Petain was a national hero in France for his role in the defence of Verdun in World War One, but was later discredited and sentenced to death as head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy in World War Two.
Henri Philippe Pétain was born on 24 April 1856 into a farming family from northern France. He joined the French army in 1876.
After a number of World War One commands, in 1916, Pétain was ordered to stop the massive German attack on the city of Verdun. He reorganised the front lines and transport systems and was able to inspire his troops, turning a near-hopeless situation into a successful defence. He became a popular hero and replaced General Robert Nivelle as commander-in-chief of the French army. Pétain then successfully re-established discipline after a series of mutinies by explaining his intentions to the soldiers personally and improving their living conditions. In November 1918, he was made a marshal of France.
In 1934, Pétain was appointed minister of war, and then secretary of state in the following year. In 1939, he was appointed French ambassador to Spain. In May 1940, with France under attack from Germany, Pétain was appointed vice premier. In June he asked for an armistice, upon which he was appointed 'chief of state', enjoying almost absolute powers. The armistice gave the Germans control over the north and west of France, including Paris, but left the remainder as a separate regime under Pétain, with its capital at Vichy. Officially neutral, in practice the regime collaborated closely with Germany, and brought in its own anti-Semitic legislation.
In December 1940, Pétain dismissed his vice-premier, Pierre Laval, for his policy of close Franco-German collaboration. But Laval's successors were unacceptable to the Germans and Laval was restored. In November 1942, in response to allied landings in North Africa, the Germans invaded the unoccupied zone of France. Vichy France remained nominally in existence, but Pétain became nothing more than a figurehead. In the summer of 1944, after the allied landings in France, Pétain was taken to Germany. He returned to France after liberation, was brought to trial and condemned to death. This was immediately commuted to solitary confinement for life by General Charles De Gaulle. Pétain was imprisoned on the Île d'Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died on 23 July 1951.
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