From the imposing stronghold of Sigmaringen, a toxic blend of French collaborators ran a government-in-exile.
ON THE AFTERNOON of September 8, 1944, an open limousine bearing a distinguished white-haired gentleman stopped at a grand turreted castle in southwest Germany. It was none other than French war hero and head of state Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain. Despite his commanding presence at a venue fit for a king, this old soldier was facing not another victory but a humiliating retreat—together with his German captors and some of France’s most ruthless traitors. For Pétain was leader not of the French Allies fighting Hitler, but of Vichy France, the Nazi puppet regime that drew its dying breath in a collapsing Germany.
For eight bizarre months near the end of World War II, this towering palace at Sigmaringen, a sleepy burg on the river Danube, became the unlikely seat of the Vichy France government-in-exile under Marshal Pétain. Here, their days numbered, French sympathizers of Vichy desperately clung to their dwindling power and hallucinatory dreams of “recapturing” France and creating a “New Europe” under German management.
But in vain. Rather than a place of refuge, Sigmaringen turned out to be a trap for France’s wartime collaborators—an open prison whose inmates went through the motions of governing while waiting for the hangman to arrive.
IN JUST SIX WEEKS during May and June 1940, the Germans defeated Allied forces to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The 84-year-old Pétain, a former war minister and celebrated hero of World War I’s Battle of Verdun, was named French prime minister on June 16 after a cabinet crisis on whether to continue fighting the Germans or lay down arms. At this point, Pétain believed the French military was outclassed and urged his countrymen to cooperate with the Germans to prevent further bloodshed. France surrendered and was split into an occupied north run by the Germans and a “free” (unoccupied) south, based in the spa town of Vichy and administered by French collaborators. In mid-July, Pétain was also named “chief of state” of the Vichy government with the explicit approval of the Nazi invaders, who saw in the popular Pétain an ideal figurehead who would lend instant legitimacy to the puppet regime. From 1940 to 1942, Marshal Pétain wielded authoritarian power under the Germans, issuing new constitutional acts that abolished the presidency and indefinitely adjourning parliament. But by 1942, the Nazis grew impatient with the slow progress toward absolute cooperation by the French and increasingly felt the wrath of underground French Resistance fighters. To tighten their grip over the country after the Allied invasion of French North Africa, the Germans took direct control of Vichy France and cut back Pétain’s powers.
On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the D-Day invasion of Normandy and sped toward Paris. Two months later, the Allies invaded the south of France, and German resistance crumbled on both fronts. Their control of France slipping away, the German army evacuated top French officials from Vichy in mid-August and brought them to the town of Belfort, in the French Alsace region near the German border.
The Allied advance across France was so swift, however, that the officials had to be dispatched to a new destination just two weeks later—this time across the German border to a picturesque town some 20 miles north of Lake Constance. Steeped in German history and symbolism, Sigmaringen was a stronghold of the Hohenzollern dynasty that ruled Germany for eight centuries; it boasted an imposing hilltop castle ideal for exiled rulers. At Hitler’s personal request, it now became the French capital-in-exile.
The Gestapo kicked Prince Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern and his family out of the castle and installed the Vichy leaders in their place, with lesser ranks settling in the town below. These French followers of Hitler’s Germany were accompanied by their wives, mistresses, and a colorful mix of artists, intellectuals, and hangers-on. By late September 1944, a 2,000-strong French enclave had settled into this community of 5,000 souls, prompting the Gestapo to commandeer extra housing for their guests from across the Rhine.
Among the most famous of these exiles was Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a qualified physician who was better known as a brilliant but crazed novelist and fervent anti-Semite. For Céline, Sigmaringen made a perfect backdrop for a Wagnerian drama with a pinch of Hollywood glamor, and he chronicled events with his trademark grotesque humor. In his popular postwar novel, Castle to Castle, Céline described the vain rivalries among Vichy’s top brass as a “ballet of crabs” who were always on the verge of knifing one another with the dining room cutlery. At the castle, the author would appear in layers of disheveled lumber jackets, his beloved cat, Bébert, strapped to his belly in a haversack.
AS IN A REAL CAPITAL, the Vichy government exchanged ambassadors with what was left of Germany’s allies, including the Japanese and the shreds of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic. To keep up appearances of a fully working French state, the German embassy in Paris moved its headquarters to Sigmaringen, where it shared the premises with the editorial offices of a government newspaper, La France, and a radio channel, Ici la France!, which broadcast a steady diet of opera between bursts of propaganda.
