The first impression of Monsieur Laval always conjures to my mind a rather seedy mid-eastern carpet dealer, who with a perpetual Turkish cigarette either in his mouth or about to be lit up is ready to offer you a deal on his offered merchandise. And as well as the trademark white silk tie he always sported, this makes him instantly recognisable as one of those French collaborators who humiliated their own country seventy years ago, bringing it to almost servitude and slavery, and it’s no coincidence either that his political rivals always called him the “Jamaican,” naturally behind his back of course or as one writer described him, remarking with a sneer, “He looked like Joseph Stalin’s suntanned brother.” Another unkindly critic referred to him as “Black Peter.”
But Laval was much more than his demeanour offered about himself for close inspection. Rather like General Franco (also featured in this series) he was lovingly devoted to his family and doted on his only child, his daughter, Josee, and she rather like Franco’s daughter, Nenuca, spent the rest of her life after her father’s execution in 1945, re-instating and promoting his name and his diminished honour in French political history. Unfortunately, Pierre Laval will forever be associated with the ancient yet popular Marshal Petain, who as Premier of the Southern zone occupied France, did with Laval in a darkened smokey theatre casino in the spa town of Vichy, slowly strangle the constitutional Third Republic of France; and incidentally on the following day some 666 deputies and senators passed through a cordon in the town into a building to meet and plot in secret, very strange I suggest for in the book of Revelation 13.18, we read of that number 666. Yet the number is symbolic whenever it is used or promoted in conversation or government use. One revealing remark attributed to Marshal Petain has him declaring rather pompously that: “A Jew cannot help his origins but a freemason has chosen to become one.” As a matter of fact, the lodges were allowed after the liberation to open their doors.
Pierre Laval was born in 1883 in a small French provincial town and seems to have been a young man with a great deal of ambition for himself and as well as always searching out for the big chance to promote himself and his talents. It quickly presented itself to him through his dubious trade union connections. During the 1920s and later as a successful maitre (lawyer) he would be sought after through his trade union associations to settle pay and management disputes and in the process through other means become a rich man, later as Prime Minister of France (four times) he would acquire power as well. He had become Mayor of Auberville, a suburb outside Paris, in which he would represent for the next thirty years until his execution. All seem to have liked him and his charm seems to have been infectious, and one commentator wrote of him in 1937 remarking: “Pierre Laval is not impressive at first sight and yet he has a personality which grows on you.” Trusting him, however, was another matter altogether.
In the turbulent 1930s, he was busy journeying and meeting amongst other luminaries such as President Harding, Joseph Stalin, Herman Goering, the Pope and others of that turbulent era, now mostly forgotten of course. He even found time to take his daughter to Rome to meet and woo Mussolini to his ideas. El duce later remarked of him that: “It is a pleasure to talk to him.” But talking was always cheap in the 1930s, from the dictators with dangerous designs for the fate of Europe and the world.
With the arrival of the collaborating Government, now based in the delightful spa town of Vichy, the double act of Pierre Laval and the 84-year-old Marshal Petain, now appeared on the stage. Both were anti-British of course and fooled by their own pride and prejudices, and dangerously France would now enter a perilous period from 1940-1944, liberation day.
In fact all politicians, whatever their colour or creed, should remember that they owe their power and privilege to the grace of God. The voter of any country who supports either a party or helps finance it through membership, donations, canvassing or support for its manifesto should be very careful in who cast their vote for at the ballot box. One day they will have to give an account of all their words and deeds. If politicians and governments continue to act and conspire against God’s decrees, as implemented in The Ten Commandments, they should remember that they will be complicit in so doing it, so caution is needed. We are, however, urged to pray, however uncomfortable it may be for our political representatives, that they choose carefully what they debate and decided through legislation or law.
Laval’s working relations with Marshal Petain were never going to be pliable and were frequently subjected to recurrent tempers and tantrums on either side of the cabinet table, it seems. Indeed: “Marshal had a slyness of his own,” writes David Thompson. A trait then and now in the political arena of disputes.
However, in August 1940 Charles De Gaulle, then in permanent exile in London would later be court-martialled, in his absence twice, with the death sentenced to be bestowed on him if he should return. Laval seems to have remained silent about this decision, it would later have dire results for his own life expectancy at his own trial in 1945.
During the wasted Vichy years Laval would meet twice with Hitler for tea and talks at Montoire, then later at Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. Amazingly in June of 1942, he publicly stated: “I foresee a German Victory.” But he would later qualify this at his controversial trial in 1945. In the unoccupied zone of Vichy seventeen internment camps (that we know of) forcibly detained Jews, communists gipsies, holding them under appalling conditions. As Michael Curtis records of his period: “For Vichy, the hunt for Jews became a routine operation as much as an obsession.” With it seems very little protest from Laval.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that thousands of Frenchmen were dispatched to German as slave labour to be used in Albert Speer’s armaments war machine with others. (He would be later sacked by Marshal Petain in a cabinet shake-up.) Yet only months later be reinstated on the advice of the German ambassador in Paris. Such was the political ball game of the times.
