meant collaboration. That in the end he miscalculated may then be due to the fact that the politics he had learned in the sovereign Third Republic were irrelevant to the satellite status of France after June 1940. From this perspective Laval may be seen as much the prisoner of his own narrow political opportunism as he was the captive of his German sponsors.
Further Reading on Pierre Laval
Laval states his own case in The Diary of Pierre Laval (1948). There is no good study of him in any language. The best short biographies are David Thomson, Two Frenchmen: Pierre Laval and Charles De Gaulle (1951), and Hubert Cole, Laval: A Biography (1963), both of which are sympathetic without being apologetic. There is an interesting psychoanalytic treatment of the man in David Abrahamsen, Men, Mind and Power (1945). Laval's son-in-law, René de Chambrun, collected several hundred sworn statements from French, German, and American witnesses in France during the German Occupation (3 vols., 1958-1959), intending to present a favorable view of the Vichy regime in general and of Laval in particular. Recommended for general historical background are Alexander Werth, The Twilight of France, 1933-1940 (1942); Paul Farmer, Vichy: Political Dilemma (1955); and Robert Aron, The Vichy Regime, 1940-1944 (1958).
Additional Biography Sources
Chambrun, Rene de, Pierre Laval: traitor or patriot?, New York: Scribner, 1984.