Pierre Laval was one of the most controversial figures in C20th French history. Laval will ultimately be remembered for the way he conspired with the Nazis during their occupation of France and while he was effective political head of unoccupied Vichy France.
Pierre Laval was born in June 28th 1883 at Châteldon in the Auvergne. He trained as a lawyer but moved into politics when he joined the French socialists in 1903. In May 1914, Laval was elected as a deputy for the working-class area of Aubervilliers in northeast Paris. He represented Aubervilliers in the French Chamber between 1914 and 1919 and from 1924 to 1927. Laval also served as the area’s mayor from 1923 to 1944. He swiftly rose through the ranks of French politics and served as a Senator for the Seine from 1927 to 1936 and as Senator for Puy-de-Dâme from 1936 to 1944.
In his early adult years Laval was a socialist but his antiwar stance had brought him into conflict with the party’s hierarchy and he left them in 1920 and became an independent. Laval worked with the numerous small political parties that existed within the French political system and this gave him support at the highest levels. In 1925, Laval was appointed Minister of Public Works and a year later he was made Minister of Justice. In 1930, Laval was appointed Minister of Labour before being appointed Prime Minister in January 1931. He held this position until February 1932.
Laval was head of the Foreign Ministry between October 1934 and January 1936 and from July 1935 until January 1936 he combined the post with that of Prime Minister. His downfall came as a result of Mussolini’s aggression in what was then Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. The Hoare-Laval Pact was an attempt by Britain and France to appease Mussolini into not starting a full-scale invasion of Abyssinia. The pact caused outrage in France as it effectively gave two-thirds of Abyssinia to Mussolini who seemed to have got his way by merely threatening aggression. The pact never came into being and it caused Laval to lose a great deal of his political support as many of his previous supporters felt that the pact caused humiliation to France and was therefore unacceptable.
For the next four years Laval had minimal political clout despite the array of his previous political positions. Ironically, his years in political exile also coincided with the era of French/British appeasement of Hitler – the very ‘crime’ that had caused his political downfall in 1936.
The fall of France in 1940 brought him back into mainstream French politics, though the circumstances of his re-emergence were to lead to his execution. After the fall of France, the victorious Nazi’s decided that the country was simply too large to govern effectively. Therefore, France was divided into two parts – Occupied France, which the Nazis governed, and Vichy France, which was governed by handpicked Frenchmen who the Nazis assumed must have been favourable to Berlin.
Laval was made Chief Minister of Vichy France from April 1942 to August 1944. His policy was to ensure that as much of France as was possible escaped the destruction and loss of life as had been seen in Poland. As much as was possible he did what he could to avoid giving the Germans any form of military help. Regardless of this, many saw him as a collaborator. The same was true for Marshal Pétain and Admiral Darlan. After the success of D-Day and the liberation of Paris, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before France as a whole was liberated. Before the Nazis had actually left France, Laval tried to reconstitute the National Assembly that had lain dormant after the 1940 surrender. He was arrested by the Nazis but managed to flee to Spain.
In his absence he was charged with treason but it was a charge he was willing to fight. Laval returned to France to fight his case but after a questionable trial he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
On October 15th 1945, Laval was shot in the courtyard of Fresnes Prison.