Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Laval, Pierre (1883–1945)

Title: Pierre Laval
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French politician and Vichy official. Born in Châteldon, Puy-de-Dôme, France, on 28 June 1883, Pierre Laval was trained as a lawyer, specializing in the defense of labor unions. In 1914, he won election to the Chamber of Deputies of the French National Assembly as a socialist and pacifist. Despite frequent policy shifts in other matters, he consistently promoted his policy of peace at any price—a policy that led directly to his collaborationist platform during World War II.

Laval served in the National Assembly from 1914 to 1919 and again from 1924 to 1927. Following the split in the Socialist Party at Tours in 1920, he became a political moderate, eschewing party affiliation. He gradually moved to the right politically, in the process acquiring a reputation as an unprincipled political manipulator. Laval held important positions from 1925 to 1936, including that of premier in three successive governments between January 1931 and February 1932 and then again from November 1934 to January 1936 (when he was also minister of foreign affairs). As foreign minister, he played an important part in developing the Rome Accords of January 1935 with Benito Mussolini's Italy. Evidence suggests that Laval offered Italy a free hand in Ethiopia. Certainly, he and British Foreign Minister Sir Samuel Hoare sought to arrange an economic protectorate for Italy in Ethiopia, even after the Italian invasion of that country. Public outcry over this situation led to the resignation of both men. Laval then remained something of a political outcast until World War II.

His strong opposition to the war in September 1939 helped his political career the following June when he actively supported an armistice with Germany, along with Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain and General Maxime Weygand. On 21 June, he helped lead the opposition to removing the government to North Africa, and two days later, Laval joined the Vichy government as minister of state. On 1 July, he played the key role in removing the government to the resort town of Vichy in central France.

Laval's intervention helped convince leaders in the National Assembly to accept constitutional changes on 10 July 1940 that gave Pétain sweeping powers as the head of state. As vice president of the Council of State and Pétain's designated successor, Laval encouraged active collaboration with the Germans. After meeting with the German ambassador, Otto Abetz, in July, he visited with Adolf Hitler at Montoire on 22 October to prepare an encounter between Pétain and the German leader two days later. His role of matchmaker was, however, less appreciated by Pétain and the Vichy ministers. Following considerable intrigues by the latter, Pétain dismissed Laval from his posts and had him arrested on 13 December 1940 on suspicion of planning a coup d'état. The Germans secured his release.

During the next year and a half, Laval remained near German-occupied Paris, barely surviving an assassination attempt on 27 August 1941 at Versailles. He continued criticizing Pétain for not collaborating sufficiently with the Germans before he returned on 18 April 1942 to play the leading role in the Vichy government as minister of foreign affairs, information, and the interior, largely on German insistence. He purged the government of his enemies and continued collaborating with the Germans, as evidenced in his declaration of 22 June 1942 expressing hopes for a German victory to prevent the spread of communism. Laval sought to win concessions from the Germans in return for supplying them with French workers; his La Relève (Relief) system involved the exchange of French workers for prisoners of war. This system was soon replaced by Le Service de Travail Obligatoire (Obligatory Labor Service). Laval agreed to having French Jews in both zones of France rounded up and shipped to Germany, and he created the French Milice (Militia) to secure internal order and repress the French Resistance.

As the tide of war turned, however, he sought to play a double game, trying to hold off on some of Hitler's demands for increased French assistance. In the fall of 1943, Germany again intervened to prevent the firing of Laval, who had been joined by even more extreme collaborators in the government. In August 1944, following the Allied landing in Normandy in June, Laval moved the government to Belfort; one month later, he moved with Pétain and the Vichy government to Sigmaringen in Germany. At the end of the war, Laval sought asylum in Spain, which refused to accept him. He was returned to France for a controversial and particularly rapid trial before the High Court of Justice in Paris. He was found guilty of collaboration on 9 October and sentenced to death. After a failed attempt to kill himself with poison, Laval was shot by a firing squad at the prison of Fresnes on 15 October 1945.

John MacFarlane


Further Reading
Cointet, Jean-Paul. Pierre Laval. Paris: Fayard, 1993.; Decaux, Alain. Morts pour Vichy: Darlan, Pucheu, Pétain, Laval. Paris: Perrin, 2000.; Kuperman, Fred. Laval. Paris: Balland, 1987.; Laval, Pierre. The Diary of Pierre Laval. New York: Scribner's, 1948.; Warner, Geoffrey. Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France, 1931–1945. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
 

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