Pierre Laval (28 June 1883 15 October 1945) was a French politician and statesman who led the Vichy government during World War II, and who was later executed after being tried and found guilty for crimes against the State. He was controversial enough, that over twelve biographies have been written about him. Laval's own Diary was also published.
Young Pierre was first educated at the village school in Châteldon, then at the age if fifteen he was sent to a Paris lycée to take his baccalauréat. He did not complete it, and returning south to Lyon, he spent the next year reading a degree in zoology. Laval joined the socialists in 1903, when he was living in Saint Etienne (62km southwest of Lyon). “I was never a very orthodox socialist," he explained in 1945…..By which I mean that I was never much of a Marxist. My socialism was much more a socialism of the heart than a doctrinal socialism... I was much more interested in men, their jobs, their misfortunes and their conflicts than in the digressions of the great German pontiff.”
Laval returned to Paris in 1907. He was called up for military service, and after serving in the ranks, he was discharged due to having varicose veins. In a speech in April 1913 he declared "Barrack-based armies are incapable of the slightest effort, because they are badly-trained and, above all, badly commanded." He favoured the outright abolition of the army and its replacement by a citizens' militia.
During this period Laval became familiar with the left-wing doctrines of George Sorel and Hubert Lagardelle. In 1909, choosing to forget his zoological qualifications, he turned to the law. Shortly after becoming a member of the Paris bar, he married the daughter of a Dr. Claussat and they set up a small home in Paris. Their only child, a daughter, was born in 1911. Madame Laval, although coming from a very active political family, never meddled in politics herself. She belonged to a generation, she said, which believed that a woman's place was in the home. It was a happy home too, for Laval was devoted to his family, a fact, which even his enemies never denied.
The years immediately before the First World War in France were characterised by widespread labour unrest, and Laval made his mark by defending strikers, trade-unionists, and left-wing agitators against attempts by the authorities to prosecute them. In a trade-union conference, Laval spoke forcefully:
I am a comrade among comrades, a worker among workers. I am not one of those lawyers who are mindful of their bourgeois origin even when attempting to deny it. I am not one of those high-brow attorneys who engage in academic controversies and pose as intellectuals. I am proud to be what I am. A lawyer in the service of manual laborers who are my comrades, a worker like them, I am their brother. Comrades, I am a manual lawyer.”
Laval was a talker, not a writer. The only book he ever wrote was his Diary, written in a prison-cell while awaiting the foregone verdict of his trial. It survived, because his devoted daughter, Josée de Chambrun was able to smuggle it out page by page.
Laval held no offices in 1927-1929, but he was a prominent figure in most of the right-wing governments formed in 1930-1932 and 1934-1936. Laval's greatest achievement in this period was in supervising the passage of the social insurance bill through parliament. Originally passed by the Chamber of Deputies in 1928, it needed extensive amendment if it was to be successfully implemented and the prime minister, Andre Tardieu, had promised that it would be on the statute book by 1 July 1930. The bill was one of immense complexity and Laval had to reconcile the frequently divergent views of Chamber and Senate. "Had it not been for Laval's unwearying patience," Laval's associate Tissier wrote, "an agreement would never have been achieved," When the bill had passed its final stages, Tardieu paid a glowing tribute to his minister of labour, whom he described as "displaying at every moment of the discussion as much tenacity as restraint and ingenuity. He was Prime Minister from 27 January 1931 to 6 February 1932, and was named Time's 1931 Man of the Year.
The second Cartel des gauches (Left-Wing Cartel) was driven from power by the riots of 6 February 1934, staged by fascist, monarchist, and other far-right groups. (These groups had contacts with some conservative politicians, among whom were Laval and Philippe Pétain.) Laval became Minister of Colonies in the new right-wing Doumergue government. In October, Foreign Minister Barthou was assassinated; Laval succeeded him, holding that office until 1936.
At this time, Laval was opposed to Germany, the "hereditary enemy" of France. He pursued anti-German alliances with Mussolini's Italy and Stalin's USSR. He met with Mussolini in Rome, and they signed the Franco–Italian Agreement of 1935 on 4 January. The agreement ceded parts of French Somaliland to Italy and allowed Italy a free hand in the Abyssinia, in exchange for support against any German aggression. In April 1935, Laval persuaded Italy and Great Britain to join France in the Stresa Front against German ambitions in Austria.
