Monday, December 08, 2008

Prison for the end of time


These are prison walls, but built by nature rather than man. I took this photo on the west coast of the Île d'Yeu, an island in the Atlantic an hour by boat off the Atlantic coast of France. This wild and isolated place was the prison, until the end of his time on earth, of one of the most controversial figures in twentieth-century history.

The inspired military leadership of Philippe, or Marshal, Pétain's at the Battle of Verdun and other conflicts made him a French national hero after World War 1. But two
decades later the French surrendered to the invading Germans in World War II. After the Franco-German armistice in 1940 the 84 year old Pétain became Chief of State of Vichy France, a position which gave him absolute authority over the un-occupied half of France and its colonies. Under Pétain's right-wing Vichy government traditional values, such as religion and patriotism, were emphasised. Attitudes associated with the Catholic church became law. Divorce was made more difficult, abortion severely repressed, and the parents of large families decorated with state honours. French Jews were excluded from the civil service, education, the press, and the cinema, and Jews of foreign origin who had come to France as refugees were put into camps.

Collaboration between Vichy and Germany was endorsed by a meeting between Hitler and Pétain in October 1940. In 1942 French police worked with the Nazis to round up Jews and send them to concentration camps including Auschwitz. Between 1942 and 1944 it is estimated that 76,000 Jews were deported from France, and only 3 per cent survived. Also categorised as 'undesirables' by the Vichy government were homosexuals, gypsies (or Roma) and left-wing activists. By the end of the German occupation the whole of France was under effective Nazi control.

When France fell to the Germans in May 1940 captured French troops were sent to detention camps. Among them was the composer Olivier Messiaen, who was born on 10th December 1908 in Avignon. Messiaen was held first in a transit camp in France, then in Stalag VIII-A, near Dresden in Germany, where his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the end of Time) was famously given its first performance in January 1941. But, later that year Messiaen, as a soldier of the defeated French army rather than a designated 'undesirable', was released. He returned to Nazi occupied Paris where he became profesor of harmony at the Conservatoire. Messiaen, who was a devout Catholic, actually worked for the cultural arm of the Vichy government for several months. He composed a patriotic cantata for schoolchildren on the theme of Joan of Arc, the score of which is lost. Messiaen's diaries make no mention of the liberation of Paris by Allied troops in August 1944, despite the fact that he was living in the city.

In August 1945, Pétain was found guilty of treason, and was sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of his age and World War I record. He served his life sentence imprisoned on the Île d'Yeu, dying there in 1951, aged 95. Still considered a traitor, in a typically Gallic gesture he was buried in the island's graveyard facing the opposite direction to the other graves.

* I took the photo on the Île d'Yeu in June 2008. This post is being auto-published as I am currently in France. By a strange and totally unplanned piece of synchronicity, on 10th December, which is the centenary of Messiaen's birth, I will be in the city where he was born, Avignon. John Stuart Mill is buried there. Read why he is important here.

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