An interesting comment about him is offered from Roosevelt’s Vichy ambassador, this description states: “He was a small man, swarthy complexion careless in his personal appearance, but with a pleasing manner of speech.” And from another source: “He was also seen sporting a Russian mink overcoat which Stalin had given him on his visit to Moscow.”
Laval in a mink coat must have been a sight to see in the boulevards of Paris. Later there was also an attempted shooting that occurred, but he survived the injury, even petitioning a reprieve for the young shooter at his trial, who pulled the trigger.
But return he did to the sinking Vichy ship. One man who welcomed his return was the diminutive Dr. Goebbels, who wrote in his diary for 15th April 1942: “Laval will enter the Government in a few days’ time as Prime Minister. This is a tremendous advantage for us..he is developing into the most sensational and mysterious personality of present-day international politics.” Then later he writes: “We could hardly find a better man than Laval for our policies.” It seems the Nazis loved the man, well especially Goebbels, that is who rarely praised anyone except himself and Hitler of course. And even Hitler later penned a letter in Laval’s esteem.
As the fate of war-torn France, then suffering under the occupation, relief was finally lifted when the allies had finally landed on the windswept Normandy beaches against a backdrop of bullets and blood. For now, the liberation had at long last arrived for France and its people after four long years under the Nazi jackboot.
In Vichy, the panic must have been intense as corrupt ministers and minions destroyed incriminating cables and papers, perhaps none more so than Laval’s and Petain’s offices.
In May of 1945, the Germans had taken what was left of the collaborating Vichy administration, including Laval, his wife and chauffeur to Germany. Later Laval seeking some form of political asylum from General Franco landed in Barcelona in a marked Junkers 88 plane, and there he waited to see what the future held for him and his family. After three months of delay he was turned down by the General, now cast adrift in the Europe of uncertainty he flows to Linz by the Americans in the same aircraft with the Nazi markings now removed to be handed over to the French authorities to stand trial in Paris alongside his old partner Marshal Petain. Now France was to be prepared for the trial of this most famous of France’s ex-statesmen.
In the few weeks as his trial proceeded to its inevitable conclusion I believe Pierre Laval came into his own, offering inspiring flashes of genius as he conducted his own defence in the fight for his own life and he may well have been suffering from cancer, but his mind remained razor sharp, much to the annoyance of the prosecution. And maybe this confidence had arrived at the release of his wife and his chauffeur from custody before his own arrest and confinement in Fresnes Prison.
However, it was his court appearance that shocked so many seated in the public gallery, who had managed to acquire tickets. “The fat of his face is now gone,” wrote Janet Flanner, a court reporter for “The New Yorker.” His crumpled suit now looked dishevelled and hung on his frame like a windswept scarecrow, naturally his trademark white silk now stained tie was on full display around his shrivelled neck. Sadly he now somehow rather resembled a French farmer pleading for fairer milk quotas for his cows rather than a once powerful Prime Minister who had frequently sipped diluted “Dubonnet” with dubious dictators in days gone by, ah how the mighty tumble to earth!
Yet “any hopes of a more lenient trial before an international court which he may earlier have cherished soon disappeared,” writes David Thompson. And also declared Laval defiantly: “If Petain can face the music, so can I.” Yet it would not be music that he heard only weeks later, but only the sound of a marching firing squad echoing across the cobbled prison yard as they paraded to meet him at his destined hour on that cold morning.
Pierre Laval did, however, remain defiant and dogged in his defence of his previous conduct under the occupation. And seated behind was the silent Marshal Petain who would occasionally interrupt the proceedings with some comment such as: “I hope for the victory of Germany because without it communism will spread through Europe.” But again he reminded the court he was after all just a prisoner of the Germans as all other subjugated Frenchmen were. For this plea, the court would be lenient.
On the 9th October the death sentence was announced and for Pierre Laval, it would be the death by firing squad. However, the aged, perhaps rather confused Marshal, would be found guilty. He then on the orders of General DeGaulle would be sentenced to life in imprisonment, to be served out on the bleak windswept island of Île d’Yeu, situated in the bleak Atlantic sea. Could this gesture from one serving soldier be a gift to another departing one, who knows? Eventually, General Petain died in 1951, aged 95, still much revered and respected by so many of his countrymen, even President De Gaulle would later each year place a wreath on the late Marshal’s grave on Armistice Day. This token gesture finally ceased in 1993.
