In 1940, Germany invaded France after its conquest of Poland had been completed in the East. A general unwillingness for another war and a somewhat dated military doctrine meant that the Allies, France and England, were unable to stand against the swift German invasion as it pushed in through Belgium, avoiding the mighty Maginot line with much the same route it had taken during the First World War. With the surprisingly rapid defeat of France, much of the country’s leadership was forced to flee to England, becoming the French government-in-exile, or the Free French government.
While much of the government could escape, the vast majority of France’s population was left to pick up the pieces. What would follow was a harsh armistice enforced by the Nazi invaders. The country was split in two, and a sympathetic government would be installed, if not outright collaborationist. Vichy France is often unnoticed and forgotten, though for many French, it was an inescapable reality of their day-to-day lives.
The Fall of France
In the wake of the First World War, France had been left battered and severely hurt from the conflict. It had suffered immense destruction and loss of life as much of the fighting had occurred on its own soil. As a result, after the war, France only had roughly half the economic capacity of Germany, even counting the war reparations that Germany was expected to give, along with the loss of its colonies.
This was not helped when, in the 1920s, Britain allowed Germany to default on its reparations and diplomatically pressured the French to simply make concessions to Germany. The French likewise believed that any future war would be much like the First World War, long and drawn out, boiling down to attrition, which France had no stomach for (but was capable of winning).
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The German invasion that would finally come proved to be anything but. In a rapid series of advances relying heavily on maneuver warfare, the Germans caught both France and England entirely by surprise. While the First World War consisted of four years of brutal stalemates costing millions of lives, this time, the invasion of France was over in only six weeks, resulting in the near complete destruction of the French military.
With the fall of Paris, France could not mount any sort of further resistance. Germany, which had spent years seeing itself as the victim of French oppression in the wake of the First World War, was quick to impose a brutal armistice on France, going so far as to use the very same train car in which the armistice was signed for the First World War. Marshal Philippe Pétain signed the surrender, a well-renowned hero of the First World War, after the current prime minister, Paul Reynaud, refused to sign and resigned in protest.
Even before the establishment of Vichy France, tensions had begun to rise between some members of the French government and the British, viewing the English as insufficiently willing to commit assistance. At the same time, the British also warned that they would bomb any French ports occupied by the Germans. Years of British appeasement of Germany in the decade prior to hostilities meant that there remained a good deal of resentment towards the English, with many members of the French government feeling that this conflict was a result of Britain’s failure of diplomacy to keep Germany in check.
The armistice was signed on 22 June, which allowed Germany to occupy the north and west portion of the country while the south would remain unoccupied, albeit heavily neutered military and politically. While Paris technically remained the capital, the new government would move to the city of Vichy.
The Founding of Collaborationist France
With the division of France and the occupation of over half of the mainland (which France was obliged to pay for), the new government decided to move to the city of Vichy in the unoccupied south. Under the terms of the treaty, France, while nominally independent, was realistically at the mercy of Germany and was not allowed to possess more than a poorly equipped token military domestically and a colonial force to ideally hold off the Allies abroad.
The one section that remained untouched by the armistice was the sizable French Navy, which was seen as essential to protecting their colonial holdings. Ultimately, Germany intended to nominally keep France as a neutral puppet and prevent the Allies from using French colonies in Africa to influence the campaign that had just begun in the Sahara while also suppressing the rise of communism in France. This was somewhat complicated for the Germans and the Vichy government due to the escape of Charles de Gaulle, who established a Free French government-in-exile and called on France’s navy and colonial holdings to abandon the Vichy government and join the Allies, which many would indeed do.
Britain would immediately move against the French fleet in North Africa, attacking the major port of Mers-el-Kébir, sinking a battleship, and taking the lives of thirteen hundred French sailors. This event served to galvanize a wave of anti-English sentiment in France, helping to push many towards German cooperation.
A mere week after the attack at Mers-el-Kébir, the government in Vichy voted to give full and complete power to Pétain, including the ability to write an entirely new constitution and effectively abolish the Third Republic. Retrospectively, historians view this vote as illegal. However, it doesn’t change the fact that at the time, it signaled the end of actual democratic republicanism in France, with Pétain being given dictatorial powers.
