French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

French prime minister Pierre Laval was infamous for his collaborationist policies toward Nazi Germany during the opening months of World War II. After regaining his ministerial position—in part because of German pressure—Laval publicly declared his hope for a German victory. His name thereafter became synonymous with pro-German policies of the Vichy France government.

Summary of Event

A four-time prime minister of France, Pierre Laval gained notoriety during World War II for his enthusiastic cooperation with the Germans. He had served as prime minister twice during the 1930’s and then returned to office in July, 1940, after the German occupation. He was dismissed by the head of state of Vichy France, Philippe Pétain, in December but returned because of German pressure in 1942. [kw]Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II, French Prime Minister Pierre (Apr. 22, 1942) [kw]World War II, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win (Apr. 22, 1942) Laval, Pierre Pétain, Philippe World War II[World War 02];and France[France] World War II[World War 02];and Germany[Germany] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Pierre Laval[Laval] Treason;Pierre Laval[Laval] Laval, Pierre Pétain, Philippe World War II[World War 02];and France[France] World War II[World War 02];and Germany[Germany] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Pierre Laval[Laval] Treason;Pierre Laval[Laval] [g]Europe;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] [g]France;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] [c]International relations;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] [c]Government;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] [c]Politics;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] [c]Military;Apr. 22, 1942: French Prime Minister Pierre Laval Wants Germany to Win World War II[00690] Gaulle, Charles de

On April 22, Laval delivered an infamous speech declaring his hope for a German victory over the Allies. Although this sentiment endeared him to German officials, it also sealed his fate as a traitor. As a result, Laval was tried and convicted of high treason for his collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1945.

Born on June 28, 1883, Laval was involved in socialist politics from an early age. He then earned a law degree and began practicing law in Paris in 1907. After military service in World War I, Laval became mayor of Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris, in 1924, and his political power and connections steadily increased at the national level. By 1927 he was elected to the French senate followed by a short period where he held no office, and he was elected prime minister in 1931. In addition, he was named Time magazine;"Man of the Year"[Man of the Year] Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1931.

Ironically, Laval formulated a number of anti-German policies and strategies as prime minister during the mid-1930’s. He rightly feared German aggression, which he considered a hereditary enemy of France, and pursued alliances with Italy and the Soviet Union;World War II[World War 02] Soviet Union to counter a possible German threat. However, some of those treaties, particularly the Hoare-Laval pact with Italy, which was designed to enhance Italian colonial aims in Africa, were perceived in France as appeasements rather than bilateral diplomacy. As a result, Laval was forced to resign in January, 1936, and was run out of ministerial politics. Laval instead went into private business, creating a commercial enterprise based on newspapers, printing, and radio.

After the fall of France in June, 1940, Laval used his media empire to become an energetic Nazi collaborator and active supporter of the pro-German Vichy regime. He also developed a close working relationship with Abetz, Otto Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to France. In July, Laval became vice premier and named Fernand de Brinon, a known Nazi sympathizer, to head the surrender negotiations between France and Germany. Laval exhibited additional conciliatory policies in the summer of 1940 by working as an auxiliary between Marshal Pétain and Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;and France[France] Adolf Hitler, who thereby solidified the collaborationist policy of the new Vichy France government. Laval augmented his personal cooperation with the Nazis that fall in his proposition to move the Vichy France capital back to Paris so it could be under closer German surveillance and by suggesting a joint German-French military alliance.

Laval’s radicalism and growing unpopularity, however, led to his removal by Pétain in December, after which he left France for Germany and lived under the protection of that government. On August 27, 1941, French nationalist student and former Croix-de-Feu (far-right league) member Paul Collette seriously injured Laval in an assassination attempt that took place while Laval was seeing off French troops in the German army who were preparing for Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union;World War II[World War 02] Soviet Union. On April 18, 1942, after his recovery, Laval was recalled to France to serve as prime minister of the Vichy government.

