How did the Vichy French justify collaborating with the Nazis?

The leaders of Vichy France condemned the previous state, the Third Republic, for losing the war to Germany in 1940, blaming its “decadence.”

If the Vichy leaders thus acknowledged that losing control of France to the Nazis was a bad thing, then why (in Vichy ideology) was it patriotic to collaborate with the Nazis?

Vichy isn’t something I know terribly much about, but I’ve gleaned that Vichy claimed that the Third Republic was subservient to the treacherous British and rift with factions and communism, and so they were allied with the Germans to preserve traditional values and combat communism and Jew-capitalism. On paper, Vichy retained sovereign control over the entire of France minus the bits given to Germany and Italy like Alsace-Lorraine, but permitted the Germans military jurisdiction on the Atlantic coast and the north for the duration of the war.
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Magical thinking, in part.

For one thing, putting the Popular Front leaders on trial was a way of diverting any blame from them, and particularly the incompetence of the Army leadership.

Don’t forget too that it was a slippery slope of a process.

The issue for many was initially that the “National Revolution” would lead to all the things various rightwing and anti-Republic groups thought desirable (even though they were frequently at daggers drawn with each other), that the Germans would as quickly knock Britain out of the war and that the Occupation would soon be over.

Then it became a question of how much needed to be conceded to the Germans to get their POWs back (don’t forget that they were still permitted to retain the professional nucleus of the Army), and after that how to show they were determined to deal with the acts of resistance the Germans deemed “terrorism”, then it became a question of “fighting Bolshevism” (which had been one of their primary concerns all along).

There were some who reacted as you supposed they ought to, for consistency. Daniel Cordier, who as a teenager had been active in monarchist and anti-Semitic organisations, initially rejoiced when Pétain became Deputy Prime Minister and then got the to job, thinking there would be some new war effort. But Cordier was so horrified at the armistice that he and a few friends made their way to the UK to join de Gaulle, and he ended up parachuting back into France to act as secretary/courier to de Gaulle’s representative Jean Moulin, who was trying to achieve a co-ordinated organisation and strategy for all the different resistance groups, in support of de Gaulle and Allied invasion strategy. Eventually, Cordier ended up on the political left.

The Vichy government was set up because France was defeated and was unable to resist the German demands.

Petain was the legitimate head of government for the country just before the surrender (he was named to the pose specifically so he could surrender while the French leaders were getting out of the country). And the Vichy government was technically a continuation of the Third Republic; other than moving the capital and giving up territory (big things, of course), there was no difference. Petain had little choice but accept the terms the Germans dictated.

Of course, the extreme right wing in France supported the government and were willing to serve under him and, indeed, most of the power was with them. They were the ones collaborating. They were willing, but even if they hadn’t been, they had no choice. Germany held the whip hand and would have crushed anything they didn’t like.

As for blame – any left-leaning politicians were fair game, especially since many of them had fled the country. It’s not inconsistent for them to say that the leftists were to blame because they declared war on Germany against the objection to the right wing, who would have argued for letting Germany have Poland.

Thanks for all the responses so far.

Part of my question, then, is - what was the official Vichy stance - ideologically - toward the Germans and concerning German control of France?

Another point - Vichy were allowed complete control over France except the occupied north area, with the condition of course that they stay out of the war and cooperate with the Nazis.

What with their general overall behaviour, we have seen the Nazis since VE Day as the embodiment of all evil - but keep in mind in the lead-up to WWII and even during it, they were seen by many more right-wing types as the counterbalance to the Bolshevik menace; this after a “regime change” in Russia hat saw the Czar and many other important people murdered, a crushing totalitarianism imposed on the country, and an obviously (to outside observers) pollyanna propaganda about workers’ paradise coupled with subversion that threatened to upset the whole of Europe.

Prominent people like Edward VII and Charles Lindbergh were among those who saw the Nazis as a good counterbalance; compared to what was heard about Russia, Germany did not seem to be under the same repressive regime (provided you were not seen as an enemy). Life went on as normal, the government was not confiscating everyone’s property and farms, etc.