On October 1, 1944, a host of officials inau-gurated the sham capital in a solemn ceremony at the castle gates in Sigmaringen. A unit of French militia presented arms to a flourish of drums played by German soldiers, while the Tricolor French flag was raised over the castle. Fernand de Brinon, representative to the German High Command in occupied Paris, read the opening speech. “We stand side by side with the marshal, the only legitimate head of the French state,” de Brinon intoned—even though Pétain himself was not present, having boycotted the event.
After leaving Vichy, both the marshal and prime minister Pierre Laval assumed the role of “passifs,” claiming they had been taken to Sigmaringen against their will and refusing to fulfill any official functions. Laval and Pétain loathed each other; apart from fundamental differences in personality (the meticulous Pétain found Laval’s working methods slovenly), the marshal had dismissed Laval as prime minister in December 1940 because Pétain did not want to cooperate as closely with the Nazi regime as Laval demanded.
Pétain severed all formal contacts with German officials and communicated with the outside world exclusively through Dr. Bernard Ménétrel, his personal physician, adviser, and de facto bodyguard. Others in the Vichy cabinet, such as education minister Abel Bonnard, also had no intention of defending the glory of France alongside Germany in the face of certain defeat and simply went on strike.
THINGS HAD CHANGED A LOT since the summer of 1940, when Pétain became something of a father figure to France in the wake of the military, political, and moral collapse of its Third Republic. Initially, the avuncular marshal’s popularity was undimmed: the hit song “Maréchal, nous voilà!” (“Marshal, we are behind you”) became the de facto national anthem, and his image was everywhere. But there was no disguising the fact that Pétain had signed a humiliating armistice with the Germans and had become a willing executor of the decimation of France’s Jews and Resistance fighters while expanding his own authority toward the absolute. The Allies quickly branded the marshal a traitor, and his younger rival, Charles de Gaulle, became their negotiating partner for the future of France.
Before the war, Pétain was widely admired by French nationalists who remembered his battlefield courage in World War I and his strategic acumen later as Minister of War. After his leading role in France’s capitulation became apparent, the marshal lost the nationalists’ support but found favor with the collaborators. From 1942 onward, however, the more fanatical collaborators, or “ultra-collaborators,” accused the marshal of playing a waiting game that would cheat France of a place at the table in a “New European Order,” as they saw it, following a German victory. Under pressure from Berlin, ultra-collaborator Laval—who scored points with the Nazis by saying, in a radio broadcast, that he “wished for a German victory” to prevent Communism from spreading—replaced Pétain as prime minister in 1942. The marshal, however, officially remained chief of state until the war’s end, even after he ceased performing his duties in August 1944.
As a “prisoner,” Pétain led a privileged existence. In this cavernous castle of 300-plus rooms, amid royal tapestries and portraits of long-forgotten Hohenzollerns, Vichy’s reluctant chief occupied the palatial seventh floor (he called it “Olympus”) with his wife and aides. Unlike the French underlings in the lower town, who got by on a diet of potatoes and cabbage, the marshal dined lavishly thanks to ration cards six times the normal allowance. Every day, Pétain took long walks after lunch with an SS escort, who followed in a black Opel saloon car at a respectful distance. Pétain would pretend not to see Laval if he passed the prime minister in the courtyard, according to historians such as Henry Rousso in his seminal work, Un Château en Allemagne (A Castle in Germany).
In keeping with the hierarchy, Laval and the other Vichy ministers lodged just below Pétain on the sixth floor. With no official functions to perform, the passif Laval spent part of every morning in his blue silk–lined study, preparing his defense for the day when he would face de Gaulle’s new High Court of Justice on charges of treason. Back in 1931, Laval had been chosen Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for his part in high-profile international debt talks with U.S. President Herbert Hoover. He must have wondered where things had gone wrong.
IN THE FALL OF 1944, Pétain’s and Laval’s lack of engagement invited a putsch among Vichy’s ultra-collaborators, led by the scheming de Brinon. The first French journalist to interview Hitler after his rise to power, de Brinon was a minor aristocrat who had headed the pro-German, appeasement-oriented France-Germany Committee between the wars; he still enjoyed considerable influence.
After a meeting with the Führer in September 1944, de Brinon got the green light to head a new “government commission,” a pseudo-cabinet that aimed to fill the power vacuum until Pétain’s successor was identified. Endowed with precious little power or responsibility, the commission met on the castle’s third floor. Jacques Doriot, the fanatical leader of the fascist Parti Populaire Francais (French Popular Party), had been Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s favorite candidate to succeed Pétain as French head of state; however, with the marshal technically still in office and unwilling to endorse a Nazi-backed successor, Ribbentrop decided to buy time and have the commission work toward a regime led by Doriot. Doriot was a gifted speaker and a physically imposing figure who had fought in Stalingrad alongside the Germans, earning him an Iron Cross. “The man of the hour was neither Pétain, nor Laval, nor de Brinon,” recalled Paul Marion, a former Vichy information minister at his trial for treason in 1948. “The French star of the Reich was Jacques Doriot.”
