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50 years ago in France: the botched theft of Petain’s body

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50 years ago in France: the botched theft of Petain's body

In a saga that captivated France half a century ago, a group of admirers of French Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain stole his coffin from the Atlantic island where he died in prison in order to bury him alongside fellow World War I heroes in Verdun. 

The grave robbers wanted to return Petain to the site of his finest hour where, as general, he led France to victory against Germany in the longest battle of the 1914-1918 war.

They hoped to restore the honour of the tainted general, who was convicted of treason for leading France’s collaborationist Vichy government during World War II but avoided the death penalty due to his advanced age.

He had been dead 22 years when the far-right cell resurrected him in the dead of night on February 18, 1973, in Port-Joinville cemetery on the windswept Ile d’Yeu.

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After a three-day nationwide police search, which revived the debate over the legacy of the World War I hero-turned World War II villain, Petain’s body was traced to a garage in a Paris suburb.

Fallen hero

For years, admirers of Petain had been horrified by the decision to bury their hero on the Ile d’Yeu off France’s Atlantic coast.

Petain died there in 1951, six years into his life sentence for collaborating with the Nazis.

Petain had asked to be buried in Verdun, alongside his fallen men, but his wishes had been overruled by World War II Resistance hero and later president Charles de Gaulle.

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His final resting place was in the corner of Port-Joinville cemetery, in a tomb covered with a white stone slab marked “Philippe Petain, French Marshal” and topped with a white cross.

The mastermind behind the raid was far-right lawyer and failed presidential candidate, Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour.

But it was Hubert Massol, an advertising man, who led the operation to remove the coffin from the vault, load it into a van and take it by ferry to the mainland.

Six men made light work of the tombstone.

But they were sloppy.

They chipped the corner of the slab and then roughly sealed it back in place, details that immediately caught the attention of the cemetery guard on his rounds the next morning.

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By lunchtime, the news was out: “Unknown perpetrators have unsealed the tombstone of Marshall Petain,” AFP announced in a high-priority bulletin.

– Coffin hunt –

A nationwide hunt got underway for a Renault van that had arrived on the island two days before Petain’s body was stolen and left the morning after. Speculation raged about who might be behind the robbery.

Opinions in the pro-Petain camp over the stunt were divided with some, like Petain’s lawyer Jacques Isorni, condemning the men’s guerrilla-style tactics.

On the road with their precious cargo, the body snatchers suffered a setback — a former pro-Petain lawmaker who had offered the use of his chateau for a change of vehicle, had disappeared when they arrived at his home.

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Realising that the authorities were already in pursuit, they ditched the Verdun plan and headed for Paris where they stashed the coffin in a lock-up garage in the suburb of Saint-Ouen.

The first person arrested was Solange Boche, a market trader who drove the van to the island, with others quickly following.

As the net tightened, Massol called a press conference saying he would reveal the whereabouts of Petain’s remains if then president Georges Pompidou gave permission for him to be buried at Verdun’s Douaumont war memorial.

Massol was promptly arrested and caved in under questioning, agreeing to lead the police to the garage.

A furious Pompidou ordered the coffin be immediately taken back to the Ile d’Yeu where it remains to this day.

No charges were ever brought against the grave robbers, as the government feared a trial would stoke sympathy for Petain.

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The ghost of the fallen general did not disappear. To this day in France Petain remains an inflammatory subject, with sharp divisions even within families over those believing he should be remembered not for Vichy but his Verdun victory.

President Emmanuel Macron waded into the debate in 2018 when he slammed attempts to “manipulate” the memory of Petain and said he was a “great soldier” in WWI.

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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