In June 1935, he became Prime Minister as well.
Also in 1935, Laval's daughter Josée Marie married René de Chambrun, son of Count Aldebert de Chambrun. (De Chambrun was a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette. René's mother, Clara Longworth de Chambrun, was the sister of Theodore Roosevelt's son-in-law.)
In October 1935, Laval and British foreign minister Hoare proposed a "realpolitik" solution to the Abyssinia crisis. When leaked to the media in December, the Hoare-Laval Pact was widely denounced as appeasement to Mussolini. Laval was forced to resign on 22 January 1936, and was driven completely out of ministerial politics.
During the years 1927-30 Laval began to accumulate the sizable personal fortune which later gave rise to charges that he had used his political position to line his own pockets. “I have always thought,” he wrote to the examining magistrate on 11 September 1945, “that a soundly-based material independence, if not indispensable, gives those statesmen who possess it a much greater political independence.” Until 1927 his principal source of income had been his fees as a lawyer and in that year they totaled 113,350 francs, according to his income tax returns. Between August 1927 and June 1930, however, he undertook large-scale investments in various enterprises, totaling 51 million francs. Not all this money was his own by any means. It came from a group of financiers who enjoyed the backing of an investment trust, the Union Syndicale et Financière and two banks, the Comptoir Lyon Allemand and the Banque Nationale de Crédit.
Two of the investments which Laval and his backers acquired were provincial newspapers, Le Moniteur de Puy-de-Dome and its associated printing works at Clermont-Ferrand, and the Lyon Républicain. The circulation of the Moniteur stood at 27,000 in 1926 before Laval took it over. By 1933, it had more than doubled to 58,250. Thereafter it fell away again and never surpassed its earlier peak. Profits varied, but over the seventeen years of his control, Laval obtained some 39 million francs in income from the paper and the printing works combined, and the renewed plant was valued at 50 million francs, which led the high court expert to say with some justification that it had been “an excellent affair for him.
On 9 June 1940, the Germans were advancing on a front of more than 250 km in length across the entire width of France. As far as General Maxime Weygand was concerned, "if the Germans crossed the Seine and the Marne, it was the end.
Simultaneously, Pétain was increasing the pressure upon Prime Minister Paul Reynaud to call for an armistice. During this time Laval was in Châteldon. On 10 June, in view of the German advance, the government left Paris for Tours. Weygand had informed Reynaud: "the final rupture of our lines may take place at any time." If that happened "our forces would continue to fight until their strength and resources were extinguished. But their disintegration would be no more than a matter of time.
Weygand had avoided using the word armistice, but it was on the minds of all those involved. Only Reynaud was in opposition. During this time Laval had left Chåteldon for Bordeaux, where his daughter nearly convinced him of the necessity of going to the United States. Instead, it was reported that he was sending "messengers and messengers" to Pétain.
As the Germans occupied Paris, Marshal Pétain was asked to form a new government. To everyone's surprise, he produced a list of his ministers, convincing proof that he had been expecting the president's summons and he had prepared for it. Laval's name was on the list as Minister of Justice. When informed of his proposed appointment, Laval told Pétain he would rather be Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the change was made.
One result of these events was that Laval was later able to claim that he was not part of the government that requested the armistice. His name did not appear in the chronicles of events until June when he began to assume a more active role in criticising the governments' decision to leave France for North Africa.
Although the final terms of the armistice were harsh, the French empire was left untouched and the French government was allowed to administer the occupied as well as the unoccupied zone. The concept of “collaboration” was written into the Armistice Convention, before Laval joined the government. The French representatives who affixed their signatures to the text accepted the term.
Article III. In the occupied areas of France, the German Reich is to exercise all the rights of an occupying power. The French government promises to facilitate by all possible means the regulations relative to the exercise of this right, and to carry out these regulations with the participation of the French administration. The French government will immediately order all the French authorities and administrative services in the occupied zone to follow the regulations of the German military authorities and to collaborate with the latter in a correct manner.