As he had in 1940, Laval continued to privately and publicly believe in the probability of an Axis victory (or a German victory over the Soviet Union at minimum) when he reentered public office in the spring of 1942. Still, his faith in German success also involved a personal agenda. Thus, the prime minister wasted little time in expressing his loyalties and clearly articulated his opinion on the war in a letter to American admiral William D. Leahy on April 22, in which he claimed to prefer a German victory over a Soviet and English one. In the event of a Soviet victory, Laval maintained that Bolshevism would inevitably disperse throughout Europe, and he would much favor the status quo of German domination. In other words, as Laval saw it, postwar France would be under either a Soviet or German sphere of influence, and he much preferred the latter. Laval also explained to Leahy on April 22 that he felt the war had become an ideological struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. Laval then asserted that it was not necessary for France to take sides and that his foremost concern was the safety of his country.

As a German collaborator, however, Laval also understood the personal consequences for him in the event of an allied victory, and he kept his own security in mind. Laval knew his safety was assured only with a German victory. He confessed his fear of being hanged by the Allies in a September letter to Jacques Barnaud. Still another part of Laval’s thought process might have been his anti-Anglo attitudes, as he blamed Britain for the war and the predicament of France. Moreover, Laval had no desire for an allied occupation of France, as he feared both British control and the prospect of France becoming a battlefield.

It is clear, however, that even though the United States had entered the war on the side of the Allies, Laval wished to maintain good relations with the Americans, whose friendship he considered vital to France. In fact, part of the basis for Laval’s sometime opposition to a German presence within the French empire was that it would have a damaging effect on U.S.-French diplomatic relations.

After the Anglo-American recapturing of France in the summer of 1944, Laval followed the relocated Vichy government to Sigmaringen, Germany. In May, 1945, he fled Germany and was captured by allied forces in Austria. French general Charles de Gaulle then handed Laval, now a political prisoner, to the new French government in July. Acting as his own defense, Laval nevertheless was found guilty of high treason and violating state security. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt involving the ingestion of cyanide, he was executed by firing squad at Fresnes prison, outside Paris, on October 15.

Impact

Laval’s infamous legacy as prime minister is also associated with a rise in French Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];French anti-Semitism and the deportation of thousands of French Jews to Germany, his collaboration with the Gestapo against the French Resistance, and the decision to send French workers to Germany to labor in the latter’s war industries in exchange for French prisoners of war. Contemporaries also accused Laval of exploiting his political office to advance his personal fortune.

By the time of his death, Laval’s reputation was already solidified in French posterity. His wartime actions, as well as five years of allied propaganda against him, had painted the popular image of a self-serving traitor. Historians, however, have reconsidered Laval’s place in history since 1945, and a minority alleges that his sometime thwarting of German demands entitle him to be considered a member of the Resistance. Academics also admit that Laval had a unique vision of European unity and a vocalized fear of Soviet communist expansion, both of which might have been well ahead of their time. Clearly, part of his desire for German victory was directly linked to his desire for Soviet and British defeat.

Most historians, however, agree that, from the point of view of French wartime interests, Laval was a loyal collaborator from the very outset. Above all, the wartime culpability of Laval, along with Pétain and others, is representative of collaborationist politicians and administrators whose actions were detrimental to both the allied war effort and French unity. Laval, Pierre Pétain, Philippe World War II[World War 02];and France[France] World War II[World War 02];and Germany[Germany] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Pierre Laval[Laval] Treason;Pierre Laval[Laval]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burrin, Philippe. France Under the Germans: Collaboration and Compromise. New York: New Press, 1995. A judicious and comprehensive overview of French politics and society during World War II. Burrin’s study pays particular attention to the divisive nature of German occupation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Julian. France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Lucidly outlines the origins, motivations, and influences of both the government of Vichy France and the French Resistance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Effectively expresses how support for the government of Vichy France was predicated on German military success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warner, Geoffrey. Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France. New York: Macmillan, 1968. A well-crafted, straightforward, and resourceful biography of Laval.

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