After all, France had fallen to Germany in the 1870’ s and after a while, it was back to business as usual. Why not do the same this time?

Someone I knew who did a university thesis on occupied France mentioned that the idea that most French were active in the resistance is wishful thinking after the war. Probably 95% of the population had no opinion one way or the other, only a tiny minority participated in the resistance. After the war, of course, everyone said they were part of the movement.

No, this has so much misinformation…

I’ve always been confused about the legality of the “Free French” and de Gaulle. If your government surrenders, is the military still under the control of the government, or did the government cease to exist upon the surrender?

France didn’t ‘surrender’, but asked for an armistice. As such, the war stopped, for France at any rate, until the government signed a peace treaty (which in the end never happened but was expected to follow shortly). The legislature voted executive powers to Petain and so the continuity of governance appeared to be intact.

France was brutally defeated by Germany and could offer no more resistance. At the time of the surrender, German troops were going to occupy all of mainland France in short order. The Vichy regime decided that the best course for getting through their defeat was to accede to the surrender terms, cooperate with occupying forces, and stand down all of the overseas French territories, troops, and ships. At the time, they expected the UK to fight Germany for few more months, then sign some kind of armistice themselves, which would end the German occupation in northern France and allow France to move on. They didn’t envision the war going on for years, and didn’t know about the holocaust, which really wouldn’t get underway until two years after their surrender anyway. By the time it because clear that Germany was going to lose, there wasn’t really anything for them to do.

They regarded compliance with the laws of France as the patriotic thing to do because that’s how governments generally work; since they had accepted the surrender with Germany and were complying with said terms of surrender, what they wanted people to do was not ‘collaboration’ under the usual definition.

“Legality” is not a question that has anything remotely near a cut-and-dried answer in a case like this. At the time, Vichy France regarded itself as the legitimate government of France, and most other countries played along but also treated Free French forces under De Gaulle as something other than armed bandits. As Nazi Germany’s positioned weakened, the Free French were treated more as the legitimate government. Once France was liberated, a interim government was set up, and then two years later the Fourth Republic was formed. The new government decided that Vichy France was illegal and essentially repudiated it, and tried and convicted Petain for treason.

So the Free French were ‘illegal’ in the eyes of Vichy France, but Vichy couldn’t really do anything about it, then after the defeat of Germany they essentially became the legal authority for France.

Not all the previous government and parliamentarians left to escape the occupation. A substantial majority voted full powers to Petain, seemingly not realising he would declare a “National Revolution”, in effect to establish a Franco-style dictatorship, and remained in France, albeit for the most part officially in retirement (unless of course they were collared as defendants in the Riom trial).
President LeBrun stayed in retirement, and was eventually available to give a (somewhat grudging) formal recognition of continuity from the Third Republic to de Gaulle’s provisional government. And de Gaulle made a point of claiming the continuity of the Third Republic for his Free France, all the way through.

There were substantial difference between the French State (1940-1944) and the Third Republic.

Upon the collapse of the French Army, the two chambers of the French Parliament met in a joint session and voted to confer all powers of the state on Pétain, who at that time was Prime Minister.

As a result of that law, Pétain was neither the President of the Republic, nor the Prime Minister. His authority was closer to the ancient Roman position of the dictator, elected in times of crisis and temporarily imbued with all the powers of the state.

And that’s exactly how Pétain treated the situation The next day, he promulgated a new law defining his own powers as head of the French State, and repealed the Constitutional Laws of 1875 which had established the Third Republic: Constitutional Laws of July, 1940.

It wasn’t until the 1944 invasion that the Free French under de Gaulle established a provisional government, and declared that the laws of July, 1940 were null and void, and that the Third Republic had never ceased to exist.

As I understand it, De Gaulle’s position was that the 3rd Republic had never ceased to exist, and he held his commission as a General in the French Army of the Third Republic.

By this view, Pétain and the État français were illegitimate usurpers of power.