Although Pétain disdained the commission, de Brinon eventually wrung a carefully worded statement from Pétain saying he “had no objections to Mr. de Brinon carrying out the tasks to which he had been assigned, namely concerning imprisoned [French] civilians.” (At the time, two million French lived in Germany, many in detainment and concentration camps.) De Brinon quickly packaged Pétain’s words as an endors-ement—hoping it would score points with Hitler, who believed the French would accept only Pétain or a leader sanctioned by him as legitimate—and declared himself the marshal’s rightful representative in the French government. The marshal was enraged by the deceit, but he could do little beyond forbidding de Brinon from using his name for official government business.
The ultra-collaborators of the commission jealously defended their notional turfs even as the war’s end loomed. After de Brinon, the commission’s most influential member was propaganda minister Jean Luchaire, a newspaper baron who had more than 200 staffers at his disposal to run the French media in Sigmaringen (“although 15 would have been sufficient,” he later said at his trial in Paris). Tall, blond, and elegantly dressed, a cigarette always dangling from his lips, the suave Luchaire had been the darling of the Parisian press circuit during the occupation and earned a fortune from the various pro-German publications he managed. De Brinon reportedly despised him.
Among other key commission members, labor minister Marcel Déat, founder of the pro-Nazi Party Rassemblement National Populaire (National Popular Rally) in occupied Paris in 1941, rarely showed his face in Sigmaringen, preferring to flit around war-torn Germany to hold lectures and attend conventions. The only thing allying him with de Brinon, according to a number of historians, was a mutual desire to prevent Doriot from becoming leader of the exiled French state.
Joseph Darnand was the minister for interior affairs (“except there’s no interior and no affairs,” quipped de Brinon, according to his biographer Gilbert Joseph). A decorated World War I hero, far-right activist, and SS Sturmbahnführer, in 1942 Darnand had founded the forerunner of the Milice (militia), a French version of Germany’s paramilitary SS that was just as violent. Darnand was based not in Sigmaringen but in the nearby city of Ulm, where he had assembled 10,000 militia for a last defense against the Allies.
IN THIS CLAUSTROPHOBIC world of Sigmaringen, the commission officials and their wives all took their meals in the Hohenzollerns’ ancient dining room, where vast windows of stained glass illuminated towering wood carvings, heavy curtains, and a cluttered, lived-in décor. At 12:30 p.m., the lunchtime gong sounded, whereupon a castle butler handed out the printed daily menu with great pomp—although the fare was consistently mediocre, according to Otto Becker, a historical archivist who keeps a collection of Sigmaringen menus from the era.
Once seated, the urbane Luchaire generally took the lead in conversations with a story meant to be witty or provocative. But the socially-minded de Brinon, as commission head, saw himself obliged to intervene if he sensed a chat headed in the wrong direction, according to the memoirs of G.T. Schillemanns, a physician who frequented the castle.
“No, Luchaire, General [Philippe Leclerc] de Hauteclocque is neither an adventurer nor a poor soldier, as you say,” was how de Brinon rebuked his propaganda minister at one meal, adding: “What you are saying is inept!” (Leclerc’s forces had participated in the liberation of Paris and Strasbourg.) Commission members regularly traded barbs in the dining hall, within the little political alliances they observed; Déat once half-joked to Luchaire that his propaganda rag Ici la France! might be renamed Peau de Zébi, a vulgar French expression meaning “That’s nothing” in order to attract more shock-value financing from the German hosts.
After dinner, commission members gathered in the adjacent Salon des Dames, not to share each other’s company (on the contrary) but because it was warm, unlike much of the rest of the castle in the frigid winter of 1944-45. Darnand smoked his pipe in silence and read the papers. The ladies played cards. Some guests frequented the huge castle library where Déat would read and play lexicon—a version of Scrabble—for hours on end.
In the evening, after the transmissions of Ici la France! had shut down, the exiles listened to Allied-run Radio Paris. The news was grim. De Gaulle’s vow to put to death journalists and writers who had bolstered the Vichy government was no idle threat—on November 9, they learned that a prominent collaborator journalist, Georges Suarez, had been executed in Paris. On February 6, it was the turn of scribe Robert Brasillach, whose sarcastic last words before the firing squad were “Long live France, anyway!” These writers had no command responsibility and no state functions; yet they were shot, merely on account of their publications. The castle’s denizens were well aware that when it was all over, they could expect no mercy.
