Wednesday, May 25, 2022

On This Day: Philippe Pétain Was Born. From National Hero To Traitor…

“Marshal Pétain passed away at 8:30 this morning. At the moment of death, the Marshal was surrounded by his wife, his lawyer, Jacques Isorni, and one of his sons”, with these words a newspaper reported, on July 24, 1951, the death of the controversial Philippe Pétain.

With his departure, this hero of the First World War (he became famous after resisting the German attack at Verdun with the cry of “Courage… we’ll make it!”) closed one of the saddest chapters in the history of France: the Second World War. It was not in vain that this military man was the visible head of the collaborationist Vichy government and one of the architects of barbarities such as the Winter Velodrome raid, in which the Gallic authorities arrested and deported almost 13,000 Jews.

His death also marked the end of the journey of an old man on whom the full weight of French justice fell in 1945, shortly after the final liberation of France by the Allies. That year, the country tried its old war hero in an attempt to turn the page and try to forget the shame that, for no less than five years, its government had collaborated closely with the Nazi regime.

Such was the pain and resentment of the country towards this traitor, that Pétain was condemned to death by a court. However, his advanced age (90 years) saved him from the scaffold. “De Gaulle later commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. The marshal was taken to an inhospitable castle in the Pyrenees, and later, to one of those famous fortresses that Louis XIV had built throughout France”, said the newspaper in the same pages dated 1951.

For all these reasons, many voices could not help but be surprised when Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, considered it “legitimate” to pay tribute (in the framework of the armistice that ended the Great War in 1919) to the figure of Pétain. As many local newspapers such as “Le Figaro” have revealed, the politician argued that the soldier had been “a great soldier in the First World War” even if, in the end, he had done “disastrous things”. “It is legitimate for us to pay tribute to the army marshals who have led us to victory, as we do every year,” he said. However, he eventually decided to backtrack and cancel the event.

“Better Hitler than Blum”

All in all, the truth is that Pétain’s anti-Semitic mentality was not unique in France. In fact, as Alvaro Lozano points out in his book “Nazi Germany”, in the 1930s the slogan of many Gallic parties was “Better Hitler than Blum”. This name referred to Léon Blum, the country’s Jewish socialist prime minister on two occasions: from 1936 to 1937 and then again in 1938. In the words of the same author, there were also many other political parties that defended the establishment of measures against the Jews similar to those that were being forged in Germany, or even harsher. Among them was Action Française.

The political situation in France was that tense when, in mid-May 1940, German tanks broke through the Maginot Line (the network of border fortifications that defended the country from possible attacks from the east) and began the conquest of the Gallic country. The invasion lasted a little more than a month, after which the nation of liberty, equality and fraternity was forced to capitulate to Adolf Hitler’s soldiers. It was of no use that the local government had a larger army than the Germans, for they were defeated.

On June 25, 1940, with the local army on its knees before the overwhelming might of the “Wehrmacht”, Hitler divided “la France” into two zones. The first, to the north, occupied by German troops. The second, to the south, led by a government that collaborated with the “Führer” under the regime of the city of Vichy (where the capital was settled). “The Germans occupied the north, the richest and most productive region of France”, explains historian and writer Mario Escobar (author of “The Children of the Yellow Star”, a historical novel that narrates the resistance of a small Gallic village against Nazism).

Extremist laws

Who could be placed at the head of this new collaborationist France? The chosen one was Philippe Pétain, famous among the Gallic people for having fought heroically in the First World War, where his bravery had earned him the title of marshal. Reserved, womanizer and of enigmatic political ideas, the military man had already received on May 18, 1940 the post of vice-president of the Council to defend the country from the German invasion. And his solution had been to urge his compatriots to surrender to the enemy and to accept humiliating conditions from Adolf Hitler and his government.

From then on, Pétain was docile to the Nazis. The reasons for this were a mixture of anti-Semitism, fear and lust for power. “Pétain was promised that the occupation would be very short, and that after it he would be able to regain France. The Marshal thought that, when the war was over, he would be able to rule the whole country without opposition. Besides, the fear of losing the colonies to Francisco Franco’s Spain made him collaborate in everything with the Germans so that they would support him”, he adds.

In this way, and from June 17, 1940 (when Pétain was given full powers), Vichy France did something that had not been seen in the country since before the revolutionaries of 1789 came to power: to impose a series of ultra-conservative ideas that only survived in the most rural areas of the country. From that moment on, dozens of anti-Semitic laws proliferated in “la France”, supporting the Nazi madness.

