President of France, Emmanuel Macron’s decision that it was appropriate to honour Marshal Phillipe Petain for his service in World War One has opened deep wounds over one of the darkest periods of French history.
Following Hitler’s Blitzkreig on 1st September 1939 coupled with Soviet invasion on 17th September Poland, who never formally surrendered was under Nazi and Soviet control by 6th October 1939. Holland and Belgium, although both had declared themselves neutral, subsequent to invasion on 10th May 1940 were under Nazi control. (On 28th May Belgian forces surrendered and on 14th May Dutch forces laid down their weapons.)
When France was attacked on 10th May she was completely unprepared. In the aftermath of Dunkirk (26thMay to 4th June) the forty thousand French soldiers left on the beaches were captured and transported to prisoner of war camps in Germany. Defeat to many seemed inevitable. Urgent pleas for assistance were made to the USA and Britain but no help was forthcoming. The French Government was faced either with surrendering, seeking an armistice with Germany or fleeing to London to operate a Government in Exile there as did the Governments of Poland, Holland and Belgium. In a France still scared by the effects of World War I, a war fought primarily on her own soil in which she had sustained the largest losses per head of population, the French government voted by a narrow majority to seek an armistice. The French president Reynaud, who wanted to continue fighting resigned. Respected war hero, Phillipe Petain, the Lion of Verdun was appointed on 16th June as a result. Pétain was at that time eighty-four years of age. He had been presented with the baton of Marshal on France on 8th December 1918 as a result of his leadership during the notorious nine-month long Battle of Verdun during which around 162 000 French soldiers had lost their lives. Petain had been credited by historians, as "without a doubt, the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army" and "one of France's greatest military heroes".
Petain’s request for an armistice with Nazi Germany angered many French citizens. Hitler offered generous terms- France was to retain control of her foreign territories and administrative control over most of France although German military would operate in the Occupied Zone which included Paris. The armistice was signed on 22nd June 1940. The agreement was in fact a humiliating defeat. France was obliged to pay for the Nazi occupation and two million French soldiers were sent to prisoner of war and work camps in Germany. As head of Vichy France, Petain replaced the aspirational motto of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" with "Work, Family and Country".
The Vichy Government voluntarily introduced its own Jewish legislation on 3rd October 1940. The legislation had the effect of depriving Jews of certain civil rights and Petain is alleged to have personally intervened to ensure the legislation applied not only to foreign Jews but French Jewish citizens as well. On 30thOctober 1940, following a meeting with Hitler a few days earlier Petian made a broadcast on French radio stating “I enter today on the path of collaboration.” and invited his countrymen to join him on the journey.
The Vichy government cooperated with Nazi Germany, hunting down both foreign and French Jews and turning them over to the Gestapo for transport to extermination camps.
The Vichy regime denaturalized 1500 French citizens primarily Jews but including gypsies, freemasons, communists and homosexuals leaving them liable to deportation
After World War II, Pétain was tried and convicted for treason. He was originally sentenced to death, but following intervention by Charles de Gaulle (who himself had been tried in absence and condemned to death by the Vichy regime) as a result of his age and service during World War I the sentence was commuted to life in prison. Petain died in 1951 aged ninety-five.
Author The Cypher Bureau (How the Poles solved Enigma)