AS GERMANY’S MILITARY plight worsened in the latter stages of the war, internal rivalries in Sigmaringen did little to aid the sympathizers’ cause. In line with their mutual enmity, Pétain took the private elevator that bypassed Laval’s floor in order to avoid any contact. De Brinon, Luchaire, Déat, and Darnand all fought among themselves but were united in their hatred of Laval, who in turn plotted against Pétain. De Brinon went so far as to have Pétain’s doctor-adviser, Ménétrel, arrested by the Gestapo in an attempt to break the marshal’s resistance to legitimizing a new regime.
Ultimately, such maneuvering proved futile. Hopes soared briefly in December 1944, when Sigmaringen’s French lapped up reports of a daring German foray into the Ardennes mountains in Belgium and Luxembourg. After several weeks, however, the Allies chased the Third Reich’s panzers back into the Rhineland, and that was that. Officially, the Vichyist regime stuck like glue to the belief that Hitler would win the war with secret weapons such as a new, smarter V-2 rocket, a rumor apparently spread by Ribbentrop. But in private, most exiles were dusting off their escape plans.
In February 1945, Doriot, the Germans’ first choice to replace Pétain, was finally named head of a new French “liberation committee”—effectively the successor to de Brinon’s government commission, although the latter was never formally dissolved. As his first grand plan, Doriot aimed to recruit (by force, if necessary) the two million French prisoners of war in Germany to retake the “Americanized” fatherland of France and create a “New Europe.” This effort was to be backed up by guerrilla units of Darnand’s brutal militia, parachuted into France in the dead of night. But this scheme evaporated after February 22, when two Allied warplanes (or possibly German, according to a version of possible Gestapo assassins cited by historian Jean-Paul Cointet) strafed Doriot’s car near his residence on Lake Constance, killing him instantly. For the exiles, it was now crystal-clear there would be no glorious return to France.
AMONG THE FIRST TO BOW to the inevitable was Céline, who departed Sigmaringen in early March 1945 and headed to Denmark with his wife and beloved cat—a complicated journey that took them through the shattered ruins of bombed-out Germany. Before the author left, Laval, to repay Céline’s house visits as doctor in Sigmaringen, promised him an obscure job as governor of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a French archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland.
As the Allies closed in on Sigmaringen during the war’s final weeks, the French puppet regime ground to a halt, its toothless councils ceasing to meet, its mouthpiece radio station and newspaper falling silent. On April 1, 1945, the army of French general Jean de Lattre de Tassigny crossed the Rhine and advanced across Germany south of the Danube, joining up with the U.S. Army coming the other way. On April 21, the handful of French still in Sigmaringen lowered the Tricolor and exited the stage, just to have de Tassigny’s army come and hoist it over the castle the next day.
Only Pétain voluntarily returned to France to go on trial, turning himself over to French authorities at the Swiss border on April 24. That August, the marshal was convicted of treason in the French Supreme Court and sentenced to death, but de Gaulle immediately commuted the punishment to life in prison due to Pétain’s advanced age and his heroic Great War record. Stripped of all his ranks and honors (apart from the title “Maréchal de France”) and suffering from dementia, the old soldier spent his remaining years confined to a French prison island off the Atlantic coast. He died there in 1951, aged 95.
Laval finagled a Luftwaffe flight to Barcelona, but Spanish dictator Francisco Franco—pressured by de Gaulle—sent Laval back to Innsbruck, Austria, where the Americans handed him over to the French. Pétain’s defense had maintained that Laval, not the marshal, was responsible for Vichy’s crimes, and Laval’s fiery court statements did little to dismiss that impression. He claimed that his notorious comment from 1942, “I wish for a German victory,” was intended to lull the Nazis into a sense of false security. The jury, however, was not fooled for a minute. Following a failed suicide attempt with cyanide retrieved from his jacket stitching (perhaps a parting gift from Céline?), the 62-year-old Laval, wearing a Tricolor scarf around his neck, was shot by firing squad on October 15, 1945.
Of Sigmaringen’s other notorious collaborators, only Déat and Bonnard, Vichy’s education minister, succeeded in cheating the executioners. Déat found refuge in a monastery near the Italian city of Turin under an assumed name, while Bonnard was granted asylum in Spain. Céline lay low in Denmark but was tried in absentia in France, where he received a one-year prison sentence that was later commuted. The French authorities allowed Céline to return to Paris in 1951, where he continued to write and publish until his death 10 years later. ✯
This article was published in the February 2020 issue of World War II.