That was also the position taken by other Republican French soldiers, like Colonel Leclerc, who joined De Gaulle in London and recognised him as Leclerc’s military superior, even though De Gaulle was operating independently of civilian command: as long as De Gaulle was fighting for the liberation of France, the military chain of command held.

Leclerc then went off to the French African colonies, and united the remnants of French Republican army forces. After his units and British units captured Koufra from the Italians, Leclerc’s forces swore the Serment de Koufra, that they would continue to fight for the liberation of France until their flag flew over the cathedral of Strasbourg. After the North African campaign, Leclerc’s forces were re-organised in Britain as the 2nd Light Armoured Division (2em Division blindée) and fought in Normandy, until they led the Allied advance on Paris on De Gaulle’s orders, contrary to Eisenhower’s plans to leapfrog Paris.

Were they troops of the 3rd Republic? De Gaulle and Leclerc were convinced that they were, operating under their pre-1940 commissions, to re-establish the Republic. It was a mixture of legality, military reality and political convictions.

It occurred to me recently that, while it was understandable that Eisenhower thought liberating Paris would be a diversion from the primary military task for the Allies as a a whole, de Gaulle’s insistence on Leclerc’s French troops racing to Paris once the uprising was taking hold might have been a bit more than just ensuring it was seen as a restoration of French national honour.

I can’t help wondering if in his mind and that of the other professional officers there was the memory of the Paris Commune of 1870 and the bitter fighting with the government of the nascent Third Republic.

After all, the Communist FTP had a strong position in the uprising (there is or was a commemorative display in a Paris metro station -I think Colonel Fabien, by the old PCF HQ - that makes it look as it was an almost entirely Communist-led business): and de Gaulle made no secret of a certain disdain for what he regarded as the over-ambitious expectations of the various irregular armed resistance groups and their self-appointed colonels, once he’d got control of the core regular army allowed to Vichy.

BTW sources for the things I’ve said here include Daniel Cordier’s Alias Caracalla, and Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows.

Some parts of Europe, disputed between France and Germany, became Germany, not France.

Some parts of France were under military control of Germany, by agreement with France.

Vichy France was allied with and ideologically aligned with Germany. As Charles Colson is reputed to have said: “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”.

There was also the fact the French still in France saw the British as having “betrayed” them, not only in evacuating all their soldiers and aircraft off the continent to prepare for their own defense but also for the British attack on French warships at Mers-el-Kébir. The French still remaining in France (rather than the ones who evacuated to England) could justify working with the Germans since the British had also turned their backs on them in their time of need.

Thanks, Northern Piper.

I’ve seen copies of documents issued by de Gaulle as he got the governorates of African colonies to sign up with him, and they seemed to be loaded with references to the constitution and assorted laws of the Third Republic. Likewise, during the Liberation, he made sure to get his representatives in as “commissaires de la République” as soon as possible (but that was in part to forestall any attempt by the Anglo-Americans to fill any legal vacuum with a military government).

It might have been what they claimed, but 38% of those taken off the beaches at Dunkirk were French and British troops were among those defending the perimeter, but not nearly as many as the French doing so.

The outrage over the attack of the fleet at Mers-el-Kébir had more merit. The Royal Navy was afraid the ships there might be impressed into the German Kriegsmarine but René-Emile Godfroy, the admiral in command of the fleet, asserted he would have scuttled it rather than let that happen. 1,300 French sailors died because the RN did not believe him.

Most have probably heard of it, but I didn’t see it mentioned, the long Marcel Ophüls documentary ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ about French collaborationism. Many of the posts here are about the legalities of the changing and competing French govts in WWII which is interesting. But the documentary is more I think to the point of the OP question about how the French, or various elements of French society, actually felt about the occupation, the reality of the (very limited, till pretty late in the war) Resistance, as opposed to making the best of a ‘new order’ signified by the Nazi victory. The film has a particular POV obviously, it’s interesting though.

On the relative plus side (not particularly emphasized by the film) it’s almost inherently unfair for non-French from a postwar POV to judge this. There’s loads of hindsight it’s hard to entirely remove from one’s view. But one can try to learn the facts of what French society’s actual reaction was, though complicated.