Henri Phillipe Petain

Henri Phillipe Petain

(1856-1951)

First a great hero, then a tragic collabora¬ tor, Henri Petain came to symbolize much of what was noble and perverse in France during the two world wars.

He graduated from the military academy at St. Cyr in 1887. The French army was demoralized by its defeat in the Franco- Prussian War of 1870.

French people wanted revenge, and military thinking at the time emphasized a vigorous offense by infantry¬ men. Petain disagreed with this notion, which was one reason he had risen only to colonel by the time World War I began in 1914.

French offensives stumbled badly in 1914, and, as a new emphasis on careful planning and defensive fighting gained favor, Petain rose in leadership. He became a full general in 1916 and then commander of the Second Army.

In February 1916, Petain was named commander of the French forces defending the fortress of Verdun against the Germans. Petain told his troops, “ Ils nepasserontpas’ (“They shall not pass”), and he was good as his word. Both sides suffered tremendous human losses during the six-month battle, but the French held their positions.

In May 1917, Petain became commander- in-chief of the French army. He was passed over by General Ferdinand Foch (see no. 83) for supreme allied commander in 1918, but he remained in charge of the French army until the end of the war.

A hero to his countrymen, Petain served briefly as a minister of war, and then as an ambassador to Spain between World War I and World War II. He urged the construction of the Maginot Line to defend France (the line was never completed, leaving France vul¬ nerable to a flanking attack through Belgium).

In May 1940, Adolf Hitler’s forces struck at France. The speed of their offense (especial¬ ly their tanks) won the battle over France within one month. Petain came out of retire¬ ment and was named premier of France on June 16.

Rather than urge a fight to the death or flee to an allied country, Petain signed an armistice, and then a peace treaty, with the Germans. He was allowed to govern the unoccupied zone of France.

Petain earned the contempt, and even hatred, of many people during his time as chief of the Vichy government (1940-1944). He urged his countrymen to quietly endure the Nazi occupation at a time when many French people yearned to join the Resistance movement.

Petain and his fellow collabora¬ tors helped the Germans find labor conscripts in France, and thousands of French Jews were turned over to the Nazis.

After the Allies won World War II, Petain was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. President Charles De Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.