On this day in 1951, General Henri-Philippe Petain, French national hero of World War I, who was convicted of collaboration with the German occupiers of his country during World War II and sentenced to life in prison, dies. He is 95. A graduate of Saint-Cyr Military Academy, Petain served as a second lieutenant in the Alpine regiment, where he developed a reputation for camaraderie with the average foot soldier. He then went on to a controversial teaching career at the War College, where he propounded theories that were in direct conflict with commonly held ideas, especially his contention that a strong defense was the key to victory, not the “always be on the attack” strategy common to the French military at the time.
During World War I, General Petain distinguished himself at the Battle of Verdun, during which he successfully repulsed German attacks on the fortress city. He was an inspiration to his troops and successfully squelched near mutinies within the army after disastrous offensives led by General Robert-Georges Nivelle. Petain regained the confidence-and loyalty–of those soldiers when he was named Nivelle’s successor, improving their living conditions and initiating open communication between command and troops.
After the outbreak of World War II, Petain was named vice premier by Premier Paul Reynaud. As Germany began to overrun more French territory, the French Cabinet became desperate. Reynaud continued to hold out hope, refusing to ask for an armistice, especially now that France had received assurance from Britain that the two would fight as one, and that Britain would continue to fight the Germans even if France were completely overtaken. But others in the government were despondent and wanted to sue for peace. Reynaud resigned in protest.
Petain then formed a new government and asked the Germans for an armistice–in effect, surrendering. The man who had become a legendary war hero for successfully fighting off a German attack on French soil was now surrendering to Hitler. In the city of Vichy, the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies conferred on the 84-year-old general the title of “Chief of State,” making him a virtual dictator-although one controlled by Berlin. Petain believed that he could negotiate a better deal for his country– for example, obtaining the release of prisoners of war–by cooperating, or, as some would say, appeasing, the Germans.
When Paris was finally liberated by General Charles de Gaulle in 1944, Petain fled to Germany. He was brought back after the war to stand trial for his double-dealing ways. He was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in solitary confinement. He died at 95 in a prison fortress. Ironically, the man responsible for saving his life was De Gaulle. He and Petain had fought in the same unit in World War I. Petain’s bravery during that world war had not been forgotten.