History Wars World War II

The worst Nazi collaborator was a French national hero in World War I

nazi collaborator
Pétain meeting Hitler at Montoire on 24 October 1940; Joachim von Ribbentrop on the right, Hitler's interpreter, Paul Schmidt, in the centre.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Third French Republic, along with Britain, demanded the immediate withdrawal of German troops from the country. When the Germans didn’t leave, World War II in Europe began. After a brief period of minimal fighting called the Phoney War, the Germans launched their blitzkrieg of Western Europe. By June 1940, the government of France had fallen.

Germany occupied northern France and governed from Paris, while the rest of the country was largely unoccupied and governed from the resort city of Vichy. Vichy France actively collaborated with the Nazi regime from Berlin, the French Republic was gone, and was replaced by a dictatorship. The architect of the collaborationist French government was World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain. 

The Pétain Family’s military history dates back as far as Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Philippe Pétain’s military career began when he was just 17, when he enrolled in the Saint-Cyr Military Academy in 1873. As he rose in the ranks, he was highly respected by his superiors and subordinates, including a young Charles de Gaulle. Col. Pétain was looking forward to retirement when World War I broke out

French forces on the Western Front of World War I struggled against the German invasion in the early years of the war. Pétain had a different view of combat strategy than most other French officers. Rather than launching massive infantry assaults, he believed that superior firepower was better to overwhelm the enemy. As a result, Pétain saw much more success in those days than other commanders, as the fighting became a war over a few yards between trenches. 

philippe petain nazi collaborator
Philippe Pétain in 1941.

He was made a general and led the French at the 1916 Battle of Verdun as commander of the Second Army. As the battle progressed, he introduced a new innovation, rotating troops out of the trenches every two weeks and moving them via train. The fresh troops and constant supply allowed the French to grind the Germans down at Verdun. Pétain was promoted to Chief of Staff. 

His repeated successes in the closing days of the war led to him being made a Marshal of France and one of France’s greatest military heroes. He was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. He became a proponent of building the Maginot Line as France drew down its postwar forces and even entered government as Minister of War. But government soured him, and the War Ministry was unable to secure France with what Pétain believed it needed. 

When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Pétain was back in government and saw the military situation as hopeless. As a deputy Prime Minister, when the government fell, Pétain took over. France under Pétain signed an armistice with Germany, moved the government to Vichy and became a de facto dictator of what was now called the “French State.” He led a repressive puppet  government that enforced Germany’s antisemitic laws and laws against refugees until 1944. He was forcibly moved to Germany as the Allied invasion of France progressed, but eventually made his way back to France via Switzerland.

After the war, Pétain was put on trial for treason and other crimes, all of which he was found guilty. He was sentenced to death by a one-vote majority. Since Pétain was in his 70s at the time, he was not executed. Instead, Charles de Gaulle’s new government stripped him of his awards and honors, except for that of Marshal of France, and sentenced him to life in prison. By 1949, he was completely senile and he died in a hospital in 1951. His name is still subject to controversy in France.