An incredibly old-fashioned conservative, Pétain considered the Republic to have been made weak by corruption, liberal policy, and a departure from more traditional values. To this end, the motto of the Republic, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, equality, fraternity) was replaced with the new “Work, Family, Fatherland,” holding a rather similar tone to the right-leaning and fascist ideals adopted by both Germany and Italy.
Between the fear of communism, the rising tide of anglophobia, and the shattered morale of the lost war, much of the French public was perhaps surprisingly in support of the regime, which promised to purge the perceived weakness and corruption of the previous Republic and to navigate France through the rising conflict of the growing war.
Vichy France in Action
While the Nazis did not have a direct say in the politics of Vichy France, the government was undeniably beholden to the German regime and would only be allowed to exist so long as its policies reflected this. There was little that Hitler had to worry about in this regard, as Pétain was undeniably a far-right-leaning conservative, both in political and social terms.
While not technically fascist, Vichy France undeniably shared many of the hallmarks of other fascist bodies. A highly patriarchal social system that saw near-total government control of the economy and had strong religious (Catholic) support. Similarly, the Vichy state started to pursue a number of racist policies and began to collaborate heavily with the Nazi state regarding anti-Semitic policy and eugenics. Many of the roundups and deportation of French Jews were at the direct demand of Germany, though given Vichy’s domestic policies, there was likely little coercion needed.
Otherwise, the Vichy state existed largely as a client state to Nazi Germany, supporting them economically with large tributes of money and supplies while nominally assisting militarily as well. However, they were on the surface declared a neutral entity. All the while, a massive number of French soldiers were kept in German prison camps, used as both hostages to force the continued flow of Vichy tributes while also using them as forced labor. However, their treatment was generally much better than other groups in Nazi Germany’s forced labor programs.
While the domestic military was neutered to the point of near impotence, most of Vichy’s defense force (intended to combat the French Resistance) was through the use of the Milice Française, or simply La Milice. This was a paramilitary group, not unlike the Nazi Brownshirts or the Italian Blackshirts. While the military and police were often complacent or willing in the actions of the government, the Milice represented the most twisted and extreme fascist arm of Vichy France. They were known throughout France for their brutality and torture of captives and the regular use of assassinations and summary executions. Worse still, they were local and therefore able to react to and understand French resistance groups better than any of their German allies.
The End of Vichy France
In late 1942, the Allies, now including the newly at-war United States, decided that a final victory was needed in North Africa, along with an opportunity for US troops to gain some valuable field experience before the war shifted to Europe proper. To this end, it was decided that US, British, and other Allied troops would make an invasion of the then-Vichy-controlled North Africa, along with Morocco and Algeria. The landings would occur across a vast front, and except two instances, in Algiers and the city of Oran, the defending Vichy French forces laid down their arms or outright joined with the Allied troops.
Despite actually outnumbering the invading forces and possessing an extensive network of shore batteries and very capable aircraft, it would seem that the French largely had no interest in fighting against the Allies and instead chose to join with them against the Axis powers at the first opportunity. As a result, Hitler saw this as a gross betrayal of the Vichy state despite the fact that the Vichy government was likely just as unhappy about this turn of events as he was. Considering that Vichy France had been made in order to prevent the Allies from using the French colonies as staging points and Operation Torch had done just that, many in Germany felt as though the usefulness of the Vichy regime had run out.
With Operation Torch coming to a close, the Germans and Italians immediately moved to invade and occupy the rest of France in late 1942. Axis troops swept into the rest of southern France with no resistance as the Vichy military was limited to the point of complete uselessness, and many in the Milice likely held more loyalty to the fascist government of Germany than their own frail state.
However, despite the ease of the invasion, Vichy France would, in fact, prove that it was not entirely at the mercy of Germany’s whims. As the German forces closed into the port of Toulon, it was decided that the soldiers and sailors that the still impressively sized fleet anchored there would not fall into Nazi hands. In total, seventy-seven ships would be scuttled, and several other vessels would escape to Africa, effectively destroying the whole of the Vichy navy, which Germany had intended to hand over to the Italians in order to help in securing the Mediterranean against the Allies.
With the fleet gone, there was little value left in France for the Germans that they had not already taken. A puppet government was set in place directly beholden to Nazi leadership, and the Free French became the only credibly independent government to represent France.