Usually, Sunday’s entry from the RedState Department of History focuses on the American kind of history. Not so today. We travel to France for today’s entry, to one of the more remarkable turnarounds by an individual in modern history — and not for the better.
In February 1916, at the height of the First World War, Henri Phillippe Petain took over command of the French defense of Verdun. At the time, the town and its surrounding forces were under attack by the largest German offensive since the initial offensive of 1914, stopped by what was known to history as the “Miracle of the Marne.”
The Verdun offensive was one of the best-known, bloodiest, and in fact the longest offensive of the entire war in the West. Lasting nine months and costing nearly one million total casualties, defending the town became a matter of French national pride. Petain was placed in command of the defense early in the battle and became known for his promise “Il ne passeront pas,” meaning “they shall not pass.”
For much of 1916, Petain rotated fresh troops into and out of the Verdun sector. At one point, nearly 75 percent of the French Army had taken part in its defense. In December, the French finally drove off the Germans and Petain became a national hero.
So his turn away from France, and toward Germany, in the Second World War became impossible for most Frenchmen to accept. In 1940, Petain, then 84 years old, was named Premier one week before the nation’s capitulation to Germany.
Petain then became head of state of the puppet French government at Vichy. He served in that capacity for two years before handing real power to Pierre Laval, but when the Allies liberated France in 1944, Petain fled to Germany. In was in that context that he returned to France for trial, beginning on this date in 1945.
Even his detractors noted that it was an act of bravery for Petain to return, but in the only statement he made during his trial Petain noted that “I shall not respond to a single question, for a Marshal of France asks for mercy from none.” He also questioned the court’s legitimacy to try him. As The Guardian wrote in its trial coverage:
Petain, the 89-year-old Marshal of France, was taken like any other prisoner in a black Maria from Fort Montrouge to his two little rooms at the Palais de Justice to-day. To-morrow he will be on trial for his life, on a double charge of plotting against the internal security of the State and of intelligence with the enemy. M. Andre Mornet, 75-year-old Public Prosecutor, will demand the death sentence.
Madame Petain accompanied her husband with the prison doctor and two sisters of mercy. Police cordoned the streets, and the prison van entered the courtyard without incident.
The trial is expected to last at least a fortnight. Marshal Petain will seek to tell his story of why France capitulated, and M. Mornet, Public Prosecutor, will accuse him in the name of justice and truth of having betrayed France.
The indictment is an eleven-page document listing the charges under three heads — material, moral, and political. It is held that Petain signed the armistice, suppressed the Presidency, assumed full powers and adjourned the Chamber and Senate, which he never again convoked.
After a two-week trial, Petain was convicted and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Charles deGaulle, who had served with Petain and was wounded and captured at Verdun himself, spending nearly three years as a prisoner of war. He was stripped of all his honors and accolades with the exception of the title of Marshal of France. Since the title was granted by the government, the court did not feel it had the power to take it away.
Petain was exiled to the Ile d’Yeu, where he lived for six more years — also dying on this date in 1951, at the age of 95. He had long requested to be buried with his fallen men at Verdun, but to this day his remains rest on the small island off the coast of Brittany where he met his eventual fate.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!