Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951), generally known as Marshall Pétain, was a brilliant military commander during the First World War, notably with the defence of Verdun, which made him a national hero. He was made a Marshall of France, a rare honour. From July 1940 to 1944 he was Head of State of the French State.
In February 1939 Marshal Pétain, aged 83, was appointed Ambassador to Spain by France's Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier. With France's declaration of war on Germany on 3 September that year Pierre Laval wrote to Petain suggesting he should return and form a government. Shortly afterwards Daladier summoned Pétain to Paris and asked him to enter the government. The Marshal refused, as he would not enter any government that did not include Laval - whom Daladier would not have. Pétain returned to Spain.
World War II
On 17 June 1940, in the wake of France's disastrous defeat in the "useless, hopeless war", Marshal Pétain was invited by the President of France, Albert Lebrun (1871–1950), to be the new Prime Minister and to form a new Cabinet, which quickly sued for an Armistice with Germany, on June 20th, and left the war. Werth, the great expert on French politics, wrote that "had a referendum been taken, say, on June 15, on whether France should try to negotiate an armistice, there is no doubt that the vast majority would have said yes." Pétain broadcasted to the nation:
- The Terms of the armistice are hard; but at least honour has been saved. No-one will use our planes and our Navy.....The Government remains free; and France will [continue to] be administered by Frenchmen only. Now a new order begins.
On July 10th the National Assembly of France, by an overwhelming vote (569-80), passed three Acts, number one named Pétain the new Head of State with the authority to promulgate a new constitution. The function of the President of the Republic was abolished. On July 15th Lebrun retired to Vizille (in Isère). Act number three prorogued and adjourned the two Chambers of deputies. For the next four years Petain presided over the French national government, which had relocated from Paris to Tours, to Bordeaux, to Clermont-Ferrard, and finally to the spar town of Vichy.
After World War II Marshall Petain was arrested and put on trial by France's Far-Left in a show trial and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment by the British puppet, Charles de Gaulle. Scandalously the Marshall died in prison in 1951, at the age of 95.
"For decades it has been customary to castigate Pétain for his wartime policy of [enforced] collaboration with Germany. It is not well known, for example, that the Vichy administration of Marshal Pétain was duly recognized as the legitimate government of France by more than 16 countries, including the United States."
- France 1940-1955 by Alexander Werth, London, 1957.
- Pétain by Glorney Bolton, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1957.
- Marshal Pétain by Richard Griffiths, Constable, London, 1970.
- Petain by Charles Williams, Little-Brown, London, May 2005, ISBN 0-316-86127-8