When Laval was included in Petain's cabinet as minister of state, he began the work for which he would be remembered: the emulation of the totalitarian regime of Germany, the taking up of the cause of fascism, the destruction of democracy, and the dismantling of the Third Repulic. ("Darkness in Paris: The Allies and the eclipse of France 1940, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, Australia 2005, page 277).
In October 1940, Laval understood collaboration more or less in the same sense as Pétain. For both, to collaborate meant to give up the least possible in order to get the most. Laval, in his role of go-between, was forced to be in constant touch with the German authorities, to shift ground, to be wily, to plan ahead. All this, under the circumstances, drew more attention to him than to the marshal and made him appear to many Frenchmen as "the agent of collaboration;" to others, he was "the Germans' man. The meetings between Pétain and Hitler, and Laval and Hitler, are often used as showing the collaboration of the French leaders and the Nazis. In fact the results of Montoire (24-26 October) were a disappointment for both sides. Hitler wanted France to declare war on the British and the French wanted improved relations with her conqueror. Neither happened. Virtually, the only concession the French obtained was the so-called 'Berlin protocol' of 16 November, which provided release of certain categories of French prisoners of war.
In November, Laval made a number of pro-German actions on his own, without consulting with his colleagues. The most notorious examples concerned turning over to the Germans the Bor copper mines and the Belgian Gold reserves. His post-war justification, apart from a denial that he acted unilaterally, was that the French were powerless to prevent the Germans from gaining something they were clearly so anxious to obtain.
These actions by Laval were a factor in his dismissal on 13 December, when Pétain asked all the ministers to sign a collective letter of resignation during a full cabinet meeting. Laval did so thinking it was a device to get rid of M. Belin, the minister of labour. He was therefore stunned when, the Marshal announced, "the resignations of MM. Laval and Ripert are accepted.
That evening, Laval was arrested and driven by the police to his home in Châteldon. The following day, Pétain announced his decision to remove Laval from the government. The reason for Laval's dismissal lies in the fundamental incompatibility between him and Pétain. Laval's methods of working appeared slovenly to the Marshal's precise military mind and he showed a marked lack of deference, instanced by his habit of blowing cigarette smoke in Pétain's face, and in doing so he aroused not only Pétain's anger, but that of his cabinet colleagues as well.
If Laval had been able to obtain concessions from the Germans, even with his rude behavior, he would not have been dismissed. Since concessions were not to be given, Friday the 13th ended Laval's attempt to establish a Franco-German partnership in the new Europe.
Laval returned to Power in April of 1942, as he was also to return to the cover of Time Magazine (issue of 27 April). The article's introductory paragraph:
When Pierre Laval came back to power in Vichyfrance last week, the world felt in its bones that the war had taken some great new malevolent turn. Said Pundit Walter Lippmann: 'Hitler has brought France back into the war.' Cried a de Gaulist (sic) that sneer of the executioner—and tell yourself that for 30 years France has not shed a tear without Laval gaining by it.
The author of the article was not listed; however no doubt the material was obtained from prior associates of Laval, then living in New York and London. Their books about Laval were published in 1941 and 1942:
Henry Torrés, Pierre Laval, New York: Oxford University Press, 1941 Elie de Bois, Truth on the Tragedy of France, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1941 Pierre Tissier, I worked with Laval, London: George Harrap & Co, 1942
All three had been close associates of Laval and in their books they displayed outright contempt for Laval. The Time magazine article also quoted Pertnax, another former associate of Laval, who in 1944, wrote: The Gravediggers of France, New York: Doubleday: "In a letter Laval has said, 'I fully realize that the hangman will quickly take care of me on the day British arms triumph...' " Notwithstanding their feelings expressed in 1941 and 1942, the books written by Laval's former associates, provide quality incites regarding Laval's life prior to 1940.
