When you hear the name Vichy, you will probably think about plastic bottles of water, minty pastilles and beauty products, but you will probably be unaware that it was once an autonomous state within France during WWII. I decided to visit the large spa town to see if I could uncover its secret past.
I manage to park right next to the Celestins Source where the waters now flow through a modern tap rather than the ornate fountain of the 19th Century. Locals are queuing up to fill their plastic bottles with the slightly fizzy mineral water which supposedly helps with liver and kidney and stomach conditions. There are other municipal sources bordering the large Parc des Sources in the centre of town but these are empty and locked up for the winter.
The tourist office provide me with a map of a carefully created walking tour, highlighting Napoleonic villas, English style facades, the large Palais de Congress and Moorish Grand Thermal Establishment. What it doesn’t highlight is the War Memorial, which remembers the many who died in WWI and the few who died in WWII. A small memorial stone at one side does pay tribute to the men, women and children who were deported to the Nazi camps and died there, but the numbers given vary dramatically from those listed elsewhere. Even the current generation is embarrassed by their past collaboration with the Nazis and at the Tourist Office they are adamant that no information is available about that terrible time. Luckily, in today’s technological world, it is easy to find out more from the internet.
During the early days of World War II, Nazi Germany occupied three fifths of France’s territory (Northern France and the entire French Atlantic Coast) and in order to try and maintain some control over the remaining southern part of the country, France surrendered, On July 10, 1940 established a new French government based in the town of Vichy.
Marshal Philippe Pétain, a respected fighter during World War One, became the new leader of the Vichy State following his appointment by the then president, Albert Lebrun. There is still some debate about how legal his appointment and the creation of the new state was.
In order to appease the Nazis, an agreement was made to provide French resources and labour for Germany. The collaboration of the Vichy state soon included the rounding up and deportation of foreign Jews and later included French Jews. It is estimated that a total of 76,000 Jews were deported and died in Nazi concentration camps, about a quarter of the total population of Jews living in France at the time.
Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle, supported by the British, led the Free French Forces, organising resistance groups within the occupied territories and the Vichy State. After the allied invasion in June 1944, the Vichy regime fled to Germany and in October 1944, the allies recognised De Gaulle as the leader of the new French Republic.
In July 1945, Petain was convicted of treason. At his trial Pétain proclaimed that while Charles de Gaulle had represented the “sword” of France, Pétain had been the “shield”. Some of Petain’s political colleagues had already been executed, but he was instead given a life sentence, possibly due to the historic ambiguity of the creation of the Vichy State. Other collaborators were not brought to trial or convicted until 1980s and 1990s.
But rather than dwell on the past, Vichy is forging ahead with its future. The beautiful old spa buildings which once provided health care paid for by the French government are gradually being replaced by more modern hotel spa facilities which are privately owned and able to charge for their luxury treatments. And, the curative spring waters are bottled and sold worldwide, but if you happen to visit the town then you can sample some for free.
For more about France in World War II see Oradour-Sur-Glane.