French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration

Philippe Pétain was convicted of treason for overseeing the surrender of France to the Germans in 1940 and subsequently acting as head of the collaborationist puppet government of Vichy France. He failed to assuage the national conscience and left the French public nearly equally divided concerning whether the true scandal lay in a military hero’s having cooperated with an evil enemy to further personal ambitions and a conservative agenda or in a victor’s making a scapegoat of a person whose actions represented the best option available at the time.

Summary of Event

On July 23, 1945, Philippe Pétain, the eighty-nine-year-old hero of Verdun and former premier of the puppet regime that governed southern France during the Nazi occupation, stood accused of treason in a Paris courtroom. The charges stemmed from his coming out of retirement and assuming control of the French government following the German invasion in 1940, and his signing a surrender that left northern France under German occupation and southern France as an authoritarian puppet regime with Pétain as its head. [kw]Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration, French War Hero (Aug. 14, 1945)
[kw]Nazi Collaboration, French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of (Aug. 14, 1945)
Pétain, Philippe
World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators
Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]
Treason;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]
Pétain, Philippe
World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators
Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]
Treason;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]
[g]Europe;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
[g]France;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
[c]Government;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
[c]Politics;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
[c]Military;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
[c]Public morals;Aug. 14, 1945: French War Hero Pétain Is Convicted of Nazi Collaboration[00770]
Gaulle, Charles de
Isorni, Jacques
Reynaud, Paul

Philippe Pétain.

(Library of Congress)

That truncated client state takes its name, Vichy France, from the resort town that served as its capital. Repressive measures taken against the French Resistance, trials of political figures, laws gutting the constitution of the Third Republic, and failure to flee to North Africa when allied armies liberated French colonial possessions there also figured prominently in the trial.

Since Pétain’s trial was predominantly a trial for treason and not for war crimes or crimes against humanity, treatment of Jews in Vichy France did not form a large part of the indictment. Subsequent assessments accord this aspect more prominence, figuring in the controversies surrounding the extent of Pétain’s guilt. In 1945, the central issue was whether Pétain had betrayed France and the French people, rather than his complicity in the most odious aspects of Nazism.

When Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle succeeded in expelling the Germans from southern France in 1944, the Germans forcibly evacuated the Vichy government to Germany. De Gaulle had mixed feelings about prosecuting Pétain and tried to prevent him from returning to France to face trial. The old soldier would have nothing to do with disappearing into exile.

The trial itself was not so much about determining guilt or innocence of an individual as about expiating national guilt about what seemed, in retrospect, to be collective dishonorable behavior in 1940. De Gaulle and the soldiers who went into exile with him, and the Resistance fighters who kept up a campaign of guerrilla warfare within France, were the heroes; the bulk of the French army and population were not. Preserving national pride required assigning blame for surrendering and for instituting repressive domestic policies to a small number of collaborationists, preferably ones with base motives and corrupt lifestyles. Although Pétain had an able defense counsel in Jacques Isorni and was able to call numerous witnesses in his favor, the whole setup of the trial, notably the choice of jurors entirely from the ranks of Resistance fighters and hostile members of France’s 1940 Parliament, made a guilty verdict inevitable.

In fact, the French government had no good options in June, 1940. The premier, Paul Reynaud, headed a weak, divided government. Adding Pétain strengthened it by including a popular military leader, but added an authoritarian fascist element. In May, Germany broke the months-long phony war, or sitzkrieg, with a massive invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands. Heavily committed to that campaign, France lost one tenth of its army and a disproportionate amount of armament in the evacuation at Dunkirk. On June 5, the German fighting machine turned on an overextended, ill-equipped French army. By June 20, Paris was in German hands, most of the French air force had been destroyed, and the main fighting force had capitulated. The British were not prepared to commit troops to defend French soil. By agreeing to take the reins of power when Reynaud resigned, Pétain became heir to a catastrophe for which he was not responsible. He believed the terms of the armistice represented the best interests of the French people under the circumstances.

On July 10, the French Chamber of Deputies met, ratified the armistice, and voted 569-80 to grant Pétain authority to draw up a new constitution. His government thus had a tolerable claim to legitimacy. Most neutral nations, including the United States, recognized Vichy France as a sovereign state.

