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1945

Pierre Laval attempts suicide

On this day in 1945, former French premier and Vichy collaborator Pierre Laval tries to kill himself on the day he is to be executed for treason. He fails.

Laval served as premier of France twice, the second time from June 1935 to January 1936, but fell from power primarily because of his appeasement of Italy after the invasion and occupation of Ethiopio by Mussolini and his fascist regime in 1935. Upon the German invasion of France in 1940, Laval, ever the opportunist, saw a chance to re-establish himself in office by supporting a puppet government headed by Henri Philippe Petain, who, when he acceded to the position of premier in June 1940, rewarded Laval by making him deputy head of state and foreign minister.

Laval was always more slavish in his devotion to his German masters than was Petain; for example, Laval began secret negotiations for a formal collaboration with Germany, convinced that the future lay in the hands of the Axis power. Petain finally fired him in December 1940. But the Germans questioned Petain’s double loyalty and pressured him to reinstate Laval. Petain fell further from German favor, and when Hitler’s forces occupied France in 1942, Laval, wanting to reassure Germany of his loyalty, began sending French workers to Germany and stripping French Jews of their rights. He also helped the Nazis capture and deport non-French Jews. He openly announced that he wished for a German victory. “An American victory would mean victory for the Jews and the communists.”

As the end for Hitler grew near, Laval fled first to Germany, then to Spain, then to Austria, where he was arrested and sent back to France and was tried, along with Petain, on the charge of treason. Laval defended his actions, believing he had done nothing wrong. He was sentenced to be shot by firing squad on October 6, 1945, but swallowed cyanide before they could come for him. A physician saved his life–just in time for Laval to be executed a little less than two weeks later.

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