Grab yourself a coffee and get comfortable. This is a bit of a long read, but one that has historical significance.
August 12, 1941 was a very meaningful day in the path to World War 2.
In the United States, loud voices were calling for isolation from the storms of Europe and the Far East. Congress passed a resolution extending the one year draft that had been put in place the previous year. But the vote was incredibly close. The agreement to extend service passed by a majority of one single vote. Considering that this was less than four months from Pearl Harbor, imagine how much worse the early days of the way to come would have been.
Marshall Pétain was a venerated World War 1 leader who helped keep the French from disintegrating because of the soldier’s unrest. He became the leader of occupied France in 1940 and under his rule, the government voted to transform the discredited French Third Republic into the French State, an authoritarian regime that collaborated with the Axis.
This is a translation of his address to the French People on August 12, 1941.
The twelve points of instruction near the end of the speech are hauntingly familiar.
MARSHAL Pétain’S ADDRESS TO THE FRENCH PEOPLE
Vichy, France, August 12, 1941
[New York Times, August 13, 1941.]
I have grave things to tell you!
For the last several weeks I have felt an ill wind rising in many regions of France. Disquiet is overtaking minds; doubt is gaining control of spirits. The authority of my government is made the subject of discussion; orders are often being ill executed.
In an atmosphere of false rumors and intrigues, the forces of reconstruction are growing discouraged. Others are trying to take their place without their nobleness or disinterestedness. My sponsorship is too often involved, even against the government, to justify self-styled undertakings of salvation which, in fact, amount to nothing more than appeals for indiscipline.
A real uneasiness inflicts the French nation. The reasons for this uneasiness are easy to understand. Cruel hours are always followed by difficult times.
While at the frontiers of the nation–which defeat has put out of action but whose empire leaves her vulnerable–the war goes on, ravaging new continents every day, everybody wonders with anguish about the future of our country.
Some feel themselves betrayed; others think they are abandoned. Some wonder where their duty lies; others first seek their own interest.
The London radio and certain French newspapers add to this confusion of minds. The sense of national interest in the end loses in justice and vigor. From this disorder of ideas springs disorder of affairs. Is this, indeed, the fate France has deserved after thirteen months of calm, of work, of incontestable revival?
Frenchmen, I put this question to you. I ask you to measure its scope and answer it in the confines of your consciences.
Our relations with Germany have been defined by an armistice convention tile character of which could only be provisional. Dragging out this situation makes it that much harder to support in so far as it governs relations between two great nations.
As for collaboration–offered in the month of October, 1940, by the Chancellor of the Reich under conditions that made me appreciate their deference–it was a long-term labor and has not yet been able to bear all its fruits.
We must be able to overcome a heavy heritage of distrust handed down by centuries of dissensions and quarrels and to turn ourselves toward broad perspectives that can open up a reconciled continent to our activity.
That is the goal toward which we are heading; but it is an immense labor, which requires on our part as much will as it does patience. Other tasks absorb the German Government, gigantic tasks in developments to the east in defense of a civilization and which can change the map of the world.
As regards Italy, our relations likewise are controlled by an armistice convention. Here again our desires are to escape from these provisional relations to create more stable ties without which the European order cannot be constructed.
I would also recall to the great American republic the reasons why it has no cause to fear a decline of French ideals. Certainly our parliamentary democracy is dead, but it never had more than a few traits in common with the democracy of the United States. As for the instinct of liberty, it still lives within us, proud and strong.
The American press has often misjudged us. Let it now make an effort to comprehend the quality of our souls and the destiny of a nation whose soil, through the course of history has been periodically ravaged, whose youth has been decimated, whose wellbeing has been troubled by the fragility of a Europe in whose reconstruction France intends today to participate.
Our domestic difficulties have sprung above all from troubled minds, from lack of men and from scarcity of products.
Troubled minds do not have as their sole origin the vicissitudes of our foreign policy. They come especially from our slowness in building a new order or, more correctly, in imposing one. The National Revolution, which I outlined in my message last Oct. 11, has not yet taken its place among accomplished facts.