Meanwhile, in Fresnes Prison the incarcerated Laval had been copiously completing his unpublished diary, “In a prison cell crawling with slugs,” writes his daughter, Josee, trying to somehow offer his version of events that had brought him to this pitiful condition. But it was much too late for him or his future fate, that was now in the hands of the man he had perhaps condemned to death some years earlier, Charles DeGaulle.
Finally, when he had completed them they would later be smuggled out of prison by his lawyer to be corrected and edited by his only child his daughter Josee. Incidentally, some of his personal letters that he penned to her in the final weeks of his life are some of the most beautiful words ever penned from a father to his daughter. She of course after his execution would do all in her means and influence to try and restore the honour of her father’s name and reputation.
On the morning of the 13th of October, the day of his execution, another unexpected drama had unfolded. Laval had attempted a hasty suicide in his cell by drinking from a bottle of cyanide potassium or granules, which he had concealed for such an occasion if it arose. Maybe hidden in his fur coat or his battered briefcase or maybe it had been smuggled into his cell rather like Hermann Goering. However, the attempt failed miserably and apparently, the liquid was out of date anyway causing him nothing more than uncomfortable stomach cramps to be relieved by a stomach pump from the prison doctor. And if he thought this might perhaps gain him some sympathy from DeGaulle he was mistaken. Instead, the execution would go ahead as ordered by the court and there would be no final reprieve, well not for him anyway. Surprisingly in his later published memoirs, DeGaulle grudgingly admits: “Laval died bravely.” Was there perhaps pangs of conscience here from DeGaulle in these words.
Then in his cell: “It would take over two hours to revive Laval sufficiently for execution, half carried without his shoes” but proudly wearing his mayoral sash to be escorted/carried to the yard to be then strapped to a wooden chair. The picked execution party chosen for the deed were apparently drunk it seems, and maybe as someone noted they were bizarrely seen wearing borrowed British army helmets, but I can’t think why. It must have seemed all very surreal as a dozen bullets eventually slammed into his defenceless body. But for Laval, it was finally over. Naturally had the final word shouting: “….aim at my heart. Viva La France!”
Then the curtain of death came down on the life of Pierre Laval. But I cannot help suggesting and not facetiously that Pierre Laval could have genuinely repented of his previous sins in his final hours and turned to God. More importantly this gift is offered to all sincere sinners, but instead, Laval wasted precious hours on useless written pleas of mercy to the authorities who were always going to deny it to him anyway. He also foolishly still clung to his Catholic faith like rather a sinking raft as the final hours ticked away for him. I later discovered whilst researching this article that one biographer had written that Laval: “also expressed great admiration for the Koran,” writes David Thompson in his book. Sadly neither Catholicism or Islam can save you from eternal damnation, both are futile. Only faith in Christ’s loving mercy can achieve sweet salvation. Remember: “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:12.)
In conclusion was Pierre Laval a misguided French patriot or a prisoner of his own personality, and was he fiercely blinded by his own ambition and avarice, with perhaps a mixture of all these flaws and all sins of the flesh of course. But I strangely find him a complex yet likeable character in that strange period of French history of the 20th century. Somebody unkindly once referred to him as, “Petain’s evil genius.” Yet: “His back-slapping charm endeared him to the man (and ladies) in Vichy Street.” Yet it would be his open collaboration with the occupying Nazi administration and the further harsh treatment of innocent Jews in supporting forced immigration and finally deportation of them by the Nazis that eventually spelt his doom and demise, Laval simply backed the wrong side at the wrong time. It happens all the time.
Sadly millions at the coming Great White Throne Judgement (Revelation 20:15) will discover with shame and tears that they have supported and worshipped at the wrong shrine of religion. However, at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Romans 14:10) all true Born again believers will be given rewards and future entrance into the Eternal City, the New Jerusalem. How wonderful.
Today politicians that rather resemble Pierre Laval would be dispatched, curtsey of KLM airlines to stand trial at The Hague. Then after a lengthy trial that would last years and cost millions of Euros a foregone conclusion of “guilty” would be announced by an appointed judge. The then sentenced prisoner will serve life imprisonment in a heated cell/suite equipped with all the modern luxuries of the 21st century prepared and provided by the new world order.
In conclusion, Pierre Laval like so many ambitious politicians believe that only they can repair this fallen world, but they are wasting their time and the taxpayers’ money. It remains Satan’s world until the Prince of Peace’s return issuing a judgment to a sinful yet still unrepentant earth. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23.)
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die after the judgment.”
Two Frenchmen, David Thompson
England and the War against France, Colin Smith
The last great Frenchman, Charles Williams
Verdict on Vichy, Michael Curtis
The Great Trials, Anthony Beevor
Voices from the dark years, Douglas Boyd
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