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Henri Philippe Petain

HENRI PHILIPPE PETAIN, (1856-1951), French general who was honored as a national hero for his defense of Verdun during World War I but who was convicted after World War II of dealings with the enemy while head of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

The son of peasants, he was born on April 24, 1856, in Cauchy-a-la-Tour. He graduated from the French military academy at St. Cyr in 1887 and attended the Ecole de Guerre, where he later taught. At the outbreak of World War I he was merely a colonel and near retirement. Also, he had attracted unfavorable attention because he rejected the army's official doctrine that furious infantry attacks would always overcome defensive resistance.

Savior of Verdun

During the first months of the war, Petain fought well and advanced rapidly in rank. By the middle of 1915 he was a full general in command of the Second Army and had won the trust of his soldiers because he was careful not to waste their lives in futile assaults. In February 1916 he was ordered to defend the fortress at Verdun at all costs. The massive German attack lasted six months but was foiled by a fierce defense and Petain's skillful organization of supply. Although French casualties were enormous, Petain's husbanding of his troops prevented even greater bloodshed. In May 1971 he became commander in chief and had to restore discipline and morale in an exhausted army driven to mutiny by the fruitless spring offensive. Petain ordered the execution of 27 mutineers, but he also responded to the soldiers' grievances by improving their living conditions. After Foch was given command of all Allied forces in 1918, Petain directed the French armies in the offensives that ended the war. In November 1918 he was made marshal of France.

Between the Wars

In 1925, Petain was sent to Morocco to end the rebellion of the Rifs. He defeated them in 1926. He also served as minister of war in the Doumergue cabinet of 1934 and as ambassador to Spain in 1939-1940. It was, however, as the country's most revered war hero and as vice president of the French general staff (1920-1930) that he played a crucial role before WORLD WAR II . Convinced that Verdun had vindicated his doctrine of defense and that France must not wage offensive war, he supported the construction of the Maginot Line and neglected the new offensive weapons and tactics that were to defeat the lumbering, badly led French army in 1940.

Head of State

In May 1940 he was invited by Premier Paul Reynaud to join the cabinet, principally to lend his great moral authority to a government thrown into disarray by the French military collapse. Petain believed that further resistance was useless. Named premier on June 16, he requested an armistice on the 17th. It was signed on the 22d.

After the French government moved to Vichy in unoccupied France, Petain was voted full power to draft a new constitution on July 10. The next day he declared himself "head of government and " head of state, taking the eager collaborationist Pierre Laval as his vice premier. In October, Petain met with HITLER at Montoire to offer his collaboration. Later, in his defense, Petain made the claim that he was playing a cunning "double game, hoping to shield France from destruction until Germany's defeat. In fact, Petain persistently sought to trade his government's cooperation with Germany for a nonpunitive peace, the maintenance of the French empire, and an important role for a regenerated France in the new order that he believed would be established after Germany's victory over Britain. France, he hoped, would serve as a "west wall and help defend Europe against Bolshevism. Petain also dreamed of an internal "national revolution to transform France into a stable authoritarian order based on "work, family, fatherland.

Hitler, however, spurned French offers and promised nothing because he knew that Petain was powerless to resist his increasingly harsh demands for money, materiel, workers, and, finally, Jews for slaughter. The German occupation of all of France after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 reduced Petain to the figurehead of a regime serving German interests. When Petain attempted to dismiss Laval in December 1943, Hitler ordered him to keep Laval and to remain in office. Petain nevertheless clung blindly to the belief that only a cooperative neutrality could protect French interests, property, and lives. When the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, he ordered the French to be "quiet and orderly, not to aid the armies that were liberating his country.

In August 1944 he was forcibly moved by the Germans to Belfort and then to Germany. He returned to France in 1945 and was tried in Paris. On Aug. 15, 1945, he was sentenced to death. De Gaulle, however, immediately commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

The aged Petain spent his last years on the isle d'Yeu off the Brittany coast, where he died on July 23, 1951.

Richard Bienvenu
University of Missouri

Verslag/artikel door:
Roel Boons

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