It has not yet forced its way through because between the people and me–who understand one another so well–there has risen a double screen of partisans of the old regime and those serving the trusts.
The troops of the old regime are legion. I rank among them without exception all who place their personal interests ahead of the permanent interests of the State–Freemasonry, political parties deprived of clientele but thirsting for a comeback, officials attached to an order of which they were beneficiaries and masters–or those who have subordinated the interests of the Fatherland to foreign interests.
A long wait will be needed to overcome the resistance of all these opponents of the new order, but we must start in now to smash their undertakings by decimating their leaders.
If France did not understand that she was condemned by the impact of events to change her regime, then she would see open up before her the abyss in which Spain of 1936 just missed being swallowed and from which she was saved only by faith, youth and sacrifice.
As for the power of the trusts, it is trying to reassert itself, using for its own ends the institution of Committees of Economic Organization. These committees were created, however, to rectify the errors of capitalism. They had in addition the purpose of entrusting responsible men with necessary authority to negotiate with Germany and assure equitable distribution of raw materials indispensable to our factories.
The choice of members for these committees was difficult. It was not always possible to find impartiality and competence united within the same minds. These provisional bodies created under the sway of a pressing need have been too numerous, too centralized and too unwieldy. The big corporations assumed too much authority and often inadmissible control.
In the light of experience, I shall correct the work I have undertaken, and I shall renew against a selfish and blind capitalism that struggle which the sovereigns of France waged and won against feudalism. I shall see to it that France is rid of the most despicable tutelage, that of money.
Irresponsible trade organizations, governed by commercial considerations, have too long been directing our food supply. I already have taken sanctions and struck at an entire system in the person of a single man: that of national distribution centers which have assured the great commercial agents exclusive and usurious control of all questions of food supply to the detriment of producer and consumer.
We are still suffering, but I do not wish our suffering displayed in front of the scandal of fortunes built out of the general misery. It would be all the more revolting, inasmuch as this nation has in the past year accomplished an immense labor, despite privations of all kinds and under the most difficult conditions.
I have in mind our farmers, who, without laborers, without fertilizer, without sulphate, have succeeded in obtaining results better than those of the year before. I have in mind the miners, who have worked without respite night and day to obtain coal for us. I have in mind all those workers who return from work only to find fireless homes and meagerly set tables.
It is thanks to their unceasing efforts that the life of the country has been able to be maintained, despite defeat. It is with them and through them that we will be able tomorrow to build a France free, powerful and prosperous. Let them wait with me for better times. The trials of France will have an end.
As for the lack of man power, that is due above all to the absence of those who are prisoners. As long as more than a million Frenchmen, comprising the young and vigorous elements of the nation and the best section of its elite, remain outside of the country’s activities, it will be difficult to build a new and lasting edifice. Their return will make it possible to fill the great gap from which we suffer. Their spirit, strengthened by camp life, matured by long reflection, will become the best cement of the National Revolution.
And yet, in spite of these difficulties the future of our country is being built with a precision that becomes more assured every day.
The family, communities, trades, provinces will be pillars of the constitution at which the best workers for our reconstruction are laboring tirelessly. Its preamble will open up clear perspectives for the future of France.
Our most recent reforms are being made the object of methodical revision, the outline of which will appear clearer as soon as legislative texts have been simplified and codified.
But lawmaking and building are not enough. Governing is needed. It is both the necessity and the will of the whole people.
France cannot really be governed except from Paris. I cannot yet return there, and I shall not return there until certain facilities are offered me.
France cannot be governed except without the assent of public opinion–an assent more necessary than ever in the authoritarian regime.
This public opinion is today divided. France cannot be governed unless the initiative of her chief finds corresponding exactness and faithfulness in the bodies transmitting it. This exactness and faithfulness are still lacking.
France, however, cannot wait. A nation like ours, forged in the crucible of races and passions, proud and courageous, as ready for sacrifice as for violence and ever bristling when its honor is at stake, needs certainties, space and discipline.