This was stated, among others, by Jorge Kirszenbaum (former president of the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations) in a speech delivered in 2006 on the occasion of a tribute to Holocaust survivors: “Since October 1940, all Jews had to register in police stations, where the word “Jew” was added to their identity card”. The expert also explained then that, from May and August of the same year, they were forced to wear the yellow star, their radios were confiscated, and they were required to travel in the last carriage of the Paris subway.

These laws, from the first to the last, were instated by Gauls. “All that humiliation, that degradation, that persecution and that cleansing were perpetrated by the French,” Kirszenbaun added. Francis Lott, French ambassador in Buenos Aires, emphasized this idea during the same event: “The truth is stark. The French state supported the Nazi madness, organizing raids and deportations. A quarter of the Jews of France have perished in trains and concentration camps”.

Lozano is of the same opinion, and so he makes it clear in his work, where he explains that Pétain charged against the Jews excluding them from the official bodies of the army, expelling them from the judicial career and dismissing all those who worked as teachers. Most were also stripped of their French nationality, although Pétain excluded some of his World War I comrades from this measure. “The police of the Vichy regime (the Milice) proved to be one of the most anti-Semitic forces in Europe and was very active in the search for and capture of French Jews,” the author adds.


Until recently, many of the marshal’s defenders claimed that Pétain was forced to accept the Nazi regime and to collaborate passively with the enactment of anti-Semitic laws. However, in 2010, a new document unveiled by researchers Éric de Rothschild and Serge Klarsfeld finally broke this myth. The two found a draft of the anti-Jewish bill drawn up by the officer himself, in which he asked his government in Vichy to increase the penalties imposed on captured Semites.

The report, as expected by experts of the stature of historian Robert Paxton, drastically changed the view hitherto held of Pétain, and the French version that had become widespread after 1945 began to take on new importance. “This document proves the opposite: he himself participated very actively, at the head of the State collaborating with Nazi Germany, in the police and racist policies against the Jews,” explained the expert.

Winter Velodrome

However, if Pétain became sadly famous for anything, it was for orchestrating one of the most deplorable events of World War II: the deportations from the Winter Velodrome in occupied France. This operation began in the summer of 1942 when some 9,000 gendarmes were ordered to arrest more than 12,000 people. The task was not difficult for them because, as historian Yehuda Krell explains in his book “Pages of Hate. History of Antisemitism”, “French Jews had been registered beforehand, since 1940, by the local authorities”.

After the arrest, the collaborationist government divided the prisoners into two groups. One group (mainly single men without families) was taken to internment camps such as Drancy, in the north of the country. The rest (mostly women and children) were taken by bus to the Winter Velodrome in Paris. “It was a very symbolic thing because the place was not just a building where cycling was practiced. It was a very popular site where everything from bullfights to model shows had been held. It was a meeting place near the Seine River. A well-known building,” Escobar adds.

That place of revelry turned into a real hell for several days. “Although it was a public building with bathrooms, it was not prepared to accommodate so many people. The conditions were pitiful. The prisoners could barely carry a blanket and a couple of shirts. They barely received food or water and, in turn, had to endure the extreme heat in July,” Escobar adds. During those days, all those who tried to escape were also shot. Others committed suicide. “France skipped all the laws of the Republic to have that close relationship with the Nazis,” he adds.

Finally, after July 18, the prisoners began to be deported to Germany (in some cases) or to other intermediate camps in France. This is what the essayist Emmanuel Lemieux determines in his work “Edgar Morin: life and work of the nonconformist thinker”. In it, he points out this day as the first day on which trains loaded with Jews began to travel to Auschwitz. Many of the prisoners would never return to their homeland, as they were destined for the gas chambers.

Escobar points out that this situation was especially harsh for the younger ones. “Since the Germans did not know what to do with the children, the government took them to an internment camp in the north of the country. Their situation was doubly traumatic. First, because they had to say goodbye to their parents when they were deported. And then, because they were taken alone to Auschwitz in a convoy. They had no one to look after them, they were starving and dehydrated. It was terrible,” he adds.

The data from the Winter Velodrome roundup was traumatic. Approximately a quarter of the total number of Jews leaving France for Germany were deported. And the most worrying thing, according to Escobar, is that this horror was subsequently hidden: “Everything was indifference and silence for generations. One example is that, in the French elections, Marine Le Pen went so far as to say that the French had not collaborated with the Nazis. But her father was worse, he directly denied the genocide”. That is precisely why Macron’s words these days have been so important.