The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965

By Pieter Lagrou | Go to book overview

6
Pétain's exiles and De Gaulle's deportees

Nowhere was the repatriation more central to the post-war political challenges than in France. Unlike Belgium and the Netherlands, where pre-war governments prepared for their return to power after the liberation, the French National Liberation Committee had to struggle for legitimacy with Vichy, the constitutionally legitimate heir of the prewar Third Republic.

The Vichy regime (and Pétain personally) had turned the exile of 1,500,000 French soldiers into a cornerstone of its ideology of atonement and resurrection, and, more unfortunately still, into a touchstone of the effectiveness of its policy of collaboration.1 The fate of the French army after its collapse in May and June 1940 had been a major argument for Marshal Pétain, commander-in-chief, to assume the political responsibility of the armistice and the subsequent 'French State', much in the way that the Belgian King Leopold had legitimised his surrender and his refusal to leave the country after the defeat. Philippe Pétain, the soldierhero of the Great War, acted as the father of his troops, the saviour and protector from further useless bloodshed. One of the immediate consequences of national collaboration with the victors had been that Vichy took responsibility for the protection of its PoWs under the terms of the Geneva convention, instead of reverting to diplomatic representation by a neutral nation, as all other defeated countries had done. As the next chapter will discuss, the regime engaged in lengthy and wearisome transactions to liberate PoWs by promoting the voluntary departure of three civil workers in return for each liberated PoW, the so-called relève or relief. It suggested the 'transformation' of PoWs into civil workers, thereby voluntarily abandoning the protection of the Geneva convention. Later, it even defended and enforced the deportation of French workers to Germany. The results of this policy were catastrophic for Vichy's popularity, and for the French PoWs. Whereas Dutch and Flemish PoWs were mostly liberated during the first year of war by

____________________
1
Durand, La Captivité, and Durand, La Vie Quotidienne des prisonniers de guerre dans les stalags, les oflags et les commandos 1939–1945 (Paris, 1987).

-106-

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