The government’s problem thus goes far beyond the framework of a simple ministerial change. It demands above all the unqualified maintenance of certain principles.
Authority no longer emanates from below. The only authority is that which I entrust or delegate.
I delegated it in the first place to Admiral Darlan, to whom public opinion has not always been favorable or fair, but who has ever helped me with loyalty and courage.
I have given him the Ministry of National Defense in order that he may exercise more direct control on all our land, sea and air forces.
To my government I shall leave the necessary initiative, but in various fields I intend to trace for it a very clear line. This is what I have decided:
- Activity of political parties and groups of political origin is suspended until further notice in the unoccupied zone. These parties may no longer hold either public or private meetings. They must cease any distribution of tracts or notices. Those that fail to conform to these decisions will be dissolved.
- Payment of Members of Parliament is suppressed as of Sept. 30.
- The first disciplinary sanctions against State officials guilty of false declarations regarding membership in secret societies has been ordered. The names of officials have been published this morning in the Journal Official Holders of high Masonic degrees–of which the first list has just been published–may no longer exercise any public function.
- The Legion of War Veterans remains the best instrument in the free zone of the National Revolution. But it is able to carry out its civil task only by remaining in all ranks subordinate to the government.
- I will double the means of police action, whose discipline and loyalty should guarantee public order.
- A group of Commissars of Public Power is created. These high officials will be charged with studying the spirit in which the laws, decrees, orders and instructions of the central power will be carried out. They will have the mission of ferreting out and destroying obstacles which abuse of the rules of administrative routine or activity of secret societies can oppose to the work of National Revolution.
- Powers of regional prefects, the first units of those who will be Governors of provinces in the France of tomorrow, will be reinforced. Their power, so far as the central administration is concerned, is increased. Their authority over all heads of local services is direct and complete.
- The labor charter designed to regulate, according to the principles of my St. Etienne speech, relations among workers, artisans, technicians and employers in an agreement reached with mutual understanding, has resulted in a solemn accord. It will be published shortly.
- The provisional statute of economic organization will be revamped on a basis of reorganization of committees with larger representation of small industry and artisans, with revision of their financial administration and their relations with provincial arbitration organisms.
- The powers, role and organization of the National Food Supply Bureau will be modified according to means which, safeguarding the interests of consumers, permit the authority of the State to make itself felt at the same time on a national and regional basis.
- I have decided to use the powers given me by Constitutional Act No. 7 to judge those responsible for our disaster. A Council of Justice is created to that effect. It will submit its reports before Oct. 15.
- In the application of this same Constitutional Act, all Ministers and high officials must swear an oath of fealty to me and engage themselves to carry out duties in their charge for the well-being of the State according to the rules of honor and propriety.
This first series of measures will reassure the French who think only of the well-being of the fatherland.
Prisoners who still are waiting in camps and who are preparing yourselves in silence for the work of national restoration, peasants of France who are gathering harvest in particularly difficult conditions, people of the reserved [occupied] zone who place all your confidence in the unity of France, workmen of our suburbs, deprived of meat and wine and of tobacco and yet so brave, you are the ones I think of. You are the ones to whom I address these French words.
I know by my calling what victory is; I see today what defeat is. I have received the heritage of a wounded France. It is my duty to defend that heritage by maintaining your aspirations and your rights.
In 1917 I put an end to mutiny. In 1940 I put an end to rout. Today I wish to save you from yourselves.
When a man of my age dedicates his person to his country there is no sacrifice that he can evade. His only concern is the public salvation. Remember this:
If a beaten country is divided against itself it dies. If a beaten country can unite it is reborn.
Vive la France!”
After the war, Pétain was tried and convicted for treason.
He was originally sentenced to death, but due to his age and World War I service his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died in 1951. His journey from military obscurity, to hero of France during World War I, to collaborationist ruler during World War II, led his successor Charles de Gaulle to write that Pétain’s life was “successively banal, then glorious, then deplorable, but never mediocre”.