In most respects, the two men were remarkably different. Hitler spent his early life as an aspiring, though unsuccessful, artist—often unemployed and, for the most part, self-educated. During World War I, he served in the trenches and attained the rank of corporal.
Pétain was the product of France’s top military academies. He began World War I as a Brigadier General, rose to become the Commander-in-Chief of the French army, and was a Marshal of France by the time the war was over.
Unlike the Fuehrer, Pétain was famous as a womaniser throughout much of his life.
Hitler’s attitude towards France had been altered by Vichy’s spirited defence of Dakar against de Gaulle and the British, and by Vichy’s subsequent bombing of the British naval base at Gibraltar. On 24 September, Hitler authorized Vichy to reequip its air force in North Africa. The softening of Nazi policy prompted Pétain to respond (on 10 October) that France wished to shed its ‘traditional relationships’—meaning, in particular, its close association with Great Britain.
What did Hitler want from Pétain on 24 October 1940?
Basically, Hitler wanted much the same as he’d wanted a day earlier from his meeting with Franco: An alliance against the British.
The Fuehrer’s new Mediterranean strategy would see Spain, France and Italy sealing off the whole of southern Europe and dividing North Africa amongst themselves. If Spain wanted French Morocco and Italy wanted part of French Algeria—then maybe France could be compensated with Nigeria, when the British were finally ousted from western Africa. (But the Hendaye meeting between Hitler and Franco had gone badly. Many aspects of the Fuehrer’s strategy were already moot).
Pétain was presented with two choices:
(1) Bank on the near certainty of a German victory and join the winning side by declaring war against Britain. After all, Britain was already waging war against Vichy by attacking the French fleet and France’s various colonial possessions. If France joined Hitler, she could look forward to receiving generous terms from Germany (a reduction in reparations for the cost of the war, return of French prisoners, etc).
(2) Not enter the war on Germany’s side. If the British lost or negotiated a peace agreement of their own with Hitler, then France would be required to pay large reparations to Germany (as Germany had paid to the Allies at the end of World War I).
Nonetheless, he made world news when he was photographed shaking hands with Germany’s Fuehrer.
When Churchill saw the picture, he was outraged. (He had always considered Pétain to be a defeatist).
When Roosevelt saw the picture, he was convinced Pétain was about to hand over France’s fleet to Hitler.
One immediate consequence of the Montoire meeting was a speech that Pétain broadcast to the French nation on 30 October 1940. He announced that he had decided to enter “the path of collaboration” (d’entrer “dans la voie de la collaboration.”).
The term ‘collaborator’ (in French: ‘collaborateur’ or ‘collabo’) dates from Pétain’s speech. Its derogatory connotation came shortly, though not immediately, thereafter.