Laval had been in power for a mere two months when he was faced with the decision of providing forced workers to Germany. Germany was short of skilled labor due to its need for troop replacements on the Russian front. Unlike the other occupied countries, France was technically protected by the armistice and her workers could not be simply rounded up and transported to Germany. However, in the occupied zone, the Germans used intimidation and control of raw materials to create unemployment and thus reasons for French laborers to volunteer to work in Germany. German officials demanded from Laval that more than 300,000 skilled workers should be immediately sent to factories in Germany. Laval stalled, and then countered by offering to send one worker for the return of one French soldier being held captive in Germany. The proposal was sent to Hitler, with a compromise being reached; one prisoner of war to be repatriated for every three workers arriving in Germany.
Later, when ordered to have all Jews in France be rounded up and loaded on railroad cars to be transported to Poland, Laval at first refused, then negotiated a compromise, allowing only those Jews who were not French citizens to be forfeited to the control of Germany. It has been estimated that by the end of the war the Germans had wiped out ninety per cent of the Jewish population of the other occupied countries but in France fifty per cent of the pre-war French and foreign Jewish population, representing perhaps ninety per cent of the purely French Jewish population, still remained alive.
More and more the insoluble dilemma of collaboration faced Laval. He had to maintain Vichy's authority to prevent Germany from installing a Quisling Government made up of French Nazis. Compromise after compromise loaded Laval with the accusation he was nothing more than an agent of Germany.
With the landings of Allied forces in North Africa, Germany occupied all of France. Hitler continued to ask whether the French government was prepared to fight at his side against the Anglo-Saxons; wanting Vichy to declare war against Britain. Laval and Pétain agreed to maintain a firm refusal. During this time and the D-Day landings, Laval was in a struggle between his ministers and the ultra-collaborationists ministers.
In a broadcast speech on D-Day he appealed to the nation:
You are not in the war. You must not take part in the fighting. If you do not observe this rule, if you show proof of indiscipline, you will provoke reprisals the harshness of which the government would be powerless to moderate. You would suffer, both physically and materially, and you would add to your country's misfortunes. You will refuse to heed the insidious appeals, which will be addressed to you. Those who ask you to stop work or invite you to revolt are the enemies of our country. You will refuse to aggravate the foreign war on our soil with the horror of civil war.... At this moment fraught with drama, when the war has been carried on to our territory, show by your worthy and disciplined attitude that you are thinking of France and only of her.
This speech, with its theme of neutralism, was as much a criticism of the ultra-collaborationists as of the Resistance
A few months later, he was arrested by the Germans and transported to Belfort. In view of the speed of the Allied advance, on 7 September, what was left of the Vichy government were moved from Belfort to the castle of Sigmaringen in Germany. By April 1945 General Patton's army was near Sigmaringen so the Vichy ministers were forced to seek their own salvation. Laval received authority to enter Spain, only to be resent to Germany after a few months. The United States authorities immediately took him and his wife into custody, and turned them over to the Free French. They were flown to Paris to be imprisoned at Fresnes, Val-de-Marne. Madam Laval was later released; Pierre Laval remained in prison to be tried as a traitor.
Laval firmly believed that, if he could only secure a fair hearing, he would be able to convince his fellow-countrymen that he had been acting in their best interests all along. “Father-in-law wants a big trial which will illuminate everything,” René de Chambrun told Laval's lawyers: “If he is given time to prepare his defence, if he is allowed to speak, to call witnesses and to obtain from abroad the information and documents which he needs, he will confound his accusers.
Laval more than suspected what would really happen. “Do you want me to tell you the set-up?” he asked one of his lawyers on 4 August. “There will be no pre-trial hearings and no trial. I will be condemned – and got rid of – before the elections.”
Laval’s trial began at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday 4 October 1945. He was charged with plotting against the security of the State and intelligence (collaboration) with the enemy. He had three defence lawyers (Jaques Baraduc, Albert Naud, and Yves-Frédéric Jaffré). None of his lawyers had ever met him before. He saw most of Jaffré, who sat with him, talked, listened and took down notes that he wanted to dictate. Baraduc, who quickly became convinced of Laval's innocence, kept contact with the Chambruns and at first shared their conviction that Laval would be acquitted or at most receive a sentence of temporary exile. Naud, who had been a member of the Resistance, believed Laval to be guilty and urged him to plead that he had made grave errors but had acted under constraint. Laval would not listen to him; he was convinced that he was innocent and could prove it. “He acted,” said Naud, “as if his career, not his life, was at stake.”