In November of 1942, British, American, and Free French forces moved to liberate Axis-controlled French possessions in North Africa, and Churchill urged Pétain to defect. That he chose to remain in occupied France, serving as an increasingly impotent figurehead, was viewed as betrayal.

On August 14, 1945, the court found Pétain guilty of treason and collaboration and sentenced him to death by firing squad. Citing his advanced age and previous service, and mindful that French public opinion was nearly equally divided concerning his guilt, de Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on the Île de Yeu in Normandy. There he remained, despite efforts by Isorni and others to have him freed, until released to a nursing facility on the island shortly before his death in 1951.

Spearheaded by Isorni and supported by surviving military colleagues from World War I, efforts to rehabilitate Pétain continued long after his death. Isorni filed appeals with the French Department of Justice in 1972 and 1981 but failed to obtain a hearing. A 1984 advertisement published by defenders of Pétain in Le Monde, titled “French, You Have a Short Memory,” prompted a lawsuit by surviving members of the Resistance. In 1990, a French court ruled against the Pétainists, awarding damages of one franc and requiring them to publish an apology. Isorni then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 1998 ruled that Isorni’s free speech rights had been violated and awarded damages to his heirs. Periodic informal polls of French public opinion continue to reveal divided sentiments. An extensive survey in Le Figaro in 1980 showed that 59 percent of respondents considered Pétain to have been sincerely concerned by national interests but overtaken by events, 7 percent considered him a hero who was unjustly condemned, and only 8 percent considered him a traitor.


In a sense, Pétain’s trial never ended, as reassessment continues into the guilt and innocence of individuals, peoples, and entire nations for their role in the human catastrophe of World War II. In 1945, the Western world had been focused on that conflict as a military struggle, and people painted the glossiest possible portrait of the victors, labeling their early reversals as treason. In the end, the drama of the heroic Resistance and its brutal repression by the collaborationist Milice (secret police) under Pétain’s malevolent aegis imparted a sense of dignity and purpose to an exhausted and demoralized civilian population.

In 1945, Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];French anti-Semitism and specific repressive measures against Jews in Vichy France did not loom as large in the catalog of Pétain’s crimes as they now appear. Over the years, the war against Nazi Germany has come to be viewed more as a crusade against the Holocaust Holocaust and less as a military response to territorial aggression. Consequently, while most military historians would now agree that the 1940 armistice could not have been improved upon, Holocaust scholars now pore over the sordid record of Jewish persecution in Vichy France and conclude that Pétain’s active role, fueled by fascist sympathies and Roman Catholicism, exacerbated that persecution.

There are arguments on both sides. Pétain’s supporters would point out that survivorship among French Jews was among the highest in occupied Europe and contend that his willingness to oversee repressive measures that stopped far short of genocide saved many thousands of lives. Opponents contend that the willingness of a respected war hero to endorse anti-Jewish sanctions encouraged compliance in the general population, especially among conservative Catholics.

Scandals are gripping because they hold up a mirror exposing inner weaknesses. That of Pétain’s trial serves as a reminder that the willingness to take charge when no good solution is apparent can lead to calumny and condemnation at the hands of the victor. Pétain, Philippe
World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators
Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]
Treason;Philippe Pétain[Pétain]

Further Reading

  • Curtis, Michael. Verdict on Vichy: Power and Prejudice in the Vichy French Regime. New York: Arcade, 2002. Considers that the prejudice and reactionary policies of Vichy France were products of domestic rather than external forces.
  • Diamond, Hanna, and Simon Kitson, eds. Vichy, Resistance, Liberation: New Perspectives on Wartime France. New York: Berg, 2005. Collection of essays reconsidering many aspects of France’s occupation during World War II.
  • Lottman, Herbert R. Pétain: Hero or Traitor—The Untold Story. New York: Morrow, 1985. Explores the continuing controversies in France regarding Pétain’s place in French history.
  • Roy, Jules. The Trial of Marshall Pétain. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Translation of a French original sympathetic to Pétain, emphasizing biases and the showcasing nature of the trial.
  • Weisberg, Richard H. Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Explores the role of economic factors and domestic French anti-Semitism.
  • Williams, Charles. Pétain: How the Hero of France Became a Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. The trial through modern eyes, upholding condemnation based on human rights abuses in Vichy.

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