All three of his lawyers declined to be in court to hear the reading of the formal charges because “We fear that the haste which has been employed to open the hearings is inspired, not by judicial preoccupations, but motivated by political considerations.” In lieu of attending the hearing they sent letters stating the shortcomings and asked to be discharged from the task of defending Laval.
Their letters had no effect, and the court carried on without them.
The president of the court, Pierre Mongibeaux announced that the trial must be completed before the general election --- scheduled for 21 October
The trial proceeded with the tone being set with Mongibeaux and Mornet, the public prosecutor, unable to control constant outbursts from the jury. These occurred as increasingly heated exchanges between Mongibeaux and Laval became louder and louder.
On the third day, Laval’s three lawyers were with him as the President of the Bar Association had advised them to resume their duties.
The following is from the published stenographic report of the trial.
Mongibeaux drew laughter from the audience when, during the course of one of his interrogations, he remarked that he did not want to assume the air of a prosecutor.
LAVAL.... Monsieur le Président, you supply the questions and the answers at one and the same time. Very well, I think it would be better if we left it at that as far as the serenity and majesty of your justice are concerned.
MONGIBEAUX: In your position, do you think you are assured of impunity?
LAVAL: I do not think I am assured of impunity, but there is one thing which is above us all, above you and above me, and that is truth and the justice of which you ought to be the embodiment.
BEDIN (a member of the jury): Justice will be done!
Another member of the jury: Yes, justice will be done!
MONGTBEAUX: Someone will have the last word: the high court.
LAVAL: You keep it!
MONGIBEAUX: You do not wish to answer any more of my questions?
MONGIBEAUX: Consider carefully the attitude you are adopting. You do not wish to answer any more of my questions?
LAVAL: No, Monsieur le President, not in view of your aggressive attitude and the way in which you question me. You supply the questions and the answers.
MONGIBEAUX: The hearing is adjourned. Remove the accused!
Members of the jury (to Laval): You're the trouble-maker! Swine! Twelve bullets! He hasn't changed!
LAVAL: No, and I shan't change now.
MONGTBEAUX: (standing by his chair): Please! We are not at a public meeting!
LAVAL: The jury - before judging me - it's fantastic!
A member of the jury: You've already been judged, and France has judged you too!
After the adjournment, Mongibeaux announced that the part of the interrogatoire dealing with the charge of plotting against the security of the state was concluded and that he now proposed to deal with the charge of intelligence (collaboration) with the enemy. “Monsieur le Président," Laval replied, "the insulting way in which you questioned me earlier and the demonstrations in which some members of the jury indulged show me that I may be the victim of a judicial crime. I do not want to be an accomplice; I prefer to remain silent." Mongibeaux thereupon called the first of the prosecution witnesses, but they had not expected to give evidence so soon and none were present. Mongibeaux therefore adjourned the hearing for the second time so that they could be located. When the court reassembled half an hour later, Laval was no longer in his place.
Although Pierre-Henri Teitgen, the minister of justice in de Gaulle’s cabinet, personally appealed to Laval’s lawyers to have him attend the hearings, he declined to do so. Teitgen freely confirmed the scandalous conduct of Mongibeaux and Mornet, professing he was unable to do anything to curb them. The trial continued without the accused, ending with Laval being sentenced to death. His lawyers were turned down, when they requested a re-trial.
The execution was fixed for the morning of 15 October. Laval attempted to cheat the firing squad by taking poison from a phial which had been stitched inside the lining of his jacket since the war years. He did not intend, he explained in a suicide note, that French soldiers should become accomplices in a "judicial crime". The poison, however, was so old that it was ineffective, and repeated stomach-pumpings revived Laval.
Laval requested his lawyers to witness his execution. He was shot shouting "Vive la France!". The whole prison shouted, "Murderers!" and "Long live Laval! He “died bravely,” de Gaulle remarked in his memoirs. Laval's widow declared: “It is not the French way to try a man without letting him speak,” she told an English newspaper, “That's the way he always fought against - the German way.”
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